The Pragmatic Neighbour: China’s Afghanistan Policy 2001–2021

AuthorStephen P. Westcott
Published date01 December 2022
Date01 December 2022
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
The Pragmatic Neighbour:
China’s Afghanistan
Policy 2001–2021
Stephen P. Westcott
China has remained detached from the events in Afghanistan, generally playing a
passive role during the US-led war in its neighbour and refusing to actively support
any parties in the conflict. However, Beijing was prompt to embrace Taliban 2.0
as the new power in Kabul as Ashraf Ghani’s regime collapsed in the wake of
the US withdrawal in August 2021. At first glance, this appears to be a shift in
policy from China’s previous apathetic stance to actively taking the Taliban’s side.
Yet, a closer look at China’s actions reveal that it has maintained a consistently
narrow and pragmatic policy towards its neighbour since 2002. This article unpacks
China’s remarkably consistent Afghanistan policy, identifying its basis in two primary
interests: ensuring stability in its Xinjiang province and trade with Central Asia. As
long as Beijing is able to secure the willing cooperation from the main parties within
Afghanistan to securing these interests, it is indifferent as to who the authority in
Kabul is.
China, Afghanistan, the Taliban, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, the Belt and
Road Initiative
As the United States increasingly edged towards withdrawing from Afghanistan
in the late-2010s, a common line of argument within the commentariat was that
China would seek to fill the power vacuum in Afghanistan (Campbell, 2021;
Wong & Feng, 2021; Zhou, 2021). At first glance, the logic of this position is
sound. China is the penultimate power in the international system, Afghanistan’s
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
9(3) 446–461, 2022
© The Author(s) 2022
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970221129909
1 Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education,
Manipal, Karnataka, India
Corresponding author:
Stephen P. Westcott, Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of
Higher Education, Manipal, Karnataka 576104, India.
Westcott 447
neighbour by virtue of the Wakhan Corridor and has been actively pursuing
its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which has seen it invest heavily in countries
throughout Central Asia. Furthermore, since the 2014 NATO drawdown, China
shed its passive approach and moved to play a more active mediator role within
Afghanistan. When the US completed its final chaotic withdrawal in August
2021, allowing the Taliban to sweep into power as the Ashraf Ghani regime
collapsed, the Chinese were quick to acknowledge the changed situation. Indeed,
the Chinese Foreign Minister welcomed a Taliban delegation to Tianjin in July
2021, three weeks before they captured Kabul, to effectively establish the ground
rules for China’s engagement with a future Taliban regime (MFA, 2021).
Most commentators were quick to stress that Beijing’s engagement with the
Taliban was tentative and highly conditional (Fischer & Stanzel, 2021; Tiezzi,
2021). Nonetheless, China quickly adapted to the new normal in Afghanistan,
with its embassy remaining open and unmolested during the Islamic Republic of
Afghanistan’s collapse. Although China did not formally acknowledge the Taliban
regime, it did pledge to provide Afghanistan food aid and equipment, and has
called for the unfreezing of Afghani financial assets in international financial
institutions (Calabrese, 2021). Furthermore, Beijing engaged diplomatically with
the Taliban regime, most notably promoting the ‘Pine Nuts Air Corridor ’ which
saw China promote Afghan produced pine nuts as a symbolic gesture of assistance
towards the Afghanistan agriculture sector (MFA, 2022a). Yet one question has
remained largely unexamined: how different have these actions been for China’s
previous Afghanistan policy?
This article argues that, rather than being driven by any sense of opportunistic
realpolitik or broader geopolitical considerations, China’s Afghanistan policy was
and remains purely pragmatic and parochial, driven by two specific policy
objectives. First, Beijing wants to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a safe
haven and springboard for insurgent groups seeking to destabilise Xinjiang. More
precisely, China wants to ensure that the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM),1
which Beijing blames for most of the Uyghur unrest in Xinjiang, and the Islamic
State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), which actively claims western China as part of an
Islamic Caliphate under its jurisdiction, have no safe spaces in Afghanistan. Second,
China wants to cultivate deeper economic ties and investments within Afghanistan
and the broader Central Asian region. Although Chinese investment within
Afghanistan has been relatively miniscule owing to years of insurgency and civil
war, Beijing has shown great interest in exploiting natural resources in the region
and expanding some of its existing Belt and Road Initiative programs through
Afghanistan. Additionally, China wants to ensure that disturbances in Afghanistan
will not affect the rest of Central Asia where its investments are more comprehensive.
This article advances this argument in four sections. The first provides an
overview of China’s engagements with Afghanistan prior to the US-led invasion
of 2001, exploring how China’s relations with Afghanistan have evolved in the
contemporary era and the nature of Beijing’s initial engagements with the Taliban.
The second section then elaborates on the two core interests that has been driving
China’s Afghanistan policy for the past 20 years. The third section covers
China’s Afghanistan policy during the 20-year US occupation of the country from

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