China, Russia, and Great Power Politics in Afghanistan and Central Asia
Author: Dawood Azami, PhD
Jan 12, 2024
This article is a guest contribution from a conference in July 2023, that the CPC hosted together with the Near East South Asia Center of the National Defense University (NDU), “Connecting Central Asia, the South Caucasus and Beyond”.
The Central Asian and the Caspian regions are the centers of gravity for China, the U.S., the EU, and Russia, as well as other regional powers such as India, Turkey, and Iran. The U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the ongoing political and economic power transition in the international system have brought new opportunities for regional countries, with many having more freedom of maneuver to seek new friendships and/or deepen their existing alliances.
The departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan following a two-decade-long war renewed competition for influence in the country. While all the Western diplomatic missions closed their doors in Kabul along with their militaries, many regional countries – including Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – kept their embassies open during the Taliban take over on August 15, 2021. However, the European Union (EU) remains the first and only Western power that reopened its diplomatic mission in Kabul in January 2022 “to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid and monitor the humanitarian situation.” In late December 2023, Azerbaijan announced it will open its embassy in Kabul in 2024. In the same week, Kazakhstan, which already has its embassy in Kabul, said it was removing the Taliban from its registry of terrorist organizations. In this way, Tajikistan remains the only Central Asia country that doesn’t have diplomatic relations with the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
Although most embassies set up by the former Afghan government continue to operate independently, the Taliban government’s diplomatic outreach has gradually expanded. So far, more than a dozen regional countries, such as China, Russia, and Turkey, have accepted diplomats appointed by the Taliban government, and several other states are expected to do so in the near future. In addition, diplomats and special envoys from various countries and organizations, including the EU, UN, OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference), Britain, Germany, and Norway, have visited Kabul since the Taliban takeover while others including those from the U.S. have been meeting the Taliban officials in other countries as part of their policy of engagement. Other high-ranking foreign visitors have included foreign ministers of China, Iran, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan.
Challenges of the Taliban Government in Afghanistan
No country or international organization -- such as the UN and OIC -- has recognized the Taliban government so far. In addition, most of the top Taliban leaders, including their government’s foreign minister, are still on the UN and U.S. sanctions list and are unable to travel abroad freely. Both of these problems, coupled with the stopping of international development aid, freezing Afghanistan’s US$7 billion in banking reserves held in New York, and sanctions imposed on Afghanistan’s banking system after the return of the Taliban, means Afghanistan is still far from tackling its political, and economic challenges and becoming a normal functioning state on the world stage.
Domestically, the Taliban’s priority has been the consolidation of power and the establishment of full military control in order to deny space to its existing or potential armed opponents. Militarily, the Taliban faces two challenges -- the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP / ISIS–KP) and the “armed resistance” groups. The Taliban have been fighting the Islamic State group (ISIS / ISIL) since the establishment of the latter’s regional branch, known as its Khorasan Province (ISKP / ISIS–KP) in January 2015. International assessments, including those by the U.S., show that ISKP has been severely weakened in Afghanistan, a move appreciated by various countries in the region and beyond.
On the other hand, various “armed resistance” groups have emerged since the return of the Taliban vowing to topple the Taliban regime. Leaders of these groups are generally based abroad lobbying for foreign support. However, the armed opposition has yet to gain momentum in order to fight effectively against the dominant, better-armed, and numerically larger Taliban. So far, there have been no public pledges of military and financial support for groups wishing to overthrow the Taliban by force. Both the U.S. and the U.K. have publicly declared that they do not support armed opposition seeking to achieve political change through violence in Afghanistan and discouraged others from doing so.
As part of their economic self-sufficiency drive and strategy to gain domestic legitimacy and public support, the Taliban soon launched the implementation of a few major infrastructure projects, such as roads, dams, and canals. The construction of the Qosh Tepe canal in the north of Afghanistan is one such project that was initially conceived in the 1970s under the first Afghan president, Mohammed Daoud Khan, but, like many other similar initiatives, got delayed for decades due to conflict and instability in the country. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the main down-river countries, have expressed concern that the Qosh Tepa canal, which will divert water from Amu Darya, will have an adverse effect on their agriculture. While the Taliban insist they will be using only “Afghanistan’s share of water” from the Amu River, officials from the two countries have held various rounds of talks with the Taliban on the matter as part of an effort to reach an agreement at a time when the whole region is suffering from drought. Meanwhile, the Taliban government announced a ban on the cultivation of opium poppies in 2022 in the country which remained the biggest producer of opium in the world for decades. However, the poppy ban lacks a comprehensive development strategy with poppy farmers and workers having no or little viable alternative sources of income. Therefore, sensible development interventions and “alternative livelihoods” projects by the international community would be needed to make it sustainable and lessen the suffering of the people. Otherwise, the ongoing humanitarian crisis is most likely to get worse.
Although donor countries have been providing humanitarian aid to Afghanistan since the fall of the previous government, the flow of aid is proving insufficient to respond to humanitarian needs in the country where millions of people still face hunger and extreme poverty, according to the UN and other international organizations. Meanwhile, members of the international community have been asking the Taliban to follow through on their stated commitments relating to counterterrorism, good governance, and political inclusivity. In general, they want to see more clarity and consistency in the Taliban government’s policies and expect it to address three issues before taking steps toward formal recognition.
i)- The international community’s most important concern is about security and counter-terrorism and expects the Taliban to cut ties with transnational violent extremist groups and prevent them from using the Afghan territory against other countries. As far as the activities of such groups are concerned, countries have preferences.
For China, the main concerns are the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)/, Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), and the Islamic State group (ISIS/ISIL).
Iran is mostly concerned about ISIS/ISIL and other groups it deems as sectarian and ethnic separatist in nature.
For Central Asian countries and Russia, the activities of ISIS/ISIL, Al-Qaeda, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and other smaller groups are a matter of concern.
India’s relations with the Afghan Taliban have improved since they returned to power, however, Delhi remains concerned about ISIS/ISIL and Al-Qaeda, as well as other India-focused regional militant groups.
Pakistan sees the activities of the Pakistan Taliban Movement (TTP) as a major security concern.
ii)- The second major concern most of the international community has is about the Taliban’s social policies, mainly issues related to human rights, particularly women’s rights, such as a ban on female higher education and limitations on women’s right to work.
iii)- The international community’s third major concern is about the structure and make-up of the Taliban government and wants it to be “inclusive” and “broad-based” with the inclusion of non-Taliban Afghans.
The Taliban government officials have repeatedly said that they won’t allow any group or individual to use the territory of Afghanistan against other countries. On the other hand, they emphasize that foreigners should not interfere in “Afghanistan’s internal affairs,” a reference to the demands made by certain members of the international community about the need for a national dialogue and the establishment of an inclusive government as well as respect for human rights. Meanwhile, the Taliban have expressed their desire to establish good relations with the outside world, especially regional countries. The Taliban hopes that close political and economic relations will bring foreign investment and increase regional trade via Afghanistan, thus bringing their government much-needed cash revenues. Secondly, the Taliban want to neutralize any threat to their rule in Afghanistan emanating from the region. As opposed to the 1990s -- when India, Russia, and Iran supported the anti-Taliban factions in Afghanistan – the Taliban don’t want any regional player to provide military and financial support to Afghans opposing their regime in Kabul. At the moment, India, Russia, and Iran are on good terms with the Taliban.
However, the Afghan Taliban’s relations with its former ally, Pakistan, became tense soon after they returned to power. One of the main reasons for the crisis in Kabul-Islamabad relations has been the issue of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), a group found involved in attacks on Pakistani security forces. Pakistan claims that the TTP operates from sanctuaries inside Afghanistan. However, various Taliban government officials have accused Pakistan of providing shelter to IS-KP, a group attacking the Afghan Taliban and civilians inside Afghanistan. Both sides deny these claims and counterclaims.
Citing security concerns, Pakistan started expelling “undocumented” Afghan refugees in late 2023 as part of its coercive diplomacy. According to international agencies, close to half a million Afghans returned from Pakistan were expelled in almost three months (15 September 15 -December 9). They were in desperate need of food, shelter, and employment to survive winter in their homeland. The number of returnees is predicted to rise in the coming months. Meanwhile, efforts are underway to ease tensions between the two countries through dialogue. However, things seem to be getting worse before they get better.
Enhancing Connectivity and Trade
Central and South Asia are among the least connected regions in the world. Despite having complementary interests and capabilities, inter-state rivalries and great power competition coupled with intra-state tensions and conflicts have hindered connectivity for decades. Given the changing strategic and political landscape, countries in the broader region have embarked on transformative initiatives to increase economic connectivity and trade.
Trade by land route using trucks between Central Asia and Pakistan via Afghanistan is steadily on the rise. More importantly, a joint office for close coordination of the implementation of the Trans-Afghanistan Railway project (involving Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) connecting Central Asia with ports on the Arabian Sea was opened in Tashkent in May 2023. Two months later (on July 18), a protocol to commence the construction of the railway track was signed in Islamabad in a trilateral meeting in order to move on to the next phases of planning, resource allocation, and project implementation. The multibillion-dollars trans-Afghanistan Railway project has been designed to connect South Asia with Central Asia through Afghanistan. The railway line is designed to support both passenger and freight services and is expected to reduce delivery times of cargo between Uzbekistan and Pakistan by about five days and reduce the cost of goods transport by around forty per cent.
Dubbed as one of the biggest economic projects in the region, the project, if completed, will boost regional connectivity and establish new trade routes that were previously hindered by logistical challenges. It will be the first time that the landlocked Central Asia, and by extension Russia, will get access to warm waters and connect with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through rail link. Meanwhile, Pakistan and CPEC will be connected with Europe through a rail link. If the Delhi-Islamabad relations were improved, even India can be linked up with this project.
Although the trans-Afghanistan railway project has an estimated five-year construction timeframe and is supposed to be completed by the end of 2027, there are several obstacles that can derail or delay it. The immediate challenge is the financing and rising costs of the project which now stand at an estimated US$7 billion. It aims to attract finances from financial institutions (including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank) as well as countries, no commitments have been made so far. Secondly, increasing tensions between various regional countries have the potential to delay the project. Meanwhile, the absence of international recognition of the Taliban government and financial and political sanctions on their government and officials have further complicated the issues of foreign investment, financial transactions, and the implementation of such international projects.
Meanwhile, the completion of other major regional projects that had been delayed mainly due to insecurity in Afghanistan is back on the table. Countries involved in the multi-billion Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) gas pipeline have had several meetings aimed at restarting the project soon. The trans-Afghanistan pipeline has been on the cards for more than two decades and once completed, it will transport natural gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan and then to India. The Taliban authorities have also said they want to resume and implement the US$1 billion-plus Central Asia-South Asia power project, commonly known as CASA-1000, which is designed to export surplus hydroelectricity from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On the other hand, the first CA+GCC heads of state summit, hosted by Saudi Arabia in July 2023, stressed the importance of further developing transport routes to connect the two regions and building strong logistical and commercial networks. Leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar) and five Central Asian republics also discussed participation in the construction of the Trans-Afghanistan railway, which would connect the Gulf states with Central Asia along the shortest route.
These projects, if completed, would transform the economic outlook of not only Central Asia and South Asia but also the West Asian and the Caspian regions. Progress in cooperation and connectivity, including trade corridors between Central Asia and South Asia as well as the Gulf and Central Asia, serve the interests of the broader region. These projects now stand as a testament to the region’s commitment to increasing connectivity, fostering economic development and prosperity, and overcoming barriers.
Implications of the Ukraine War:
Although China and Russia were against the permanent U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, there had been a degree of consensus among the three powers on the issue of peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, Afghanistan had become a rare space where they were willing to set aside their rivalries and meet regularly as part of the Troika since early 2019 to coordinate efforts in support of the U.S.-Taliban peace talks and the withdrawal of U.S./NATO forces from Afghanistan. However, the war in Ukraine also impacted the U.S.-Russia dialogue on Afghanistan, and no Troika (or Troika+ with the addition of Pakistan) meeting has been held since March 2022. It is unlikely that cooperation between the U.S., China, and Russia on Afghanistan will be revived in the near future, and their competition for influence over Kabul seems to be intensifying.
However, the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, followed by the war in Gaza, meant that international priorities changed with Afghanistan becoming a secondary issue. Meanwhile, the Taliban seem to be relieved that the West’s attention is focused on Ukraine and Gaza and that the group has more freedom of action internally and less international backlash and pressure due to their domestic policies.
On the other hand, Russia’s distraction by the war in Ukraine and the departure of the U.S. military from Afghanistan mean China has more opportunities to expand its economic interests and political clout in the country. Beijing is keen to enhance its reach into Afghanistan and the wider Central Asia, a region that has long been regarded as the neighboring Russia’s sphere of influence. Central Asia is a fertile ground for China-financed pipelines, railways, and transport routes into its borders and towards West Asia and Europe. In addition, the region also serves as a buffer against what it has long seen as security threats from areas like Afghanistan. China’s increased involvement and influence in the Central Asian region will also help Beijing in international forums such as the United Nations.
Similarly, the changing regional landscape has resulted in new aspirations and directions for Central Asian countries that were not present before. Central Asian states seem to be uncertain about Russia’s future commitment, influence, and role in the region and want to cooperate with China as an important alternative or complimentary market and investor. The region suffers from COVID-19’s economic fallout and is feeling the sting of Russia’s war in Ukraine that disrupted trade, transportation, transit, and investment. Therefore, foreign economic cooperation, trade, and investment are now more needed than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union (USSR).
Although China and Russia have separate visions for Central Asia, the Ukraine war and the Western generous support for Kyiv have brought Beijing and Moscow much closer, both militarily and economically. The deepening partnership was evident in March 2023 when the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, made his first visit to Moscow since the start of the Russia-Ukraine. Speaking after meeting his Chinese counterpart, the Russian President said that the relationship between Moscow and Beijing was “at the peak of its historical development.” Meanwhile, President Xi said that “our two sides must enhance communication and cooperate closely, promoting new and greater advancement in practical cooperation between our two countries.” The ever-closer alliance between Moscow and Beijing has made China even stronger and more influential in the region and beyond. The weakening Russia and rising China and the increasingly closer ties between the two Eurasian giants are transforming the region’s political and economic landscape.
While Russia seeks to maintain influence in its traditional sphere of influence, Moscow’s entanglement in the Ukrainian quagmire is making it harder for Moscow to dedicate the same amount of resources and attention to this region. Russia’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine was evident in the Caspian Sea region where Moscow’s long-time support for ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh (a territory recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan but largely controlled by ethnic Armenians since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991) failed to stop military operation by Azerbaijan that ended Armenian control of the area. Despite Armenia being a member of the Moscow-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan made it clear a few days before Azerbaijan acted in September 2023 that “even if it wishes so, the Russian Federation cannot meet Armenia’s security needs.” This development is worrying for other regional hegemons, especially India, which doesn’t want Russia to go away from Central Asia because otherwise, China, its rival, will fill the vacuum, mainly due to its geographical proximity and huge economic potential.
Great Power Politics and the Region
The withdrawal of U.S./NATO forces from Afghanistan was a relief for several regional countries, including China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan, because they viewed the permanent or long-term Western military presence in their backyard as contrary to their strategic interests. Chinese officials have repeatedly called America’s departure from Afghanistan the failure of U.S. hegemony. Speaking at a press conference on August 15, 2023 -- the second anniversary of the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul -- the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Wang Wenbin, termed the U.S.’s exit as the “Kabul moment” and added, “[W]hat happened in Afghanistan marked a military, political, and counter-terrorism failure of the U.S. in Afghanistan, and once again proved that military intervention, political infiltration, and democratic transformation from the outside will not work and will only breed turmoil and disaster.”
China was one of only a handful of countries that didn’t close its embassy in Kabul during and after the U.S. military’s withdrawal and, short of a formal recognition, has hosted a Taliban government’s ambassador in Beijing. In fact, one of the most high-profile visitors to Afghanistan in the months after the Taliban takeover was the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, who visited Kabul on March 24, 2022, and met with high-ranking Taliban government officials. The Taliban government’s statement said that the two sides discussed “political, economic, and transit issues, air corridor, dried-fruit export, educational scholarships, visa issuance, commencing work in the mines sector, Afghanistan’s role in BRI [Belt and Road Initiative], and other matters of significance.” In subsequent meetings, the Taliban government in Afghanistan, as well as China and Pakistan, agreed to extend the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan – a move that, if implemented, would further increase China’s influence not only in Afghanistan but also in the wider region.
Meanwhile, the Taliban have relied on China, as well as on Russia, to break its international diplomatic isolation and have expected these countries to provide financial aid and invest generously in various sectors in Afghanistan, especially in mining and infrastructure. However, Beijing’s and Moscow’s cautious approach and domestic and foreign challenges of the Taliban government contributed to ending the euphoria and resulted in the Taliban seeking to increase contacts with the U.S. and its allies in a show of diplomatic flexibility and balance.
Meanwhile, many Western officials, especially from the U.S. and the UK, have been expressing concerns about Beijing’s increasing influence in post-U.S. Afghanistan and the wider Central Asia. In its annual report to Congress in November 2022, the Pentagon accused China of trying to “erode U.S. and partner influence” in Afghanistan by highlighting the withdrawal as “evidence that the U.S. is an unreliable partner and declining power.”
While the West has largely stayed away from establishing trade and diplomatic links with the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, China has been looking for business opportunities and exploring its options for investment, mainly in the country’s mining sector. However, for the time being, Beijing’s primary focus is on security and countering violent religious extremism, and ensuring stability on its western border.
On the other hand, as part of its efforts to better secure its geo-political and geo-economic interests, Xi-led Chinese policies in the Central Asia republics have expanded from the usual objectives of countering terrorism, Uighur independence, religious extremism, and economic cooperation, and are now also focused on enhancing military cooperation and countering the influence of major powers competing with China for a greater role in the region.
The first China plus Central Asian countries heads of state two-day summit, known as the “C+C5,” in the Chinese city of Xi’an on May 18-19, 2023, was an indication of the eagerness of both sides to deepen their relationship in various sectors. As evident from the Xi’an Declaration, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and the presidents of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan agreed on an ambitious plan for cooperation on a wide range of issues that included defense and security. The declaration went further stating that “China firmly supports the development path of the Central Asian states, efforts to protect national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as their independent foreign and domestic policies.”
Four months after the first C+C5 summit, the first-ever C5+1 presidential summit between the US and five Central Asia states was held during the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City in September 2023. Although The New York Declaration of C5+1 didn’t make any reference to Russia, the war in Ukraine, and China, the two sides agreed to deepen trade and investment ties, increase connectivity and diversify transport routes. Although no U.S. president has ever visited the five Central Asian countries, Washington is keen to boost its economic engagement with the region.
The Central Asian republics, as well as Afghanistan, are eager to use the current global environment to their advantage in order to catch up and tap the full potential of trade and investment links with each other and the outside world. They also want to start joint projects with both Western and regional countries in order to diversify their options and get the best possible deals.
For the time being, China is in the “driving seat” when it comes to investment, trade, and connectivity projects in the region. For China to become the dominant great-power partner for Central Asia depends on a number of factors, including the degree and duration of Russia’s entanglement in Ukraine, the readiness of Central Asian states to accept China’s increased influence, and Beijing’s willingness to enhance its presence and involvement in various fields in the region.
The new geopolitical realities are offering the Central Asia countries not only economic prosperity but also greater Chinese influence. Given their centuries-old political, economic, and cultural links, a degree of mutual understanding exists between the Central Asian republics and Russia compared to China. The question is, whether China, if given the choice, would be a better deal for Central Asia than Russia in the long run?
Dr Dawood Azami is a senior journalist and academic. He works as a Multi-Media Editor for the BBC World Service in London and is an Associate Fellow for South and Central Asian Defence, Strategy, and Diplomacy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). His expertise includes International relations and development, hybrid insecurity, transnational organized crime, media, multi-culturalism, and globalization.