China’s interest in Afghanistan can be defined by its desire to supplant the United States as the preeminent power in Asia and ultimately prove itself to be an undisputed global power.
China’s delayed interest in Afghanistan is a recent phenomenon that began in 2012 when President Xi Jinping took office. Beijing has long been reluctant to get involved in the politics of its neighbors, including Afghanistan. What is motivating China now? Beijing is wary of U.S. military presence in the region and now is interested in Afghanistan because it sees the situation as a potential threat to its security. The timing is especially curious as the Obama administration began its troop drawdown in late 2014, maintaining less of a presence in Afghanistan. China’s motivation for renewed interest in Afghanistan can be defined by its desire to supplant the United States as the preeminent power in the region.
In an effort to best the United States in South Asia, China has significantly increased its economic support to Afghanistan. Between 2001 and 2013, China provided 1.5 million yuan; in 2014 alone, it gave 500 million yuan and has pledged another 1.5 million yuan more over the next three years. Economic aid is not the only tool to ensuring it replaces the U.S in the region; China is eager to increase its economic cooperation to help Afghanistan become economically independent, manifested through programs such the Silk Road Economic Belt Strategy. China also has significant investments in the energy and mineral sectors of Afghanistan. If Afghanistan were to erupt into a civil war once more, this would be devastating to its newest benefactor. China recognizes that a prosperous and economically independent Afghanistan is in its interest, as Beijing will profit from being the dominant player in another trade partnership. China is using this increase in economic assistance and partnership to usurp the United States’ influence in the region.
China also has the intention of seizing power from the United States through security operations, as China views Afghanistan as a “hotbed for terrorism and extremism.” Beijing is worried most about instability spilling over and potentially empowering the Uighur separatist group in the Xinjiang Province, China’s own struggle with Islamic extremism. These fears have become more pronounced as U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan. China has decided that more direct engagement in Afghanistan is the best and only way to ensure instability does not bleed over into Xinjiang. By creating a stable Afghanistan, China would also be able to show it could accomplish what the United States could not. Stabilizing the war-torn country would allow China to supplant U.S. influence in the region, by providing both security and economic assistance.
China’s interest in Afghanistan is also designed to prove its image as an undisputed global power and to “enhance regional diplomacy and its international standing.” China seeks to challenge the U.S. as the “primary underwriter of regional peace and prosperity” by demonstrating it can handle the Afghanistan crisis better than the United States. Beijing is assuming a lead role in the peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government as a vehicle to accomplish this goal. The future of Afghanistan is uncertain and China seeks to prove that it has the diplomatic fortitude that the United States lacked to secure a peace deal. By causing the international community to question the United States’ commitment, China can show it is the premier power, not the United States. Thus, by tackling nearly impossible talks between the warring sides, China wishes to solidify itself as a regional and global leader to the detriment of the United States.
For most of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, the United States wanted China to be more involved. The U.S., while concerned about “China’s more assertive foreign policy,” is cautiously welcoming more Chinese interest in Afghanistan after a decade of inaction. As China grows into its status as a global superpower, it has been willing to play a greater role in promoting regional stability, especially as the United States withdraws. Ultimately, inaction on China’s part causes more dire consequences. It appears that the more China gets involved, the greater the probability of Afghanistan becoming more stable. While China’s involvement does create concern over whether Afghanistan will be better off with China as its benefactor, what is most important is that Afghanistan becomes self-reliant. If that involves allowing China to be more engaged, then the United States and the international community must permit China to take action. The ultimate objective is ensuring that Afghanistan becomes stable and prosperous even if it means less control by the West and more engagement by China.
Kathleen Taylor is a contributing editor for Charged Affairs with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She is based in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area.