Over the past 180 years, Afghan fighters have prevailed over the British, Soviet, and now American forces that have challenged them within their own mountainous, desert-ridden borders. Indeed, the annihilation of nearly 16,000 British soldiers, civilians, and families in 1842 as they fled Kabul remains one of the most humiliating defeats in British military history, second only to the fall of Singapore in World War II. The Soviet Union left in ignominy in 1989, although not in disarray. And the Americans are now leaving under the full weight of both humiliation and chaos.
This turn of events puts a new spin on potential changes for the relationship between China and Afghanistan. The two share a (short) border, and China has attempted to make investments in Afghanistan, which have thus far gone badly. But with the departure of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan, the two neighbors may recalibrate their positions vis-à-vis one another, based on mutual interests and, of course, money. Chinese concerns that a Taliban-led Afghanistan may pose new security threats to China, particularly the prospect of jihad in support of Muslim Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region, would seem to be mitigated by Afghanistan’s increased need for Chinese investment, technology, and support services, if they can get it.
Thus, it would seem unlikely that a Taliban-led Afghanistan would provoke China with an open campaign of defense of the Uyghurs. It can follow the footsteps of other Muslim countries – not least the Taliban’s longtime patron, Pakistan – that have declined to come to the moral and material aid of the Uyghurs. Afghanistan has no overriding reason at this point to buck that trend.
To get a better idea of China’s approach to Afghanistan, there are two points to pay attention to: the Afghan drug trade – and the role of Chinese middlemen in providing financial services – and the potential for a formal border crossing between China and Afghanistan.
Drugs, the Taliban, and China’s Role
Afghanistan is and looks certain to remain “the world’s biggest illicit opiate supplier,” with its core crop poppies for the production of opium.
Tedious and opaque financial mechanisms are required, however, to keep the lucrative drug business afloat. A 2014 report on the “Financial Flows Linked to the Production and Trafficking of Afghan Opiates,” produced by the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering, cited China’s role in that process:
… drug-related money is being transferred to Afghanistan not directly but via intermediate countries, primarily: Pakistan, Iran, UAE and China. Funds are transferred via the banking system to an intermediate country or countries, which act as ‘gateways’ for money flows. Another service (mostly MVTS and cash couriers) then facilitates payment into Afghanistan.
The report emphasized the “illicit activities of import/export companies registered in China that transfer funds into Afghanistan, probably as part of trade-based money laundering (TBML) schemes. Many… operators in Afghanistan also control import/export companies and transfer money to recipients in China… these illicit networks are a key capability to threat of narcotics financing and, importantly for China and similar financial centres, tax evasion and fraud.”
Drug production is ramping up in Afghanistan, to the Taliban’s favor.
“The Taliban have counted on the Afghan opium trade as one of their main sources of income,” Cesar Gudes, the head of the Kabul office of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told Reuters. “More production brings drugs with a cheaper and more attractive price, and therefore a wider accessibility.”
A report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) finds that there was “a 37 per cent increase in the amount of land used for illicit cultivation of opium poppy during 2020 compared with the previous year.” That was the “third highest figure ever recorded in the country,” accounting for a staggering “85 per cent of the global total of opium production in 2020.”
As the report points out, “Afghanistan is a prime example of how politics, security and narcotics interlink.”
A key indicator to track over the months ahead is how that interlink between a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and a thriving drug trade uses China as a critical source of financial wherewithal to process and implement drug-related transactions. Will Beijing continue to turn a blind eye?
The China-Afghanistan Border
In sharp contrast to the financial ties, Afghanistan’s physical border with China is a barrier that most don’t and won’t breach.
As Franz J. Marty writes from Afghanistan, “Relations with China, which shares a merely 76 km border with Afghanistan that runs through almost impassable mountains east of the Little Pamir, are practically non-existent. The Afghan-Chinese border can only be crossed via two so far undeveloped mountain passes… both reaching altitudes of almost 5,000 metres above sea level.”
Although the passes “could be crossed on foot,” they don’t see any travelers. Marty cites two locals living in Little Pamir, one of whom said, “We never go to the Chinese border.” Both indicated that China has a strict border regime with surveillance cameras.
The border is at the eastern end of the 350 kilometer-long (220 miles) Wakhan Corridor, which protrudes like a feather out of northeastern Afghanistan. Beijing has been concerned that the corridor may be used by Uyghurs living in Afghanistan as a route back into China to spread Islamic separatism. China has not shown much interest in opening the border.
Nonetheless, a historic and wholly Afghan government-financed road is being built for the first time in the corridor. But there are widely differing viewpoints on just what that road will accomplish.
According to the July 30, 2021 Quarterly Report to Congress by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the $5 million road was approximately 20 percent complete as of mid-June 2021. “Once completed,” the report continues, quoting the Afghan Public Works Ministry spokesperson, the 50-kilometer road “will be used for commerce, imports and exports as well as transit” between Afghanistan and China. “China has expressed a huge interest for investment in Afghanistan, particularly in the mining sector, and this road will be good for that, too.”
A very different perspective is shared by on-the-ground, freelance journalist Marty, however.
The spokesperson with whom Marty spoke told him that “‘At the moment, the road in the Little Pamir is only an access road for local people, but we hope that it could become a transit route and attract Chinese investment.’”
“[W]hether such a transit corridor will ever materialise is far from clear,” Marty concluded, noting that the Afghan government has not had “official meetings with China” on the question of a border crossing.
As Afghanistan adjusts to its new political situation, it will be important to track the development and usage of the Wakhan Corridor road, and the border crossing that China has so far suppressed.
China’s Next Steps
A snapshot of Afghanistan’s key statistics highlights a country in trouble. Out of a population of 38 million, World Bank figures show that 54.5 percent lived below the poverty line in 2016.
Since the pandemic, it is reported that that figure could be as high as 72 percent. Literacy rates are equally dismal. World Bank figures for 2018 show that just 43 percent of Afghans are considered literate.
Both extreme poverty and widespread illiteracy are conditions that are in the living memory of much of China’s leadership. In a 2001 article, the New York Times reported that in 1950, China’s literacy rate stood at only 20 percent, according to the Chinese Ministry of Education. China knows that focusing on education is a key plank of economic development; Beijing could choose to invest in Afghanistan not only for mining interests, but also to help create the supporting human and physical infrastructure needed to build that road out of poverty.
But China has few cultural commonalities with Afghanistan. With a Taliban takeover, religious ideology will likely take center stage again as the dominating guideline for all aspects of life. The only area in which the two nations can seemingly cooperate is in investment and economic affairs. It is to be hoped that those economic affairs will be and remain above-board and legal, but based on China’s past interactions with Afghanistan there is good reason to be pessimistic.
The former commander of British military forces in Afghanistan, Col. Richard Kemp, CBE, predicted in an interview with Fox News that China, Russia, and Pakistan will “enrich themselves by plundering” Afghanistan.