The regional spillover of US Afghan policy

China’s new geopolitical approach is a combination of the “good neighbour” and “stabilisation of the periphery” policy

Zahra Niazi August 22, 2019
The writer is a freelance columnist

Negotiations that will lead to a withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan are continuing to advance. One of the likely consequences of a US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will be a growth in the perception that the American power and influence are on a decline. The US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have highlighted the limits of the American military power and stretched the US beyond its capacity. Moreover, the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will be seen as an emergence of a new phase where the US is less able to intervene militarily. In sum, it will be a symbolisation of the decline of the US Empire.

Complete withdrawal or even troop reduction will loosen America’s historical grip over Kabul and ease the way for its regional competitors in the new Great Game, where several regional states are making strides in Afghanistan in their endeavours to build monopolies in Central Asia. For its huge oil, natural gas and mineral reserves, Central Asia has been the major theatre for the Great Game. The region includes Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and in a broader sense: Afghanistan, Northern Pakistan, Mongolia, and Northeast Asia. It has often been argued that the US intervention in Afghanistan post-9/11 was driven by a desire to establish a military foothold in Central Asia, to control the flow of energy from the region, prevent the building of pipelines from Iran and to strategically contain China. Hence, with the withdrawal in Afghanistan, the US will lose its strategic foothold in the region, which according to Halford Mackinder is the way towards controlling the world. This will ultimately allow the regional competitors, and particularly China to embolden their influence and advance their regional interests.

Given China’s interests, there is a likelihood that it will want to capitalise on the vacuum created by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Similarly, given the fact that Afghanistan will require a significant sum of money for infrastructure development to ensure a wave of sustainable peace in a post-withdrawal setup, China will be more able to take up the responsibility as compared to other regional competitors.

Although China has never supported an abrupt US withdrawal from Afghanistan, it still considers an increased US presence as a challenge to its interests there; particularly the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its new endeavours in Central Asia and a strategic encirclement of China by the US. The Chinese government has always been wary of any possible US victory resulting in a long-term Western presence in Afghanistan and a pro-US government installed in Kabul.

Today, China has set up its second overseas military base in northern Afghanistan in order to train Afghan brigades in counterterrorism efforts and has been attending multilateral peace discussions alongside Pakistan. It has also committed more aid to Afghanistan and is involved in mining activities in southern Kabul.

China’s new geopolitical approach is a combination of the “good neighbour” and “stabilisation of the periphery” policy. Furthermore, “stabilise the East, strengthen your position in the North, come down in the South, move forward in the West,” is one of the dictum presently guiding its foreign policy. That being said, the recent US’ Afghan policy could prove to be an opportunity enabling China to achieve its objectives guided by the aforementioned dictum. Its growing engagement in Afghanistan can be explained in terms of its interest in the erosion of Nato’s presence there, and the need to protect the transit security of the BRI.

All in all, the US-Afghan policy will enable China to strengthen its foothold in one of the major locations of the new Great Game today. With China being the regional great power, it shall in the future, play a responsible role in order to meet the abundant needs of a post-withdrawal Afghanistan making it a win-win scenario for both sides.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 22nd, 2019.

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