The future of China-Afghanistan relations: Lessons from history

Ma Haiyun asserts that parallels between current events and Afghan geopolitics in the mid to late 18th century reveal the complexity of Afghanistan’s historical relations and the delicacy of contemporary Afghan-China relations. Even if an economy-for-security approach is used, various conditions will need to be met as China and other countries tread lightly.
Taliban fighters gather along a street during a rally in Kabul, Afghanistan on 31 August 2021. (Hoshang Hashimi/AFP)
Taliban fighters gather along a street during a rally in Kabul, Afghanistan on 31 August 2021. (Hoshang Hashimi/AFP)

The US’s abrupt military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the simultaneous re-formation of the Taliban government, and China’s emergence into Afghan affairs in many ways bears a certain parallel to Afghan geopolitics in the mid to late 18th century. This period in history witnessed the Iranian Afsharid dynasty’s retreat from western Afghanistan, the emergence of a unified Afghan empire from the south, and the Qing dynasty’s approach to Badakhshan from the east. Such a historical parallel not only reveals the complexity of historical relations between Afghanistan and its neighbours, in particular China, but also offers a historical mirror for contemporary Afghan-China relations. 

China’s security concerns magnified

China’s current concerns about Afghanistan are directly derived from the geographic proximity of its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) to Afghanistan, Transoxiana (covering modern-day Uzbekistan, western Tajikistan, western Kyrgyzstan, northwestern Turkmenistan and southern Kazakhstan), and the broader Central and South Asia regions. In history, an adjacent borderland entails both promising and problematic relations between East Asian powers and Central Asian polities in the Pamir plateau, as demonstrated in the 18th to 19th centuries. The Qing’s march into the West and the annexation of the Tarim basin in 1750s created unprecedented political, diplomatic, cultural and even military engagement with Muslim polities in Central Asia, especially Badakhshan, Afghanistan and Kokand

This file photograph taken on 7 October 2017 shows livestock grazing near the Chinese border in the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan. (Gohar Abbas/AFP)
This file photograph taken on 7 October 2017 shows livestock grazing near the Chinese border in the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan. (Gohar Abbas/AFP)

After eliminating the Zungarian Mongols in Northern Xinjiang, the Qing freed Muslim Sufi leaders of Afaqiyya or “White Mountain”, Khoja Jahan and Khoja Burhan al-Din, from the Mongol yoke, and instead intended to convert them as the Qing’s proxies in the Tarim region. As the descendants of the greatest masters of the Sufi Naqshbandi network stretching from Samarkand to Badakhshan to the Indian subcontinent, the Khoja brothers attempted to break the chain of non-Muslim rulership through armed rebellions. But oasis forces were quickly defeated and escaped to Badakhshan seeking refuge from the local Muslim ruler, Sultan Shah.

For fear of Qing general Zhao Hui’s invasion of Badakhshan, Sultan Shah executed the Khojas and handed over their corpses to the Qing, while the Khoja brothers’ descendants and followers fled further west to Mazar-i Sharif and eventually to the Kokand empire (1709-1876) in Central Asia. This near-Takfir (infidel) act of Sultan Shah outraged surrounding Muslim rulers and populations, especially the Afghan king, Ahmad Durrani and the Kunduz chieftain, Kabad Khan. Under the support of Ahmad Durrani, Kabad Khan conducted a punitive expedition against Badakhshan and executed Sultan Shah.  

The surviving descendants of the Khoja family repeatedly sought revenge on the Qing by attacking Qing frontiers, which came to a head in the early 19th century when Burhan al-Din’s grandson, Jahanghir, sacked Kashgaria. In order to keep Kashgarian revengers in Kokand, the Qing had to strike a deal with Kokand in the 1830s and granted Kokandi merchants extraterritorial rights in southern Xinjiang. But such a trade-for-peace relationship did not last long; over the next fifty years, Kokand-based forces frequently attacked and even temporarily occupied Kashgaria led by Atalik Ghazi, Yacub during the 1860s and 1870s. The repercussions of the Qing’s war with the Khoja brothers and Sufi Afaqiyya lasted in Xinjiang and Central Asia for more than a century.

The content and context of such diplomatic exchanges resemble, or if not are a revival of the early 19th century Kokand-Qing relationship, namely, exchanging material benefits for security.

History repeating itself?

Now a historical pattern is re-emerging in Afghanistan in the context of the Hanafi Taliban revival, the presence of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) or/and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, and China’s re-engagement with the country. 

In China-Taliban diplomacy and relations, the differences and priorities in their bilateral relationship are discernible. During the latest meeting with the Taliban representatives in Tianjin, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi wanted the Taliban to break ties with all terrorist groups, especially the ETIM, prioritising the security concerns over ETIM. The Taliban did not single out ETIM but repeated their promises and policies embodied in the Doha agreement that no one will use Afghan territory to launch attacks against anybody or any country.  Instead, the Taliban turned to economic issues and welcomed the Chinese investment in Afghanistan, highlighting the area of economic cooperation.

A Taliban fighter (centre) walks past shoppers along Mandawi market in Kabul on 1 September 2021. (Hoshang Hashimi/AFP)
A Taliban fighter (centre) walks past shoppers along Mandawi market in Kabul on 1 September 2021. (Hoshang Hashimi/AFP)

The content and context of such diplomatic exchanges resemble, or if not are a revival of the early 19th century Kokand-Qing relationship, namely, exchanging material benefits for security. This Kokand-Qing relational approach in many ways illustrates the potential future of China-Taliban relations.

Just like Kokandi rulers’ understanding of the importance of the Khoja descendants to Qing frontier security and the commercial/monetary benefits from the Qing as well as the political-religious sensitivity and risk of deporting the Kashgarian Muslims back to the non-Muslim Qing, the Taliban — as the self-claimed Mujahideen — are equally aware of the risks and rewards of doing so. This explains why the Taliban have never mentioned ETIM in their public meetings or briefings with China. Instead, the Taliban are focusing on economic cooperation between the two countries. Thus, Chinese security concerns about the ETIM and the Taliban priority of economic cooperation need to find a compromise: the Taliban will seek to manage and constrain the ETIM or/and TIP from attacking Chinese interests, while China will economically contribute to a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, in a modified and updated Kokand-Qing relationship that dates back to the early 19th century.

...the more unified, strong and stable is the Taliban government, the greater the likelihood they may hold to their promises. Therefore, for China and other countries, supporting the Taliban government at present is a preferred choice.

However, such an economy-for-security approach in future China-Afghanistan relations will be conditioned by several factors. First, the more unified, strong and stable is the Taliban government, the greater the likelihood they may hold to their promises. Therefore, for China and other countries, supporting the Taliban government at present is a preferred choice. That may explain why during his recent phone call with the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi highlighted the necessity of the international community, especially the US, to make contacts with and “positively guide” the Taliban.

The second factor depends on the amount and significance of the Chinese economic contribution to Afghanistan’s development and prosperity, and the extent that it can root out the economic cause of the social violence in certain areas. The third factor is how China manoeuvres this economy-for-security relationship in the wake of the rising ISIS-K (Islamic State Khorasan Province): the stronger pressure China imposes on the Taliban, the more likely that the hardliners within the Taliban and other militant groups will join with the ISIS-K. Such a dilemma requires China to downplay the ETIM abroad (just as the US does to al Qaeda) and revise its domestic policies in Xinjiang to focus on the more lethal ISIS-K threat in Afghanistan with global ambition. 

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