China will be the next empire to enter the Afghan 'graveyard'

As Afghanistan descends into tribal warfare following America’s hasty departure, China plans to “swoop in” and “fill the vacuum.” 

“Beijing just can’t wait for the U.S. to get out of the way,” Syed Fazl-e-Haider of the Daily Beast reports.

Beijing, which runs a multiracial empire, does not appear especially concerned that land-locked, mountainous Afghanistan is often called the “graveyard of empires.” 

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“Compared with other powers, China has the ability to get involved in Afghan affairs without becoming entangled in it,” writes Zhang Jiadong of Fudan University in the Communist Party’s Global Times. The title of Zhang’s July 6 piece says it all: “China will not fall into ‘Afghan trap’ as other powers have bitterly learned.”

Yes, China has some advantages in Afghanistan that other “empires” did not possess, but the Chinese appear overconfident, nonetheless.

China has long sought control of Afghanistan. For one thing, Beijing has coveted natural resources, especially copper — China has a 30-year lease on the deposits at Mes Aynak. Beijing also eyes the country’s gold, uranium and lithium. 

The Chinese still want the minerals, but now their ambitions include tying that country firmly into the Belt and Road Initiative, their global transportation-infrastructure program. Beijing planners, for instance, hope to complete a Kabul-Peshawar highway, linking the Afghan capital to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a $62 billion series of projects that is part of the Belt and Road network.

More importantly, Beijing wants to deny oppressed Turkic minorities a sanctuary. Chinese officials have been surreptitiously working with the terrorist Haqqani network, inside Afghanistan, to go after activists and militants working to free Uyghurs brutally treated in what Beijing calls its Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The region shares a 47-mile border with Afghanistan.  

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Perhaps China’s main advantages in Afghanistan are its firm lock on neighboring Pakistan and Beijing’s long-standing ties to the Taliban, which go as far back to the time the group was in power, from 1996 to 2001. China has supplied the Taliban with weapons and even helped it after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to news reports.  

The group now controls vast swaths of the Afghan countryside and appears set to eventually take control of Kabul. The Taliban, unfortunately for Beijing, has opponents operating in the country, and the Chinese could find themselves under attack from Taliban enemies. 

“The Taliban isn’t the only challenge to overcome,” Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center told the Daily Beast. “There are many sources of violence, both anti- and pro-state, in Afghanistan.”

Those sources can be manipulated by India, which is in a position to bedevil Beijing. It was Indian intelligence operatives, after all, who exposed China’s ties to the Haqqani network recently.

India, should it so choose, could cause trouble for China in Afghanistan, and New Delhi has every reason to do so. Chinese troops intruded into Indian-controlled territory in Ladakh in May of last year, and China’s military is now engaged in a massive troop buildup in the Himalayas. Moreover, there is a Chinese encroachment in India’s Sikkim, also in that mountainous range.

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As important, Beijing has fully backed Islamabad’s troublemaking in Indian-controlled Kashmir and reportedly has provided support for Pakistani terrorism in India itself. Indian policymakers blame China for the cyberattack crippling the Mumbai electric system in October, as well as 20 recent deaths at the hands of Maoist insurgents. 

Moreover, siding with the Taliban could cause trouble for China with the United States, which already sees the People’s Republic as a dangerous actor. Beijing, with venomous propaganda, is going out of its way to aggravate tensions. Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, just blamed Washington “as the origin of problems in Afghanistan.”

The blame game is not wise. Washington is in a position to reduce or even cut off international funding to Kabul. Such aid, the World Bank estimated in 2018, accounted for 40 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product. 

Beijing’s assistance to terrorist-supporting organizations like the Taliban will only erode its already low standing in countries important for China. Up to now, the international community has, by and large, not imposed costs on China for its destructive activities, but Beijing would be handing others leverage if it found itself mired in Afghanistan.

Chinese leaders are perhaps the most ambitious group anywhere, so it will be difficult for them to leave Afghanistan alone, especially as that country is one of China’s 14 land neighbors. China is an empire, and its imperial conquests are in its western areas, the ones bordering Afghanistan. The temptation for Chinese imperialists looks irresistible.

So despite what Fudan’s Zhang writes, arrogant Chinese leaders are bound to make mistakes and seek deep involvement in Afghanistan. So far, no “empire” has been able to tame that “country” — if it can be called that — or bring it into the international community. 

China will almost certainly fail in the Afghan graveyard.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of “The Coming Collapse of China.” Follow him on Twitter: @GordonGChang