Xi Jinping is blazing into Afghanistan after US withdrawal

  • Biden announced the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
  • Xi Jinping is looking to fill the power vacuum. 
  • Afghanistan and its neighbours are facing security threats.
Source: The Print

Why is Xi’s temperature BLAZING right now?

Answer: The US withdrawal leaves a power vacuum in Afghanistan and Xi is positioning himself to fill the gap. 

In April, US President Biden announced the withdrawal of all United States troops from Afghanistan by an August 31st deadline, further destabilizing the country and initiating a scramble to fill the power vacuum. After almost two trillion dollars and thousands of US casualties, Biden’s decision comes quickly on the heels of President Trump’s brokered conditional peace deal between the US and the Taliban in Doha in February 2020. 

 Since the announcement, the Taliban have gained control of many key border posts with Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, and have overrun 200 of the 407 districts in the country, with the strongest offensive in the province of Badakhshan bordering Xinjiang in China.

With 90% of the withdrawal complete, Russia, India, Iran, Pakistan, and China have edged closer to fill this gap. Xi Jinping, weary of the security implications spilling into China, will not pass up on the opportunity to undermine US presence in the region and dive into a forlorn Afghanistan as a means to expand his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and China’s relevance in the indo-Pacific against rising India. While Xi is looking to gain influence in Afghanistan, he is not looking to change the Chinese principle of non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.

What is changing Xi’s temperature?

Answer: The end to US presence, their attempted sphere of influence and the Taliban’s support for China.

Moved from the initial September 11 deadline, the withdrawal marks the end of two decades of US presence in the region and the longest war the US has endured. Biden has defended the decision by stating that the US’s “antiterrorism function” in Afghanistan has been fulfilled and that it is time to recommit funds and efforts towards COVID-19 and countering China in the indo-Pacific. Unsurprisingly, this announcement has been met with criticism at home and abroad and is leaving regional players nervous of the security implications as many concerned countries do not have a policy towards Afghanistan. With the US security blanket gone, many are looking to Xi and China, including the Taliban, to stabilize the region.

Although unable to achieve its initial goals, twenty years of a strong US presence and a western liberal agenda has created a sense of equilibrium in the region. He is calling the US decision to withdraw “an abandonment of the Afghan people” needing protection from the Taliban. While Xi has been a strong voice criticizing Biden’s decision to withdraw, he is looking to benefit from the situation offering what Afghanistan desperately needs: reconstruction.

And thus, eager to fill the gap, Xi’s policy is divided between countering a security threat and seizing an investment opportunity in Afghanistan. He is establishing closer economic ties and potential peacekeeping activities in the country, but we are likely to see Xi’s policy towards Afghanistan evolve. With no time to waste, Xi has already strengthened China-Afghanistan-Pakistan relations in the fourth Trilateral Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue and sent Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, on a high profile Asian tour aimed at increasing China’s influence in the region and addressing the “post-withdrawal” period. This comes in light of discussions with Afghan officials to expand the BRI’s crown jewel, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, to include Afghanistan.

Xi’s policy and intention within the region have been receiving support from the Taliban who has been calling China a friend of Afghanistan. In light of an increasingly powerless western-backed Afghan government, Taliban officials are looking to gain Chinese investments as part of “reconstruction work” for the war-torn country.

Taliban officials are trying to convince Xi that a Taliban controlled Kabul is not a threat to China by promising not to intervene in Chinese domestic affairs, most notably in the Xinjiang province bordering Afghanistan while Xi is pushing for the continuation of intra-Afghan talks as a means to stabilize the country from within. Therefore, by avoiding criticizing Chinese domestic policy when it comes to the Xinjiang Crisis, the Taliban looks to assure Chinese money flowing in the region.

While the Taliban is looking to befriend China, they are also looking to rid the region of US presence as US military commanders are searching for opportunities to maintain a foothold in the region in order to counter a strong Taliban force by setting up troops in Afghanistan’s backyard. Although substantial US presence in neighboring countries will not be changing Xi’s temperature in the short run, it will challenge China’s hegemony in the long term. Nonetheless, a strong US presence will be challenged not only by the Taliban who is asking neighbours not to allow such an expansion but also by the existent military presence of Russia and increasing tensions between Beijing and Washington.

What is driving Xi?

Answer: Much like what usually drives Xi, he is looking to assert Chinese dominance through the BRI while also trying to contain the security threats within Afghanistan’s borders.

Partly driven by necessity and partly by economic opportunism, Xi views Afghanistan as the most recent cog in the wheel of the Chinese Dream. In light of the cracks in the Chinese Communist Party, Xi is acting out of necessity to replaster his party’s image among increasing criticism of his cult of personality, increasing inequalities, and human rights issues. 

Thus, with the overrun of the Badakhshan province bordering the Xinjiang province, Xi is being wary of security implications and its influence on Chinese domestic affairs. Xi is looking to stabilize Afghanistan in order to prevent the spillover of security threats such as terrorism into China. Xi fears that under Taliban rule, Afghanistan will become the hub for the East Turkestan Islamist Movement (ETIM) and the military base for this separatist movement aligned with al Qaeda waging an insurgency in Xinjiang. Afghanistan and Xinjiang share 20 kilometers of the border and Xi is looking to quell the situation with the Uyghur population completely.

On the other hand, losing steam in the indo-Pacific, Xi has to ensure that China’s strategic and geopolitical interests through the BRI are maintained most notably through the inclusion of Afghanistan in the 62 billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. By using his close relationship with neighboring Pakistan, Xi is looking to channel funds to Afghanistan for potential investment projects that would secure the route of cargo flowing between China, Eurasia, and the Middle East. 

Afghanistan also has the world’s largest unexploited reserves of copper, coal, iron, gold, gas, and more minerals valued at over $1trillion and Chinese companies have been able to obtain major contracts in copper mining and oil exploration in the country. Lured by mineral wealth, Xi is looking to secure these billions of dollars worth of Chinese investments amidst security issues arising from tensions between Kabul and Beijing this year and a strong Taliban offensive.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: We are far from seeing a stable Afghanistan. Increased Chinese involvement could be beneficial for Afghanistan but human rights threats are likely to continue. 

Afghanistan has a tough history with foreign involvement as all external interventions, whether by the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, or the US has been somewhat of a disaster. 

With Xi’s increased influence in Afghanistan, a new sheriff is in town and one that will do things differently. Not looking to replace the US in Afghanistan, Xi is increasing China’s presence under a different agenda. Increased Chinese involvement could be beneficial for Afghanistan. Not only could the BRI provide needed infrastructure, investment and trade, but China’s geopolitical role and Xi’s reputation might convince Taliban leaders that a power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government could provide the stability that no occupying force can. 

Xi’s framing of the US withdrawal as an opportunity to truly control their (Afghanistan’s) own destiny” has ensured that it is a destiny China will certainly be part of. The likely expansion of the CPEC to include Afghanistan should be viewed not only as a closer alignment between the two countries but a strategic move on the part of Xi to fill the US’s role and dampen their influence.

However, while there may be tangible monetary and infrastructure benefits, parts of the Afghan population will certainly be adversely affected. Building a liberal democracy in a multi ethnic Afghanistan has been limited as there is an inability of the ruling elite to unite amidst a mix of ethnicities, nationalism, and looming modernity. Despite the US success in improving certain aspects of Afghani lives, substantial governance issues remain, and ones that are unlikely amenable by a Chinese dominance in the region. 

Unlike the US agenda aimed at addressing human rights issues and furthering women’s rights in Afghanistan, a Chinese order in Afghanistan is likely not to prioritize either. Women and girls who previously had access to education and access to health ensured by the US presence stand to lose, and big. 

Additionally, with the increased Chinese sphere of influence, we may see the creation of another debt-trap situation, like neighboring Pakistan and Sri Lanka. However, given the stronghold and aggressive offensive by the Taliban militant group, we may expect Xi to be less of a hardball when it comes to collecting. 

Arielle Combrinck

Research & Analysis Member