Afghanistan has been dubbed the “graveyard of empires”. More aptly, it’s the rubbish bin in the back of empires that never amounts to much.
But plenty of world powers have gotten sucked into Afghanistan. After Russia and America, next up may be China. In typical Chinese fashion, this isn’t about war, but about international trade. Aside from its rare earth resources, Afghanistan offers some obvious trade route possibilities.
China is poised to make an exclusive entry into post-U.S. Afghanistan with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source close to government officials in Afghanistan told The Daily Beast that Kabul authorities are growing more intensively engaged with China on an extension of the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—the flagship project of BRI, which involves the construction of highways, railways and energy pipelines between Pakistan and China—to Afghanistan.
According to another source privy to conversations between Beijing and Kabul, one of the specific projects on the table is the construction of a China-backed major road between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar, which is already linked with the CPEC route. “There is a discussion on a Peshawar-Kabul motorway between the authorities in Kabul and Beijing,” the source told The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity. “Linking Kabul with Peshawar by road means Afghanistan’s formal joining of CPEC.”
But which Afghanistan? After being dumped by Biden, the government in Kabul may be willing to deal with China, but it may not be around for very long. China, once again in typical fashion, is trying to work with and pay off everyone at the same time.
But now, in light of the U.S. exit, Beijing might be in a good position to pick up where they left off and push Kabul to join the BRI, especially if an American withdrawal leads to the installation of the Taliban regime. Since last February, when the Trump administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban, the Chinese officials have reportedly been in frequent contact with representatives from the militant group.
As part of its homework strategy for Afghanistan, China has launched some strategic projects, including the construction of Taxkorgan airport on Pamirs Plateau in the northwest Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which borders Afghanistan. China is also the builder and operator of Gwadar seaport in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, also bordering Afghanistan. Both Taxkorgan and Gwadar are being developed under CPEC.
Considering what’s been happening with the Uighurs though, there may be limits to the willingness of any Afghan faction to trust China too much. The alliance between Pakistan and China does mean that the PRC’s arms get a certain amount of protection, but Afghanistan also has a sizable Turkic minority which has ties to the Uighur. Al Qaeda and ISIS at one point declared war on China, but that died away because they both had bigger problems to deal with. With America out of Afghanistan and China expanding its presence, that may change.
China’s diplomacy is also likely to set it up for blackmail. The more infrastructure it runs through Afghanistan, the more of an interest there will be in undermining it. And that’s even aside from the likelihood of India financing warlords who were formerly backed by the United States.
The PRC thinks that it can succeed where America did not, but it’s likely to end up learning a hard lesson.