A series of diplomatic statements by China has indicated a “cautious alliance” between the country and the Taliban. On their part, the Taliban have declared China to be Afghanistan’s “main partner.” In the wake of the violent return to power of the Taliban, international leaders have made much of China’s potential role in Afghanistan. Most statements emphasize the possible dividends of growing levels of Chinese investment in Afghanistan in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – China’s central foreign policy scheme that seeks to create land and sea infrastructural links designed to facilitate economic activity within and beyond Asia.
Serious questions remain, however, about Afghanistan’s incorporation within the Belt and Road project. Most obviously, the security situation in Afghanistan will hamper China’s ability to invest in it. The Taliban have publicly stated they will not interfere in China’s affairs, yet there remains an important question mark over the ability and willingness of their new and internally divided administration to reign in Islamist movements hostile to neighboring states — including China. At the same time, opposition to Taliban rule — both in the form of street protests and in the military activities of the National Resistance Front led by Ahmad Masood — will be a source of further caution in China. Various groups have targeted Chinese personnel in Pakistan in recent months; comparable incidents in Afghanistan would bring the country’s cautious alliance with the Taliban under yet more scrutiny in China itself.
It is also important to go beyond the sphere of bilateral relations and formal diplomacy to understand the difficulties that China will face in implementing the BRI in Afghanistan. An understanding of Afghanistan’s relationships with its neighbors, especially those with expansive geopolitical ambitions, requires recognition also of the role played by informal forms of diplomacy. Afghan populations who reside beyond the country’s territorial borders play an especially key role in informally contributing to Afghanistan’s relationships with its neighbors.
Afghan communities in the wider region are a complex and layered mixture of exiles, traders, and labor migrants. Millions of Afghans have lived in Iran and Pakistan, for example, over the course of several generations. In these countries, Afghan communities have established sustainable businesses, and long-standing social, political, and cultural relationships, even if many do not have access to citizenship or even stable residency rights. Afghans living in the former Soviet states, including the Muslim majority republics of Central Asia, as well as Russia and Ukraine, constitute sizeable communities, too. Afghans across these settings are especially active in trade, yet they have also established vibrant cultural and political associations through which they organize events as well as interact with local and national authorities. These social institutions play an important role in informing the nature of debate in Eurasia about Afghanistan, enabling the countries of the region to keep pace with the changing dynamics of Afghanistan beyond. Similar processes are available elsewhere, most notably in the Gulf States (especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia) and in Turkey.
Countries in Afghanistan’s neighborhood exert a range of forms of power on the spectrum between “soft” and “hard” in Afghanistan by way of their interactions with Afghan communities. China’s position is different in important respects from that of other countries in Afghanistan’s neighborhood. Historically, China has not accepted refugees from Afghanistan. Afghans living in the country are either students or individuals active in the trade in Chinese commodities, both in Afghanistan and also with other countries in which Afghans reside and are engaged in the commodity trade. The vast majority of the few thousand Afghans living in China reside in the country by way of short-term visas; authorities in China usually issue such visas for one year and, exceptionally, a maximum of five years. Affordable schooling is hard to access for foreigners in China: The majority of Afghans living in the country reside, then, in communities predominantly made of men. The families of Afghan traders based in China mostly live in Afghanistan or in other countries in the region (especially Turkey) where visas and residency permits are (for wealthier businesspeople) relatively easier to come by. Chinese government officials are highly sensitive to migrant communities that seek to establish cultural and political associations in the country. Even to hold community-oriented events, migrants must contend with various levels of bureaucracy.
Afghan communities across Asia emphasize the inherently perilous circumstances of their lives and their working activities. A combination of uncertainty about their future legal status in China, and the difficulties they face in establishing meaningful social institutions in the country, means that the scope for Afghans in China to play informal diplomatic roles is considerably narrower than is the case elsewhere in the region. Elsewhere in the region the BRI has empowered large transnational companies and marginalized smaller-scale trading communities. The fragility of the Taliban-led Afghan state, and the ongoing significance of informal institutions to the country’s economy, mean that successful Chinese investment in the country will depend to a significant degree on the mediating role played by Afghan traders and businesspeople.
Beyond the diplomatic portrayal of the smooth flow of Chinese investment in Afghanistan via the BRI lies a far more rocky and uncertain reality. Political instability, the ongoing presence of militant Islamist organizations pursuing transnational objectives, and the comparative weakness of pre-existing social ties and bonds of trust between the two countries are just some of the issues that policymakers will face in the days, months, and years to come.