[Column] China’s Great Game in “empty fort” of Afghanistan

Posted on : 2021-07-20 17:19 KST Modified on : 2021-07-20 17:19 KST
While China has been getting a free ride on American efforts in Afghanistan, it will now have to shoulder the burden
US Marines in Afghanistan (Yonhap News photo archives)
US Marines in Afghanistan (Yonhap News photo archives)

The Greeks under Alexander the Great, the Muslims of the Caliphate, the Mongols under Genghis Khan, the British Empire, the Red Army of the Soviet Union, the Americans, and now the Chinese — all have been enticed to enter Afghanistan, known as the “graveyard of empires.” All previous empires have faced a similar fate in the country. Occupation has gone swiftly but then given way to disaster as the fierce resistance of the locals saps the empire’s strength.

Powers that have invaded Afghanistan since the early modern period — the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the US — have been responding to a national security crisis created when a power vacuum formed in Afghanistan, which was supposed to serve as a buffer zone.

The British invaded Afghanistan to block Russia’s southern advance; the Soviets invaded to prevent the security crisis that would result from the collapse of a socialist regime there; the US invaded both to punish Al-Qaeda, the group behind the 9/11 terror attacks, and to prevent Afghanistan from turning into a base for terrorism. In all three cases, the invaders eventually withdrew after suffering a terrible disaster.

Now that American troops are pulling out of Afghanistan, another power vacuum is forming. This time around, it’s China that’s bending its ear to the siren song. Both perils and opportunities glimmer before China.

After the Soviets invaded, Afghanistan served as a buffer zone against China. China was an active player in Mujahideen’s struggle against the Soviets, a struggle sponsored by the US. China supplied weapons to the Mujahideen fighters, too.

During that process, China was able to expand its influence into Central Asia by way of Afghanistan. Even during the repressive rule of the Taliban that followed the Soviet withdrawal, Chinese prostitution rings were the first to set up operations in Kabul.

When the Americans invaded Afghanistan, it gave China a chance to expand its influence while allowing the Americans to shoulder the burden of stabilizing the region and rein in Islamist forces in and near Afghanistan.

The Chinese have secured rights to develop the Mes Aynak copper mine and the Amu Darya oil field, both in Afghanistan. Indeed, Afghanistan has become a crucial country in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the project aimed at expanding China’s national influence.

While China has been getting a free ride on American efforts in the region, it will now have to shoulder the burden.

China’s frustration and annoyance were evident when Hua Chunying, spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, appealed back in May for “foreign countries with troops stationed in Afghanistan” to “withdraw in a responsible manner to avoid causing any more suffering or anxiety to the people of Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that pulling troops out of Afghanistan would help the US concentrate its resources on challenges such as COVID-19 and containing China.

This is an example of the Empty Fort Strategy — emptying a fort and luring the enemy in. That is, the US is withdrawing from Afghanistan with the hope that China will enter.

The empty fort itself isn’t necessarily a trap in this strategy. The Taliban, which seem likely to take over the empty fort of Afghanistan, are inviting China as a “welcome friend.”

“What we are not going to do is interfere in China’s internal affairs,” a spokesperson for the Taliban told the Wall Street Journal, confirming that the Taliban won’t intervene in China’s crackdown on Islamist groups seeking independence for the Uighurs of Xinjiang.

One of the key projects in China’s Belt and Road Initiative is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which consists of US$62 billion worth of infrastructure, including highways, railroads, and pipelines. After the US announced it would be withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, China has been negotiating with Afghanistan about extending the corridor into the country.

If the empty fort of Afghanistan proves to be not a trap but a base for China, it could reset the balance of power in Eurasia. China could bring stability to Afghanistan and its neighbors and also link Central Asia to the coast of the Indian Ocean and the Fertile Crescent. That could create a genuine anti-American coalition between China, Russia and Iran, a scenario that American strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski regarded as the biggest threat to American hegemony.

But stability in Afghanistan isn’t necessarily desired by all of its neighbors. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the former president of Pakistan who orchestrated support for the Mujahideen’s struggle against the Soviet Union, once said that “the pot should be kept boiling” in Afghanistan.

Pakistan hopes to use conflict in Afghanistan to maintain fluidity and increase pressure on India in its Kashmir territory, an area also claimed by Pakistan. And given India’s rivalry with China, India now has a reason to provoke conflict in Afghanistan. Instability in Afghanistan now puts more pressure on China than on India.

During the Afghan Civil War, India supported the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance against the Taliban, along with Russia and Iran. Russia and Iran want stability in Central Asia, but they won’t unilaterally accept the influence of the Taliban and China.

Even Turkey has offered to take over security at the Kabul International Airport once the US military withdraws.

As China becomes the latest empire to be enticed into the empty fort of Afghanistan, a 21st-century version of the Great Game is playing out that will determine whether Afghanistan remains the “graveyard of empires.”

By Jung E-gil, senior staff writer

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