Beijing’s Afghanistan Misadventure

Srikanth Kondapalli

Last month’s attack on Chinese nationals at a hotel in Kabul has rattled Beijing. For it had hoped to overcome the “graveyard of empires” and reap the benefits of its resources as well as fill the geopolitical vacuum in Afghanistan.

The December 12 attack by the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) on Longan Hotel, which housed scores of Chinese nationals, left five Chinese national seriously injured and four militants dead. This followed a series of attacks on Pakistani and Russian missions and on the airport. It took more than a month for the new Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang to call his Taliban counterpart Amir Khan Muttaqi to urge “strong measures” to protect “Chinese personnel, institutions, and projects” in the country.

The ISKP’s renewed focus on China comes as the Taliban is seen moving close to Beijing. China has also been close to the Taliban’s interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani and his faction in the Taliban over the past two decades. However, Beijing has not officially recognized the Taliban regime.

The Taliban has promised not to allow terrorist attacks on others from Afghan soil, but it is unable to keep its word at a time when Afghanistan is teeming with terrorist and militant groups — the ISKP, Al Qaeda, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Balochistan Liberation Army and others – and all of them are attempting to recruit or poach cadres.

The violent attacks at Dasu hydro-electricity dam, Karachi Confucius Centre, Gwadar port, and other areas signal the rise in militancy in Pakistan-Afghanistan. China’s gambit of softening the leaders in these countries through investments is thus not working.

Nevertheless, China is enticing Kabul to link up with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor by proposing to build cross-border railway networks from Peshawar to Kabul and Quetta to Kandahar. Beijing is also using the trilateral cooperative arrangement with Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2017 to extend CPEC to Afghanistan.

However, with India opposing CPEC projects, Afghanistan has been circumspect about them. The June 2004 attack on Chinese railway workers at Had Bakshi, when 11 of them were killed, is fresh in China’s memory.

China signed in June 2012 a “strategic cooperative partnership” with Afghanistan. It also signed an MoU with Afghanistan on the Belt and Road Initiative in May 2016. In April 2019, Beijing signed a BRI energy

cooperation agreement with Afghanistan. Last year, Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co and the Afghan government signed a $540 million agreement to drill for oil in the Amu Darya basin and to create an oil reserve in Sar-e Pul province.

Several Chinese companies are keen to invest in Afghanistan. The 14th Bureau of China Railway, the 19th Metallurgical, Huawei, ZTE, and Zhengtong Construction Engineering have all participated in the construction of Afghanistan’s telecoms, power transmission, water, and road projects. China’s Shuangdeng Group has signed a 5.5-MW photovoltaic project contract in Daikondi province.

But several factors, such as lack of connectivity to the resource-producing areas, scarcity of water and power, and the high operating costs for Chinese companies, hamper China’s efforts. The rise in militancy means that these companies have to pay “protection” money to different central and local governments, militants, and warlords. Life is scary for Chinese workers in the eight most vulnerable provinces in Afghanistan.

China is taking countermeasures to counter the slide in the security situation. It has begun construction of the crucial $5-million road through Wakhan Corridor that connects to Xinjiang. It is also financing a military base in the bordering Badakhshan province, hoping to create a buffer zone.

China also intends to tie down Afghanistan in a mesh of multilateral arrangements such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation dialogue mechanism on Afghanistan; Himalayan Quadrilateral with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nepal, or in a quadrilateral with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. However, none of these initiatives have helped Beijing make much headway.

China provided military equipment and training to the Mujahideen during the anti-Soviet days of the 1980s. In post-Soviet Afghanistan, Beijing kept the Taliban, Al Qaeda (specifically, the Hekmatyar group) and the Pakistani ISI close, with the bottom line that they would not aid the Uighur insurgency in Xinjiang. It also helped Taliban and Pakistan’s efforts in the Panjshir attacks.

However, as the surge in attacks on Chinese interests shows, Beijing’s efforts seem to be faltering. The Longan Hotel attack in Kabul last month could be the harbinger of a new type of militancy in the region. Beijing’s myopic view and double standards on terrorism may be backfiring.

The article was first published by Deccan Herald as In Afghanistan, China’s Double-Dealing is Coming Back to Bite It on January 29, 2023.

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  • Srikanth Kondapalli

    Dean, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.

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