China is readying itself to fill the vacuum left by withdrawing coalition forces in Afghanistan, experts have warned. And if it succeeds, a China-Pakistan-Afghanistan axis may force India to reassess its relationship with the West.
It comes as Taliban forces yesterday boasted of controlling 85 percent of Afghanistan’s territory as the last remaining US troops prepare to leave.
Though the claims were dismissed by Afghan officials, they confirmed that emboldened Taliban fighters had captured an important district in Herat province, and Torghundi, a northern town on the border with Turkmenistan.
Beijing has been “biding its time” and assessing the risks and gains of political and possibly military intervention in the war-torn country.
But analysts point out that it has more to gain than the West in economic, political and security terms.
China has already benefited from the security and stability provided by the 20 years of Western military presence; in 2007 it signed a 30-year lease to mine copper and has a £300m petroleum project on the Amu Darya basin, northern Afghanistan.
The training of a Chinese mountain brigade has been confirmed on the border and, in 2019, Beijing announced its intention to link Afghanistan to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a £45bn series of infrastructure projects which will eventually connect Pakistan not central Asian energy markets.
In May Wang Yu, China’s ambassador to Afghanistan, said that the country was consulting with the government in Kabul on the “Belt and Road Initiative” to revive part of the Silk Road in Afghanistan.
The country sits on the route of Beijing’s proposed central belt – or “five nations railway” system – running from China to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean, and borders the planned northern ‘belt’ running through central Asia to Russia/Europe.
Afghanistan’s government responded by confirming plans to build a £4m, 50km highway in rough terrain to access China by road for the first time in history.
While China is no friend of The Taliban – which it has described as a terrorist organisation – it may switch its allegiance if Afghanistan’s government, led by PM Ashraf Ghani, falls.
“We’ve shown a horrifying lack of strategic patience in Afghanistan. The Taliban has a strategy and much patience and have successfully stared us out,” said Lt Gen Jonathan Riley, former deputy commander of coalition troops in Afghanistan.
“If the West withdraws the Afghan government has to look somewhere.
“Beijing would like to work with the Kabul government, but if they see The Taliban is going to take charge, they’ll switch allegiance in a heartbeat.
“It won’t be long before Taliban students are attending courses in China on administration and banking.”
East Asia expert Alessio Patalano, of King’s College, London, said: “Unlike the West, China doesn’t have the option to ignore Afghanistan which is on its border and where its Muslim minorities are found. It’s a national security issue as much as it is an economic and political one.
“What we need to understand is the impact this may have on India, which remains a giant thorn in China’s ambitions.
“A China-Pakistan-Afghanistan could increase efforts to destabilise Kashmir and put other pressures on Delhi, causing it to start pulling back on engagements with the US, the UK and France.
“Biden’s entire Indo-Pacific strategy revolves around India and Japan, The West is banking on the US, but the US is banking on India, and it could all fall apart.
“We must take this threat seriously.”