A BRI(dge) too far: The unfulfilled promise and limitations of China’s involvement in Afghanistan

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by Vanda Felbab-Brown, Director – Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors Co-Director – Africa Security Initiative Senior Fellow – Foreign Policy, Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology

Vanda Felbab-Brown discusses China’s growing presence in Afghanistan. She argues that Chinese objectives in Afghanistan have now become largely security-related, superseding earlier economic interests, as China seeks to halt anti-Chinese militancy and ensure Uighur militants do not receive support from the Taliban. For that reason, China has reached a rapprochement with the Taliban and not tilted away from Pakistan as the Afghan government hoped. Chinese economic commitments to Afghanistan also remain substantially unrealized. In addition, China increasingly views Afghanistan through a lens of geopolitical competition with India. As the U.S. military presence decreases in Afghanistan, China may step up its role in the country to protect its interests there, which could intensify the China-India rivalry. Despite these factors, Felbab-Brown argues that U.S. engagement in Afghanistan should not be animated by competition with China, but rather be judged on its own merits and based on America’s strategic objectives in the country.

Learn more about Global ChinaChina’s focus on and presence in Afghanistan has grown significantly over the past decade. However, the original emphasis on economic relations has been eclipsed by China’s security agenda in Afghanistan, as China seeks to ensure that anti-Chinese militancy does not leak out from Afghanistan and that Uighur militants do not receive support from the Taliban. While China does seek a stable Afghanistan and would prefer a government not dominated by the Taliban, it has made its peace with the group under the assumptions that the United States and the Afghan government will not be able to resolutely defeat it and that the Taliban will either control substantial Afghan territory or formally come to power. Much to the disappointment of the Afghan government, China has not chosen to pressure Pakistan to sever its long-standing support for the Taliban. China’s economic investments in Afghanistan also remain significantly below potential due to intensifying insecurity and persisting corruption in the country and the diminishment of China’s economic focus.

Increasingly, China also views Afghanistan through a geopolitical competition perspective, particularly with respect to India. As the United States reduces its role in Afghanistan, possibly down to zero U.S. military forces, China’s role in the country may rise — a development which is unlikely to advance U.S. interests, and may hamper them. While China cannot easily negate U.S. counterterrorism objectives in Afghanistan and the region, it also cannot be relied upon to help the U.S. to prosecute them. Moreover, China may hamper some of the other U.S. interests in Afghanistan — specifically, pluralistic political and economic processes, and human rights and women’s rights. A reduction of U.S. presence in Afghanistan will limit the U.S. capacity to promote these interests, but even without a military presence, the United States can seek to prosecute them through diplomatic and political leverage.

However, competition with China has not been and should not be the basis of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.