Military officials and security analysts foresee the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan — due for completion in the coming months — as an opportunity for China and Russia to compete for influence there.
“Afghanistan is clearly a place of interest” for China, Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), said during an interview with VOA in Egypt Tuesday.
Noting China’s aggressive drive to build infrastructure across Asia and beyond, he said, “Anywhere you see [these projects] across the Middle East, that's where in fact nations are vulnerable. I think Afghanistan is going to be one of those areas as we go forward.”
WATCH: Gen. Frank McKenzie Talks to VOA
Ret. Gen. Joseph Votel, a former CENTCOM commander, told VOA it should come as no surprise that both China and Russia will want to “fill the void” created by the U.S. troop withdrawal.
“We should expect to see more of that,” Votel said, adding that as America’s military presence is cut, the U.S. must “make sure that our diplomatic house is in order” through confirmed ambassadors and well-resourced, in-country State Department teams that can defend and support U.S. interests.
For years, China has been expanding its economic power through “Belt and Road” initiatives across the globe, providing affordable infrastructure in the short-term, in exchange for long-term debt repayment plans that leave countries more dependent on China’s authoritarian government. Beijing has already said that it wants to expand the program to Afghanistan.
China’s Interests in Afghanistan
China opposed the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago, but now also opposes a quick American withdrawal which, Beijing says, could leave the country in even more turmoil.
Last month following another deadly attack in Kabul, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry said “the recent abrupt U.S. announcement of complete withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan has led to a succession of explosive attacks throughout the country, worsening the security situation and threatening peace and stability as well as people’s life and safety.”
China’s support for Belt and Road Initiative projects in Afghanistan could allow Beijing to create an overland connection to another element of the BRI, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which links a strategic port on the Arabian Sea to highways that lead north across the Himalayas.
China’s doctrine of “military-civil fusion” means many economic projects have military components as well. Bradley Bowman, a China defense expert for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who also is an Afghanistan veteran, said the U.S. pullout will be a boon for China’s regional interests.
“It's really ironic,” Bowman told VOA. “We're reducing our deterrence of China by facilitating a withdrawal that people said we had to do to increase our deterrence of China.”
There are “two fundamental issues” of interest to China and Afghanistan’s other neighbors as the U.S. withdraws, according to Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council.
Writing in the Global Times — a newspaper backed by the Chinese Communist Party — he said these are keeping Afghanistan from becoming “an Islamic Emirate, which international terrorist groups like ISIS or Al-Qaeda could use to plan their malign subversive operations in the region,” and stopping its production and export of narcotics.
The U.S. troop withdrawal ends a war that analysts said both China and Russia came to see as a useful distraction that bogged down the American military. The U.S. pullout means those two countries may have to play a greater role in regional security.
Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, told VOA Mandarin this week that "China and Russia benefit from America’s presence in Afghanistan. They benefit because the Taliban, al Qaida and ISIS were constrained by Americans.”
Robert Ross, a professor of political science at Boston College, told VOA Mandarin via phone that “the Chinese certainly (have) no interest in seeing Afghanistan become a revitalized center of terrorism, particularly given their concern about Islamic terrorism in China.” Beijing’s harsh crackdown on its western Uyghur population was prompted in part by a series of Islamist-inspired attacks.
On Thursday, U.S. officials warned of the danger terror groups in Afghanistan could pose following the U.S. withdrawal.
China and Russia’s Competing Interests
The most likely regional vehicle for addressing Afghanistan’s security situation is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a security alliance founded by China and Russia.
The 20-year-old bloc includes all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, and experts say it could provide crucial support for China’s interests if dissent within the membership, particularly between Russia and China, does not limit its effectiveness.
Writing in the Global Times, Kortunov suggested the SCO might provide a platform for discussion of those issues, saying “The future of Afghanistan should be a matter of concern not for remote overseas powers, but for regional players around this country — such as Iran, Pakistan, China, Russia, India and Central Asia countries.”
The SCO currently includes eight member states — China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. There are also four observer states interested in acceding to full membership — Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia — and six dialogue partners — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey, according to the United Nations.
“The time has come for SCO member states to bring this body out to the light and to rise up to a new, post-US Afghan challenge,” wrote Kortunov.
The SCO focuses on resolving border disputes and combatting terrorism, separatism and extremism according to its charter. Its member nations now account for a quarter of the world’s GDP and almost 45% of the world’s population. China and Russia are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Russia, China, India and Pakistan are nuclear states.
Experts say the organization’s effectiveness as a security force has been limited by the large number of members and continuing rivalry between Moscow and Beijing.
In 2018, Abigail Grace, writing in the Jamestown Foundation’s “China Brief,” said of the SCO that, “Highlighting internal dissent between China and Russia, few tangible outcomes, and an under-emphasis on strengthening economic partnerships, critics of the organization paint the grouping as ineffectual.”
Ross told VOA that “the Russians have always seen the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a vehicle for China to exercise leadership in Central Asia. And it's not something they can absolutely resist, but not something they would welcome.”
Although the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Russia continues to see itself as a dominant player in Central Asia, where it maintains a significant military presence. “Moscow is the region's largest arms supplier and has thousands of troops stationed at bases in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan,” according to Nikkei Asia.
In 2002, one year after the SCO’s founding, Russia established the Collective Security Treaty Organization. A military alliance with membership overlapping that of the SCO members, CSTO is Russia’s effort at maintaining its influence in the region.
“SCO as the regional organization has its advantages since it includes all of Afghan's neighbors who play a key role in the situation of the country,” Sun Yun, co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, told VOA Mandarin by email. “But it also means a consensus will be hard to produce. It is one of the platforms to discuss regional actions, but may not be the eventual answer to the Afghan question.”
Plus, the cost of filling the vacuum in Afghanistan could be very high, according to Sun. “Russians have learned it and the Chinese have seen it. I doubt either one wants to rush in and get sucked into a quagmire that they cannot resolve,” she said.
Michael Yahuda, an emeritus professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told VOA Mandarin in an email that China and Russia have different interests in Afghanistan.
“China fears that its Uighurs may both draw strength from their fellow Uighurs in Afghanistan, who may supply terrorists and others to make life difficult for the Chinese. The Chinese can be expected to be more active in Afghanistan,” he said. “But Russia will be unlikely to do much. The memory of its humiliation there is still fresh.”
Ross from Boston College agrees. He said that only China has the resources and the political will to play a role in post-war Afghanistan, and the SCO will be a platform, but not the only platform.
He suggests it's likely that the Chinese will take a two-way approach, pumping up the anti-terrorism initiative with the SCO while simultaneously working independently with Afghans to build a lasting economic initiative.