With the US withdrawing from Afghanistan, the situation is ideal for China to fill the power vacuum with the help of its all-weather ally Pakistan. Afghanistan’s natural resources, its strategic location and Beijing's own investments in the CPEC are big enough temptations. But will it work?

As in nature, power abhors a vacuum. Well, a vacuum is going to be created soon next door.

As the Americans withdraw from Afghanistan, someone would be keen to fill in their place. And as things stand right now, there is nobody better placed to do it than China – at least on the face of it.

With the US effectively ending its 20-year Afghanistan War on July 1, 2021, by pulling out secretly from the sprawling Bagram Air Base, Beijing has squarely blamed Washington’s “hasty withdrawal” from the land-locked country, as the trigger for cross-border volatility and insecurity in the region.

The US must be stopped, according to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, from “creating more problems and dumping the burden on regional countries.”

Put it down to classic doublespeak because, off the record, Chinese officials cannot be too unhappy with the exit of a defeated America. It not only opens up greater space for China’s expansionism but also shows the once mighty Uncle Sam in decline.

Beijing has already rolled the dice. It has proposed that Pakistan—the largest recipient of Chinese financing under President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—collaborate with Beijing when it comes to Afghanistan and help “defend regional peace together.”

The US withdrawal offers China a rationale for exploiting the void in Afghanistan, not to mention its vast mineral wealth. Afghanistan’s strategic location at the crossroads of Central, South and Southwest Asia makes it geopolitically attractive for Beijing, which wants to link Kabul with the BRI’s flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

"If you look at the map of the region, then China would like to integrate the resources that Afghanistan has with its contiguous areas in Western part of the country and the mineral-rich areas of central Asia," points out Vivek Katju, former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), who has also served as New Delhi’s envoy in Kabul.

In his estimation, however, China moving into Afghanistan just because the Americans have left, may not be as easy as it appears, as there are "wheels within wheels".

"The situation is complex. China has deep connections with the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar group in Afghanistan. But I don’t think the Taliban can or will ignore the interests of the Uighurs,” Katju said.

Uighurs are mostly Muslims of Turkic extraction with close ties to Central Asia.

The largest of China's administrative regions, Xinjiang, where Uighurs live, borders eight countries - Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. China views Islamic extremism as a pressing threat and reportedly, in the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since World War 2, it is holding more than a million detainees in a Muslim gulag.

Beijing, as can be expected, denies the existence of any such camps.

But the paradox here could not be starker. Despite this treatment of Muslims – which has been catalogued by a few intrepid western journalists and human rights organisations - Beijing has built cosy ties with the Taliban, a Deobandi Islamic movement, which traces its ideological origins to the town of Deoband, near Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh.

When the Taliban first seized power in 1996 and declared an Islamic caliphate, Beijing established close ties with the regime, launching flights between Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, and Kabul. On 9/11, when two airplanes crashed into New York’s World Trade Centre in 2001, visiting Chinese officials signed an agreement for greater economic and technical cooperation with the Taliban.

After it was ousted by a US-led military invasion, Beijing quietly maintained ties with the Taliban militia in Pakistan, where its leadership took refuge. Even today, Taliban’s top leaders live in Pakistan, even as their foot soldiers are busy trying to destabilise Afghanistan.

Says the Mandarin-speaking Srikanth Kondapalli, professor in Chinese studies at JNU, an old China hand: "China’s interests are related to protecting its citizens in Afghanistan, stabilising its border areas in the Wakhan corridor in Badakhshan province, which has recently witnessed a resurgence of the Taliban, curbing the drugs and small arms trade from Afghanistan, containing the spill-over of Uighurs trained by the Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State-Khorasan and its effect on stability in Xinjiang province. Of course, there is also the matter of protecting its investments in Afghanistan, the Aynak copper mine, energy interests in the Amu Darya basin, resources at Bamiyan and ongoing infrastructure projects. China’s ambitions include pursuing the 'five connectivity' of the Belt and Road Initiative projects.”

According to him, the crux of the problem for Beijing is the possible spread of political violence into Xinjiang.

“While the Taliban made certain comments disassociating from the Turkistan Islamic Party (East Turkestan Islamic Movement) and others trained in Afghanistan, Beijing knows that the ground reality is complex. China even tried to infiltrate the Uighur militant groups, but its spy ring was busted by Kabul and 10 Chinese were briefly arrested and had to leave Afghanistan in December last,” he said.

Nonetheless, China’s diplomacy, owing largely to its economic and strategic heft, can scarcely be underestimated. After the July 2019 statement of western countries condemning China’s actions in Xinjiang, 37 countries—half of which were Muslim-majority—came to Beijing’s defence.

In a joint statement, they lauded China’s efforts. “Faced with the grave challenge of terrorism and extremism, China has undertaken a series of counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang, including setting up vocational education and training centres,” the statement said.

Experts, however, agree on one thing. For China to make its presence felt in Afghanistan, peace and stability is a must. That situation—even if it arrives—is a long way to go, given the spiral of endless violence that has gripped the country.

Says Katju: "If there is instability in Afghanistan, then the Chinese would not be able to use their influence. To that extent, China would like a peaceful Afghanistan, but so would India, because their interests are best served then.”

China’s Afghan reconstruction efforts have been kept to a minimum, specifically assistance, which remains a paltry $156 million as compared to over $3 billion by India, which suggests that Beijing prefers stability before broadening its economic engagement in the country.

In May this year, China brought together the five Central Asian foreign ministers in Xian to strategize on the Afghan situation. Under the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Beijing is pushing its version of “three evils”: separatism, extremism and splittism.

Last month, the Chinese Foreign Minister visited three countries in Central Asia, besides attending the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group Foreign Ministers’ meeting at Dushanbe on July 15, which advocated for an “independent, neutral, united, peaceful, democratic and prosperous state of Afghanistan.”

"For India,” says Kondapalli, "it is a waiting game. As long as its aid/investment in Afghanistan and the security situation in Kashmir are not tampered with, New Delhi needs to wait and watch."

According to other specialists like former Indian diplomat G. Parthasarathy, who as Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, and saw Afghanistan at close quarters, China’s real gain would be if Taliban were to get total victory.

"But I cannot see that happening. Taliban has traditionally not been able to dominate non-Pashtun or Tajik-held areas. Neither are the Iranians too fond of them,” he said.

Adds Parthasarathy: "The Taliban’s military ‘successes’ are gross exaggerations. They are incapable of even holding on to the towns they have captured. The reality is that the Taliban has the capability for attacking and taking over towns in the country’s South, close to the border with Pakistan."

Clearly, fast-moving events in the days ahead would determine the course of action in one of the most volatile regions in the world now.