Chinese Commitments in Afghanistan: A Strategic Calculus

Aadil Sud, Research Intern, ICS

Afghanistan has long been a country on the periphery of Chinese policy due to its inherent instabilities, the presence of foreign coalition forces and the influence of the West acting as a buffer against overt Chinese involvement. Well aware of Afghanistan’s reputation as a ‘graveyard of empires’, China has refrained from serious involvement with the country, supporting the Afghan-led, Afghan-owned policy propagated by the West instead. However, with the imminent withdrawal of coalition troops, China has found a security and diplomatic void it is suited to fill, adding to its pre-existing investments in the country.

Since 2014, the National Unity Government has lobbied China for their assistance on issues of security, economic and regional integration. The prospects of peace in Afghanistan has since motivated China to ramp up its commitment to the nation. China’s Central Asian policy has the possibility of replication here, with economic commitments under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), military aid through arms sales and training, and reciprocal security assistance – with China aiding in dealing with the Taliban, and the Afghani government working to mitigate cross-border Islamist influence in Xinjiang, helping them combat their ‘three evils’ of terrorism, separatism and extremism. These commitments have led many to question the future role of China in Afghanistan’s post-coalition future. Namely, can China effectively integrate their relations with Afghanistan, in line with their own goals in the region?

Economic Integration with Afghanistan

Over the past few years, China has initiated numerous projects in Afghanistan’s key sectors – mining, transportation infrastructure, and agriculture. While the country is seen as geographically strategic, the BRI initially bypassed it. However, since 2016, both countries have jointly promoted this cooperation. Afghanistan acts as a link between China and Southern, Central and Western Asia, with the countries being connected in north by the Sino-Afghan special railway transportation project and the Five Nations Railway Project, which aim to connect to southern Afghanistan via the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Afghanistan is also home to massive resource deposits, such as rare earth metals and lithium, which have the capacity to reduce the dependence of Afghanistan on foreign aid if exploited properly.

China, Afghanistan’s largest foreign investor, is using this position effectively to increase their influence in the region. According to Arif Sahar, an Afghan security expert based in London, these resources can only be effectively exploited by close neighbours, because of geopolitics and logistics. Aware that their manufacturing sector would benefit massively from this access to resources, ‘China is signalling that it is the only country in the region with the financial and economic capabilities that can be relied on as a trustworthy partner’.

This takes on more weight due to China’s interactions with Afghanistan’s neighbours. While China and Pakistan are perennial, all-weather allies, and remain economically and politically integrated, the recent push in Iran has provided Afghanistan further incentive to remain aligned with China, that of coastal access through Iran. Pakistan has consistently blocked Afghanistan from using their territory; and being aligned with Iran through China and the BRI remains a position that the Afghanistan government could be willing to accept.

Political-Strategic Integration: Indifference to Engagement

Over the years, China’s regional policy has gone from a calculated indifference to active engagement, with China realising the best chance to achieve their goals is a strong, stable Afghanistan. As such, China has pushed to reconcile with, and build contacts with both the Taliban and the Afghan government. It also strives for greater cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan, by pushing for greater opportunities for trade and investment.

Chinese motivations in Afghanistan vary. They remain wary of the country being used as a launching ground for Uyghur separatism (such as the East Turkestan Independence Movement), which it often claims could radicalise Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. It also aims to portray itself as an important regional and global player, with the potential to solve one of the world’s longest running insurgencies . China has hence embarked on numerous policies aimed at achieving these. It has portrayed itself as a point of contact between the government and the Taliban, acting as a facilitator in the Afghan peace process. It had also initiated a joint training operation with India for Afghan diplomats, as a gesture of goodwill. However, the future of this collaboration remains to be seen, due to renewed tensions with India following the Galwan incident. It has also aided Afghanistan militarily, helping build the military mountain brigade in the Wakhan corridor, with the primary goal of preventing infiltration by the Islamic State into China.

Afghanistan also hopes to use China as leverage against Pakistan. Quetta is widely believed to be the base of the Afghanistan Taliban leadership, and Pakistan has historically held some sway over the Taliban. Hamid Karzai was quoted as saying that ‘China is a close and strategic friend of Pakistan, and Chinese words with the Pakistani government carry weight… we believe that China can use that asset in a way that brings good relations between us and Pakistan and also leads to peace in Afghanistan’,  laying the groundwork for cooperation between the three countries. Preferring multilateralism over unilateralism in the region, China has also been examining using institutions like the UN to ensure regional peace and stability. Rightly so, any unilateral action in the region will face blowback from Afghanistan’s regional partners, as well as the international community.

The Way Forward

Over the past few years, China has steadily increased its involvement in Afghanistan, taking the form of military, economic and diplomatic commitments. However, these acts have not been without pushback, with China’s policy perceptions as giving pre-eminence to their own geopolitical and security concerns being the concern of many in the international community. As such, while the Afghani government views China as an important partner in Afghani stability, their impact so far has remained limited.

One last factor to consider is the influence of Russia. While not one to disrupt the coalition withdrawal, Russia under Putin has been steadily increasing its reputation as a great power with an international reach, as seen also in Libya and Syria. Additionally, Afghanistan is part of the erstwhile Russian sphere of influence, and any attempts by foreign powers to increase their influence in these regions have often been met by opposition. Some recent examples stem from accusations of Russian support to the Taliban, and allegations of state-sponsored bounties on US soldiers.

The force withdrawal provides China with an immense opportunity to increase their influence in the region – unilaterally through the BRI and its associated investments, or multilaterally through organisations like the UN. However, the viability of these projects largely depends on the confidence the international community and Afghanistan’s partners have in the Chinese leadership, which has taken a hit in the aftermath of the pandemic and China’s belligerent ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy. China’s engagement in Afghanistan had started to take shape before this crisis, but the efficacy of such policies now remains to be seen, especially with increasing diplomatic challenges, such as with the USA, UK, Canada, and India. Without the support of the countries involved with Afghanistan, the expansion of Chinese policy remains a distant dream, which shall face numerous hurdles in implementation.

China’s Infrastructure Development Projects in Bangladesh

Sayantan Haldar, Research Intern, ICS

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, with Chinese President Xi in Beijing, on 5 July, 2019.Image Source: AP Photo

On 14 October, 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping created history by being the first Chinese leader to visit Bangladesh in 30 years. This visit bears great importance for the deepening of Sino-Bangladesh relations as well as China’s increasing outreach towards South Asia. Bangladesh is situated at the heart of the Bay of Bengal which makes it a strategically indispensible country in China’s growing network along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route and the New Silk Road. China-Bangladesh relations dates back to 1976 when Beijing began diplomatic relations with Dhaka. However, President Xi’s visit to Dhaka in 2016 has been seen as an important development in the Sino-Bangladesh relations, especially after the onset of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Bangladesh has responded positively to the BRI drawing some criticism from India which is a dominating factor in Bangladesh’s foreign policy, particularly in the neighborhood. Bangladesh is a developing country with major demand for infrastructure development which has largely inspired its engagement with China, while its strategic location has significantly shaped China’s outreach. Therefore, it is important to take stock of China’s infrastructure development projects in Bangladesh.

President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina signed twenty-seven agreements worth billions of dollars and also elevated their relationship from ‘a comprehensive partnership of cooperation’ to a ‘strategic partnership of cooperation’ during the Chinese President’s visit to Dhaka in 2016. Earlier in 2015, China emerged as the top trade partner of Bangladesh replacing India. China’s growing engagement with Bangladesh has been based on steady economic linkages along with infrastructural assistance by China in Bangladesh. As a small country with a growing economy, Dhaka has positively embraced Beijing’s engagement. Even during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to China in July, 2019, the two sides agreed to enhance cooperation on trade, defense and infrastructure projects, which have further deepened China-Bangladesh ties.

The Padma Bridge Rail Link Project is one of the flagship projects undertaken by China in Bangladesh which aims to connect Dhaka with Jessore through the Padma Bridge. The estimated budget of the project is approximately BDT 40, 000 Crores jointly sponsored by the Exim Bank of China and Bangladesh government. The project began in 2016 and is aimed to be completed by 2024. The Padma rail project has been divided into three phases connecting Dhaka to Mawa, Mawa to Bhanga and Bhanga to Jessore. Rail connectivity is an important instrument for the bourgeoning market of Bangladesh. The Padma Bridge Rail project in particular is important to Bangladesh as it improve accessibility to Dhaka with central and south-western regions of the country and provides a shorter alternative to the Dhaka-Jessore-Khulna railway connectivity. It is also important to Bangladesh as it is expected to ensure socio-economic development and minimize regional disparity. China’s involvement in this project pertains to funding it. China is funding 85% of the project while the rest is funded by local contractors in Bangladesh. Interestingly the project was elevated to the ‘fast track’ status in Aril, 2016, emphasizing on China’s commitment of timely progress and delivery. This can be seen as an attempt by China to establish itself as a better alternative to India in the region, because one of the major issues flagged off by most countries in India’s neighborhood concerns New Delhi’s delivery deficiency. Infrastructure development in Bangladesh is also a strategically important sector for China to establish itself in, as it would increase greater dependence of Dhaka on Beijing. The biggest hindrance to the project so far has been the operational discontinuity caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Bangladesh’s Road Transport and Bridges Minister’s briefing, the infrastructural progress of the project is 24.43% and the financial progress is at 30.52% until May.     

Another important project undertaken by China in Bangladesh is the Payra Deep Sea Port. The Payra shipping port is situated at the Patuakhali region of Bangladesh on the banks of the Bay of Bengal. This project will be given shape by China Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC) and China State Engineering and Construction Company (CSCEC). China’s interest in this project is not a matter of surprise as it is strategically situated and falls in line with China’s string of maritime bases across the Indian Ocean region. The total cost of the port is expected to be between USD 11 billion to 15 billion. For long, China has expressed its interest in building port projects in Bangladesh. The Payra port project was inaugurated in November, 2013, and started operating in 2016. This project holds great significance for Bangladesh as it is expected to facilitate internal development. The deep-sea port is vital for reinvigorating Bangladesh’s internal connectivity which will boost its booming economy. Bangladesh has however made it very clear that it is not meant to be developed as a Chinese naval base, as has been the experience with Gwadar and Hambantota in the past. Interestingly, China’s involvement in this project has not aroused suspicion in India as well, primarily because it does not follow the ‘field of dreams’ approach. The Payra port will also be complemented by the Padma Rail Link project, as the latter is expected to create opportunity to construct a second line in this route and connect Barisal & Payra Deep Sea Port. Even though there have been questions about the feasibility of this project, from China’s perspective, projects like this help Beijing engage its bloated state-owned enterprises and increase dependence of other countries on China.

While Bangladesh’s ties with China have been steadily growing, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has also maintained a balanced relationship with India. Notably, she described Bangladesh’s relations with India as ‘organic’ and ‘beyond a few billions of dollars of trade’ at the World Economic Forum in Dalian in 2019, reiterating her bonhomie with India. Towards this end, New Delhi and Dhaka have made progress in strengthening their connectivity linkages which have, for instance, manifested in terms of the shipment of the cargo vessel from Kolkata to Agartala via Chittagong for the first time in fifty-five years. However, participating in the BRI has been a strongly felt need in the Dhaka making China emerge as the seemingly perfect fit to alter Bangladesh’s infrastructure deficit. The two countries have increasingly shared more comfort in jointly developing infrastructure projects which have been beneficial to both. While Dhaka benefits with assistance in infrastructure development, Beijing also views this as an opportunity to expand its geo-strategic footprint in South Asia. It is important for Dhaka to draw lessons from fellow South Asian small-states like Sri Lanka and cautiously engage with China. However, Bangladesh has been firm on its view of engaging with China at a level that is mutually beneficial to both. Infrastructure development has been at the heart of this relationship, and is expected to strengthen further in light of the current Covid-19 pandemic. While the crisis has been a hindrance to the existing projects which were under progress, it has also opened a new avenue for both the countries to cooperate on health infrastructure. Bangladesh-s recent demand of priority for cooperation from China reaffirms their willingness to cooperate. Towards this end, Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh, Li Jinming has reassured Bangladesh that China will remain its ‘most reliable’ partner.