China in Afghanistan — Mighty Dragon or Hot Air Lantern?

KABUL, September 2020

China is — in particular with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — reshaping all of Asia. All? Not quite. Afghanistan in the heart of Asia has so far been neglected. In view of a possible U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as well as meetings between high-ranking Chinese officials and Afghan actors, including the Taliban, some pundits indicate that this might change now. But is this really the case or is it just like the hot air in a Chinese lantern? The Swiss Institute for Global Affairs (SIGA) has taken a closer look on the ground in Afghanistan and sets Chinese-Afghan interactions and meetings of the past weeks into context.

Belt and Road — and Mountains

In an article that was published on 8th of September 2020, the Financial Times (FT) reported, based on two not further identified tribal leaders from the Afghan-Pakistani border region Balochistan, that China promised the Taliban «sizeable investments in energy and infrastructure projects.» This would namely include «a road network across Afghanistan,» if the Taliban make and safeguard peace. This could neither be confirmed nor disproved, amongst others as the spokesman of the political office of the Taliban in Doha (Qatar) ignored a SIGA-request for clarification.

The FT-article is, however, in line with a series of reports on possible Chinese infrastructure investments in Afghanistan. Such reports sometimes mention that this is done to connect Afghanistan to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and, therefore, into a main axis of the BRI. This should be viewed with caution though: while in May 2016 China and Afghanistan signed a Memorandum of Understanding that foresaw increased Sino-Afghan cooperation under the BRI, such a cooperation has so far not materialised. And given the current circumstances it is questionable that this will change. This was confirmed by Andrew Small from The German Marshall Fund of the United States and author of the book The China-Pakistan Axis. Specifically, Small assessed that, while «China will wait to see whether there will be more benign conditions [in Afghanistan] in the longer term,» China has, during the past years, «become even more cautious» regarding Afghanistan than before and that it will «in practice at best take modest steps.»

Reports on Afghanistan’s potential to become an important crossroad along the new silk road are, in general, dubious. Already the historic silk road had only grazed Afghanistan due to a simple reason: the mighty Hindu Kush, which stretches from the Northeast to the Southeast of Afghanistan covering almost the whole country, is easier to circumvent than to cross. While it would technically be feasible to build new roads and railways through the rough mountains of Afghanistan, such a feat would be extremely costly and hardly worthwhile.

For example, already in 2013 a Tajik lorry driver told the current SIGA fellow in Afghanistan that lorries are bringing Chinese goods via Tajikistan, sometimes even via Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, to the northern Afghan Kunduz, which would — despite the long detour and the fact that lorries would, due to the lack of export goods from Afghanistan and Tajikistan, often return empty to China — still be profitable.

Chinese lorries on the main road in the Alichur Pamir, Badakhshan, Tajikistan, summer 2013.

Another example showing the difficulties to interconnect China and Afghanistan is the Sino-Afghan Special Railway Transportation. Inaugurated in 2016, it was hailed as an uninterrupted railway link between China and Afghanistan. However, the fact that the railway only reached Afghanistan via a long detour through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — which exemplifies the problems of more direct links — was hardly, if at all mentioned. In addition, this Sino-Afghan railway link has, since 2017, not been used anymore, as a well-connected Afghan merchant told SIGA on 26th of September 2020: «The main problems are the high transportation costs and that Afghan merchants have no direct access to wagons but have to go through Uzbek shipping companies; accordingly, Afghan merchants ship their goods via Karachi [Pakistan] to China, as this is easier and cheaper.”

Furthermore, even if China should be willing to cover the high costs for new Sino-Afghan overland connexions, the tense security situation in Afghanistan — which will, despite the recent start of peace negotiations, unlikely change any time soon — would probably prevent any Chinese investments at least in the medium term. This is all the more the case as China has always been risk-averse in Afghanistan. This is exemplified by the copper extraction project of a Chinese conglomerate in the Afghan province of Logar, which is since 10 years, amongst others due to for Afghan standards rather limited security concerns, dormant.

«Good Neighbours Wish Each Other Well» — But What Kind of Neighbours?

Be that as it may, China has in the past weeks been diplomatically active regarding Afghanistan. Most importantly, the Chinese Special Representative for Afghanistan Liu Jian visited Kabul in the second half of September 2020. There, he met, amongst others, with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as well as Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib — but only after he had, on 18th of September 2020, met with Mullah Baradar, the Head of the political office of the Taliban, and a Taliban delegation in Doha (Qatar) (see here and here). The main subject of these meetings were the recently started intra-Afghan peace negotiations and, at least in the conversation with Mohib, «cooperation in fighting terrorism.»

Before, more specifically on 12th of September 2020, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi sent a video message to the opening ceremony of intra-Afghan peace negotiations in Doha. In this message he emphasised the Chinese mantra of non-interference and the importance of an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process. At the end of his speech, Wang Yi cited a Chinese saying: «good neighbours wish each other well.» But to what extent is Afghanistan a relevant neighbour of China?

The fact that China and Afghanistan share a border does, soberly viewed, play no role in practice. The Afghan-Chinese border at the end of the Wakhan Corridor, a panhandle of Afghan territory wedged in between Tajikistan and Pakistan, is only 76 km long and located in an almost impassable mountain range. It can indeed only be crossed via two passes: the Tegermansu (approximate coordinates: 37.218942, 74.834918) and the Wakhjir (approximate coordinates: 37.095833, 74.482333), both reaching altitudes of almost 5,000 metres above sea level. 

Map End of Wakhan Corridor

While no picture of the Wakhjir pass was available, this photo of the Showr pass taken in summer 2013, which is also located at the end of the Wakhan Corridor, gives an impression of the topography of the area.

Neither of these two passes is developed, meaning that there are at best most basic narrow trails. The Wakhjir even crosses a glacier.

And the conditions are not only difficult at the mountain passes themselves: from the for a car last motorable road on the Afghan side, which ends in Sarhad-i Broghil (approximate coordinates: 36.999653, 73.449015), even the closer Wakhjir pass can only be reached via a more than 100 km long trek on foot through demanding terrain. And even if one would want to undertake such a journey, crossing the border would practically be impossible, as the current SIGA fellow in Afghanistan found out when he considered such a trek in 2016: China declared the whole border area as off-limits and hires locals from the Chinese side to closely monitor the border. The Kyrgzy inhabitants on the Afghan side are avoiding the border and would hardly bring outsiders, who would be dependent on their guiding, to the passes, not to speak of to the Chinese side. Whether joint Afghan-Chinese patrols on the Afghan side, as conducted at least during 2016, have again resumed, remained unclear. In any event, the illegal crossing of the Afghan-Chinese border by a Belgian filmmaker in 2007 was, as far as it could be determined, the apparently only documented crossing of that very border by a non-local since 1950; and Chinese security forces immediately arrested him. [1]

Accordingly, China and Afghanistan have — despite the shared border — barely, if at all a direct neighbourly relation, which is probably one of the reasons that China’s diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan such as the ones mentioned above have so far remained superficial and hardly, if ever, yielded concrete results. For example, while China had, during the past years, several times hosted Taliban delegations to further peace efforts, this apparently did not play any significant role (that the Taliban conducted negotiations with the United States of America was mainly caused by the fact that the United States of America yielded to the Taliban demand to negotiate directly with the Taliban without inclusion of the Afghan government).

And even when Chinese diplomatic efforts led to results, they remained modest. For example, the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism, a counter-terror cooperation between China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan that was inaugurated in summer 2016, has, apart from a few conferences and joint exercises, apparently not had any significant consequences.

Fighting Uyghur "Terrorists"?

Counter-terrorism seems to indeed be the more or less only area, where China has more tangible interests in Afghanistan. More specifically, Chinese officials are concerned about Uyhgur Islamists who are present in Afghanistan and, according to the Chinese government, members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which wants to establish an Islamic system in the historical homeland of the Uyghurs in the western Chinese region Xinjiang. In 2018, two well-placed sources in Afghanistan told the current SIGA fellow in Afghanistan that China has actively been looking for photographs as well as the exact locations of Uyghur Islamists in Afghan Badakhshan. And another well-informed source stated in May 2020 that representatives of the Taliban’s political office in Doha had promised China to act against Uyhgur extremists or even hand them over to China; similar statements were mentioned in a report published by the Brookings Institute in June 2020. These alleged promises were apparently made due to Chinese requests.

Still from a Uyghur propaganda video which is dated December 2017 and shows Uyghur Islamists in Afghanistan.

That the Taliban would effectively honour such alleged promises, is more than doubtful, as they officially deny the mere existence of Uyghur Islamists in Afghanistan. Moreover, SIGA has obtained credible reports, according to which the Taliban have no intention to expel foreign Islamists who are currently present in Afghanistan, but rather issue conditions to them under which they are allowed to remain in Afghanistan.

That said, it has to be noted that reports according to which Uyhgur Islamists in Afghanistan are ETIM members and a transnational threat are questionable. For example, there are already doubts whether or to which extent ETIM exists as an organisation; and even if it would, there is not a single confirmed case, in which Uyghurs conducted a terror attack in Afghanistan or planned such an attack from Afghanistan. That this will change is also unlikely. For once, there is no indication that Uyhgur extremists in Afghanistan have — apart from the participation in local Taliban operations against Afghan security forces — been significantly active. And even if those Uyghur Islamists should want to return to Xinjiang or take aim at targets there, they would likely be no serious threat, as they had lived in exile for years, if not decades, and would hardly be able to count on reliable support networks; and without such networks they would have no chance to evade the from many rightly condemned Chinese surveillance and internment measures in Xinjiang.[2] However, as the recent past has shown, this will unlikely put an end to the Chinese paranoia regarding Uyghurs in Afghanistan.

In view of all the above, reports on economic and diplomatic interests and efforts of China in Afghanistan will likely persist, whereas they are — due to the explained reasons — set to remain more like the hot air in a Chinese lantern than relevant.

Franz J. Marty

[1] For more details on the situation at the Afghan-Chinese border see the report «Tilting at Windmills: Dubious U.S. Claims of Targeting Chinese Uyghur Militants in Badakhshan». A short sequence of a Chinese propaganda video showing local border units on the Chinese side as well as the forbidding terrain at the border can be found under https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNepUsJtV_8. Information on the crossing of the Tegermansu by the mentioned Belgian as well as his subsequent arrest in 2007 were obtained in a telephone conversation between the current SIGA fellow in Afghanistan and the Belgian in question in March 2016.

[2] For more details on Uyghur Islamists in Badakhshan as well as background on ETIM, see the report «Tilting at Windmills: Dubious U.S. Claims of Targeting Chinese Uyghur Militants in Badakhshan».