On July 2nd, 2021, American troops abandoned Bagram Airbase, the last U.S. military base in Afghanistan, effectively ending 20 years of U.S. military influence in the country. Clearly, the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Afghanistan represents a major shift in U.S. foreign policy and has profound implications for the Afghan people. However, the U.S. withdrawal also creates a precarious regional situation for China. As Afghanistan descends into chaos, China risks being the latest power to be pulled into the country.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has intensified the civil war between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which has caused substantial anxiety amongst Chinese policymakers. This concern can be traced to two reasons: First, Afghanistan is an appealing target for Chinese investment. Already, China has invested billions of dollars into the infrastructure of countries surrounding Afghanistan through its massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and Afghanistan—due to its strategic location along the land route from China to the Middle East and Europe—has long been an appealing target for Chinese development. Afghanistan also has an abundance of resources such as gold, platinum, silver, lithium, and aluminum, which China’s vaunted mining industry would be well-poised to develop.
More importantly, China seeks stability in the Central and South Asian countries that border Afghanistan. Chaos in Afghanistan could spill over to these border regions and into China itself, imperiling Chinese economic and security interests.
Economically, Chinese investments in countries near Afghanistan—such as Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan—have increased in recent decades and are key to Chinese foreign policy. Chinese BRI investments in Pakistan, for example, have totaled nearly $62 billion dollars and intend to create an overland trade route from China to the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Indian Ocean. Importantly, many of these Pakistan-based projects run close to the Afghan border. Likewise, many key resources from Central Asia, such as natural gas, flow into China through Tajikistan, which shares an 850-mile border with Afghanistan. These investments help to ensure China’s energy independence and, via Gwadar, access to foreign trade.
As a result of these economic holdings, Chinese security interests in Central and Southwest Asia have increased. First, China has been concerned by the possibility of terrorism against Chinese workers in these areas. In Pakistan, Chinese investments have been accompanied by an influx of Chinese contractors. The killing of nine Chinese workers near the town of Dasu in northwestern Pakistan this July, which China has labeled a terrorist attack, underscores the vulnerability of these workers. Their protection is a high priority of the Chinese government.