With the last soldier boarding the plane, the US war in Afghanistan is over, but the gruesome Kabul airport attack that claimed lives of 13 US service members and scores of Afghans was an appalling reflection of what lies ahead in terms of peace and stability in the war-ravaged country. The fact that Khorasan chapter of Islamic State claimed responsibility for this atrocious act has raised concerns for Taliban leadership and prompted the US President to issue a swift clarification “we are not done with you yet”. Nevertheless, the reality has set in for China and Pakistan, besides other regional stakeholders. Since the US decided its disorderly troops withdrawal from Afghanistan, China was explicitly critical about undue haste and accused the US of “leaving an awful mess” in Afghanistan that could potentially turn out to be an extremely chaotic law and order situation.
Following 9/11, the US invaded Afghanistan in its hot pursuit of perpetrators of the Twin Towers devastation and brought troops in China’s ‘backyard’ which was considered a threat for Chinese interests in the region. In the post-9/11 era, while Afghanistan was under US control, China did not appear to be keen for serious investment in Afghanistan and somehow held back its support to Afghanistan in view of the US presence in Afghanistan. That brings a point that China has to its credit “relative neutrality” with no uninvited involvement in Afghanistan.
China has all along been interacting both with the Kabul regime and Taliban representatives for advancing a peace process. With the beginning of Taliban’s diplomatic moves in Doha, China came to the forefront in terms of engagement with Taliban. Taliban representatives consistently visited Beijing and had discussions with senior Chinese officials and that engagement was suggestive that China might come forward with the idea of cooperation with Taliban provided their general conduct is reflective of choices of peoples of Afghanistan.
Now what lies ahead for China? Is it the time of a geopolitical reset of the region? The US withdrawal might be good news for China but has the ‘US factor’ diminished from the regional politics? Is it an opportunity for China to emerge as Afghanistan’s ‘new benefactor’ as some scholars in the US suggest? Have the regional impediments to China’s Belt and Road initiative been addressed? These are some of the questions that academia and policy circles in China should be deliberating on.
What lies ahead for China is huge and so is suggested by Zhou Bo in his essay in The New York Times, stating: “China is ready to step into void left by hasty US retreat to seize the golden opportunity.” China looks for peace and stability in Afghanistan that could be a precursor to the expansion of BRI to Central Asia and beyond. China assuredly expects no use of Afghan territory for militancy in Xinjiang province. China has enormous opportunities to help Afghanistan explore $2 trillion worth of natural resources and invest in transport infrastructure and energy sectors.
A geopolitical reset in the region has taken place as the US has withdrawn in haste and Taliban triumphed in Kabul. The US urging China and other regional powers for their role to address Afghanistan fiasco is also a sane realisation in Washington that regional issues should be left to the regional stakeholders to resolve.
China is ostensibly positioned to step into a void created by the US and allies. The ‘US factor’ in the region, however, is likely to stay as terrorist attacks by elements of Islamic State have drawn new lines between friends and foes, and the US will find it difficult to get out of this web any time soon. For China to play a role in Afghanistan, challenges like instability resulting into grave law and order situation, political uncertainty, legitimacy, new dimension of terrorism and colliding interests of regional and global powers would be an uphill journey. The region, however, looks up to China to make choices and lead in the interest of regional peace and stability.