Western media and experts generally view developments in regions that have been the targets of imperial ambitions from a perspective of relations among Big Powers in the Great Game. In this geopolitical vision, such regions are often viewed as void or devoid of the content of their own, waiting to be filled or acted upon. As a result, since the 19th century, we rarely get a glimpse of the actual happenings, internal dynamics, and contingent outcomes of actors in such regions beyond the demands and expectations of imperial powers. This dynamic, while embracing the Big Power policies in these regions, is not reducible to it.
Afghanistan has been such a region. While many wars have been fought by imperial powers to establish control over it, analyses – at least in the West – remains that of a string of failed expectations on the part of imperial powers, leaving us with a theatre of age-old stereotypes – wild, unbeatable tribesmen, corrupt politicians, and religious fanatics. Afghanistan remains an enigma, a continual threat to be conquered.
Here, following yet another end to an occupation in the summer of 2021 and the country on the brink of chaos, in the first of two essays for Gateway House, I will try to tell the story of Afghanistan by looking beyond stereotypes, by weaving together the concerns of outside powers (most notably of China, Russia, and the U.S.) with those of local actors. The latter group of actors is not reducible to the former as they retain a certain autonomy and are often capable of unexpectedly changing the course of events charted out for them in the Global Game.
A Global Game in Flux
Is Afghanistan simply a security issue? Should security be the end or the means to establish a stable political and social environment in Afghanistan?
We start with a focus on China. What does China’s inclusion in the power game in Asia, with a geopolitical vision remarkably different from that of the West, mean for the developments in Afghanistan?
Themes of rivalry between China and the U.S., of China’s readiness to fill the void left by the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan, dominate accounts of recent developments in that country. Often reflecting the opinions of the geopolitical establishment, the Western media is awash with titles such as:
“How Afghanistan rattled Asia and Emboldened China“- BBC, 21 August 2021
“As the US exits Afghanistan, China eyes 1 trillion in minerals“- Al Jazeera, 24 August 2021
“In Afghanistan, China is ready to step into the void”- New York Times, 20 August 2021
“China will be well-placed to reap rewards in Afghanistan“- The National, 13 August 2013
The depiction of U.S.-China relations in these accounts that view this relationship simply in terms of a rivalry to the exclusion of co-existence on the ground in Afghanistan and elsewhere is questionable. Related to this and equally questionable are the depictions of China’s readiness to replace the U.S. in Afghanistan, as is the contention that the U.S. has given up all its claims in Afghanistan or elsewhere in the region by pulling out its troops. This amounts to a problematisation of the Great Game as it is being recast in light of China’s prominence in the global economy.
Is China that eager to replace the U.S., its military presence in Afghanistan, or even take on the U.S. over Afghanistan? Has the perception of U.S.-China relations in terms of rivalry led to ignoring the reality of the co-existence of these two powers in different parts of the world?
The answer to the first question regarding Chinese willingness is: not really. China treads very carefully in approaching the Taliban’s return and is most reluctant to step into American shoes. It is true that China has been responsive to the Taliban’s call for “friendly and cooperative relations with China” and recognised the Taliban by giving it diplomatic legitimacy in return for the promise that the Taliban will not support the activities of the Islamic movement in Xinjiang. It should be remembered that China has dealt with the Taliban earlier, making an agreement with it in 2001, for economic reconstruction, and in 2000, to demand that jihadists would not support the Islamic secessionist movement in Xinjiang. More importantly, however, the Chinese government has seen Afghanistan as a quagmire in which other Great Powers got entrapped. Beijing does not appear to want to be a part of the “Great Game” at the centre of Eurasia. In the words of Qian Feng, director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University, “The truth is that China does not want to play cards in Afghanistan nor does it want to seek any geopolitical expansion.”
This position is in keeping with China’s general approach to geopolitics since the 1990s: not spreading itself too thin, with a military concentration in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean targeting India.
How so? Co-existence over Confrontation
For one thing, scenarios of exclusive rivalry and Chinese eagerness to replace the U.S. in Afghanistan or elsewhere rest on a binary vision of world geopolitics, casting China in opposition to the U.S., East in opposition to the West, despotic East contrasted with democratic West, an impoverished, economically backward East contrasted with an economically prosperous West, etc. This perception that dates back to the 19th century, to the establishment of European world domination, enjoyed a revival, first, during the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and then again in the 1990s under the American hegemony in the global economy. It cast the U.S. as the carrier of democracy, freedom, law, and economic development to a deprived East.
In the context of the War on Terror in the 2000s, this binary perception of world geopolitics was directed towards Islam. However, since the 2008 economic crisis of the developed economies in the face of China’s rise to economic prominence in the global economy, formulations reminiscent of the Cold War rhetoric of the 1950s and 1960s surfaced, contrasting Chinese authoritarianism with Western democracy. For instance, MIT economist Daron Acemoglu declared – in a highly defensive tone – that no matter how economically advanced China or other Asian regions are, they will always be lacking the democratic institutions and the rule of law institutions that are deeply rooted in the West’s history. Nevertheless, given the multiple interdependencies in trade, technology, and data, the Biden administration is treading carefully not to slip into the Cold War rhetoric, which is very much in the air in the media and academia.
Yet, China did things differently. It made its investment policy decisions on a case-by-case basis. It did not go along with bloc decisions, nor were these decisions made through reference to general principles claiming to be strictly guided by economic rather than ideological or political concerns. China has been known to support both sides of the conflicts: Israel-Palestine, Iran-U.S., Egypt-Israel, Ethiopia-Egypt on the GERD – the list goes on. Instead of uprooting the political structures in the countries in which it made investments, China chooses to work with existing regimes. It was not on a civilising mission.
Furthermore, China has been low-key in its dealing with the U.S. and its European rivals. This is notwithstanding China’s recent Wolf Warrior position of public engagement of the Chinese officials with the categories or attributes such as authoritarianism that the West attributes to China.
Power-sharing rather than Claiming Absolute Power
Back to China’s relations with the U.S.: the Chinese position has been one of a sharing of power in the global world economy rather than a claiming of absolute power that involves putting out a large military force on the ground. It is important to note that China has been a beneficiary of the American security network worldwide. China has largely depended on the U.S. military presence for securing its investments, most notably in infrastructure, such as the building of roads, ports, and railways across Eurasia that link China to Europe and as well as to Africa. For instance, in Pakistan, which China owns with more than $60 billion of investment, there are as many as 27 U.S. bases. In addition to the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan, efforts of NATO and the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan have helped secure Chinese investments in Central Asia, especially in Turkmenistan and in a more limited way in Afghanistan, where direct investments are relatively small at $400 million.
Such cooperation could also be seen on the U.S. side under the Obama administration, which saw Chinese investments as a way of creating revenues for Afghanistan and reducing its dependence on foreign donors. That dependence was significant considering the fact that 75%-80% of Afghanistan’s public expenditures amounting to $11 billion annually, came from foreign donors. Washington encouraged China to invest in the Aynak copper mines, a project that partly for reasons related to state policy in Afghanistan, did not get off the ground.
Here, it should be noted that China had refused to contribute troops to the international security force (ISAF) in Afghanistan when, in 2008, then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown suggested that it should do so. Qin Gang, then the spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry and currently the Chinese ambassador to Washington, made it clear that “with the exception of UN peacekeeping operations approved by the UN Security Council, China does not send troops abroad.” Nevertheless, there have been significant Chinese military training activities and the transfer of weapons to Pakistan. India will point to the extent of the Chinese military presence on its borders, in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
Nevertheless, China has preferred co-existence rather than confrontation with the West, simply because confrontation would be too costly. It would mean securitisation of its economy, as had been the case in the U.S. – a factor that led to the economic crisis in the U.S. Allowing the U.S. to take on the bill for security has greatly contributed to Europe’s, especially Germany’s and Japan’s, phenomenal growth in the post-war period and to China’s growth since the 1990s.
Afghanistan initially presaged other U.S. troop withdrawals in Africa and in Europe, which is a favoured site for Chinese investments. China will not welcome the costs of securing its investments. Right now, the Chinese government is embarking on its community prosperity project, addressing the unsustainable levels of inequality in wealth and income, as well as the regional inequalities in China. At a time when economic growth is sluggish, it could be said that Xi Jinping might miss America in Afghanistan!
New Ways of Exercising Global Hegemony: From Troop Presence to Sanctions
With the withdrawal of the final patch of American troops in Afghanistan, the world is witnessing the crystallisation of a dramatic change in the very tone of American global policy which has been underway for some time now – starting with the missteps under Obama, continuing with Trump’s outburst, and under Biden desperately seeking to maintain his hold in a world where the U.S. is only one of the global powers. The sea-change is from rule-bound globalism to an understanding of the management of individual economies bound together by multiple networks of investment and trade, on a case-by-case basis. This is a global economy of individual, rather than bloc, rivalries between countries and corporations, continually shifting alliances, and contingencies overtaking assumed structural certainties. What we see is perhaps a Sinicisation of governance, a prioritisation of policies responding to particular situations on the part of individual countries or governments. It also means attempts on the part of governments to reign in the power of global mega-corporations. Above all, this points to a situation of intensive rivalry among individual countries, exposing their red lines with a potential to turn into a military confrontation (in the Chinese case, it is Uyghurs and Taiwan; in the case of the U.S., it is its presence in the Pacific; and in the case of Russia, it is Ukraine).
The U.S. government is in a process of exploring new ways of exercising coercive authority over the Taliban government, for instance, through the manipulation of the ambiguities in the sanctions imposed on the Taliban. Manipulations from afar in the form of sanctions may result in subjecting trading activities and investment ventures to the approval of the U.S. Treasury through a system of licensing. If put into effect, such a system would give the U.S. government the ability to exercise control not only over the Taliban’s or its government’s activities, or both but also over those countries or corporations trading with or investing in Afghanistan by confronting them with the legal and financial risk of sanctions. While this may give the U.S. a say in who trades with whom, it is also known that in the past China has found ways of working with or around U.S. sanctions in a number of countries, including Iran.
Another measure of exerting control from afar is through the confiscation of Afghan foreign exchange reserves in American banks. Following the withdrawal of the American troops, the U.S. administration froze Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves of $7 billion deposited in the New York Federal Bank. The Taliban demanded the immediate unfreezing of the funds much-needed in Afghanistan where, according to the UN, more than half of the population is under threat of starvation.
Yet, the world is confronted with the shocking news on February 11 that the Biden administration decided to channel $3.5 billion out of this fund in compensation to the victims of 9/11, with the other $3.5 billion to be returned to Afghanistan as humanitarian aid. This splitting of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves is difficult to comprehend in view of 90% of Afghanistan’s population being below the poverty line and unable to meet basic subsistence, its people are resorting to the sale of their organs or sending out young children to beg or acquire much-needed cash.
The Biden administration’s policy of engaging with economic tools for realizing foreign policy and overall national security objectives prioritises the private sector. In the case of sanctions, they are designed by the government and implemented by – both profit-making and non-profit – private enterprises, domestic and international NGOs (including the United Nations) that sell or deliver goods and services or are prevented from doing so by sanctions. As a result, private sector actors and their behaviour become important in “leveraging and calibrating sanctions” in the service of broader foreign policy and security ends. Meanwhile, the economy of Afghanistan has collapsed, its financial system is not functioning to finance private business.
It will be interesting to see how China will deal with the issue of sanctions in Afghanistan since the Taliban views China as its economic lifeline to re-build the war-torn country, to invest in its mineral resources. What about the economic lever which this provides to China in its dealings with the Taliban, to the Chinese state-owned enterprises and private corporations with an opportunity to invest in Afghanistan’s infrastructure, linking it to the Belt and Road project, and in its rich mineral resources of copper, cobalt, and lithium? It could also be an opportunity to unite investments in Afghanistan and Pakistan, isolating India. Will all these advantages and opportunities which the Taliban government could provide to Chinese business, be left to the mercy of the decisions taken at the U.S. Treasury? If China wants to contest this, what would be the channels for contestation and negotiation?
Tensions under the Taliban do not bode well for the security of future Chinese investments in Afghanistan. The ISIS attacks at the Kabul airport just as the U.S. troops were withdrawing, points to the limits of security the Taliban can provide. Nor do attacks on Shia mosques in Kandahar and elsewhere augur well for the future. It raises questions about whether or not the Taliban, with its new government of hardliners – interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani is on the FBI’s most-wanted list with a $5 million bounty on his head – will be able, or intends to, provide the kind of security investors would desire. Notwithstanding its initial promises, if the radical wing of the Taliban prevailed in Afghanistan, it may choose to prioritise a politics of terror in Afghanistan inspiring the Islamic movement in Xinjiang.
Despite the exchange of niceties between the Taliban leadership and Chinese officials, the Chinese government remains dubious about a role in Afghanistan, especially in light of the recent attacks on Chinese investments and Chinese nationals in Pakistan, which China owns. Pakistan could not protect Chinese investments and people from its own Taliban and Baluchi rebels. A radical wing in Afghanistan would be a destabilising force in Pakistan, linking with radical elements of the Pakistani Taliban.
Russian military and political escalation to re-institute control over former regions of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, and the rapprochement between China and Russia against the West will undoubtedly open up new possibilities for China in Middle Eurasia. For one, the new situation may suggest an emergence of a division of labour between China and Russia with China focusing on the economy, leaving the Russians to attend to the political and the military aspects of keeping the U.S. out of the region while at the same time drawing a wedge between the EU and the U.S. A concern to prevent the latter may be a factor in the Biden administration’s dramatic turn-about from its position against direct military involvement and rush to send troops to eastern Europe to reinforce the NATO forces against the Russian troop mobilisation on its border with Ukraine. China, bemused, is looking at the makings of a new global Great Game from the heights of the Olympics in Beijing.
I would like to thank Ipek Bayraktar for her assistance in preparing the final draft of this article.
Huricihan Islamoglu is Professor of Economic History, Bogazici University, Istanbul.
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 For the stability of its western borders and against the threat of East Turkistan Islamic Movement that conduct military training in non-controlled Afghan and Pakistani border territories, China became more proactive towards its Afghanistan and Pakistan policy.
 Ni, Vincent. (2021, August 17). China will tread carefully in navigating the Taliban’s return. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/17/china-will-tread-carefully-in-navigating-the-talibans-return
 In light of China’s rise to economic prominence in the global economy, significant shifts in power configurations within the West, as well as in the relations between the West and other world areas since the 2008 crisis, and now the coronavirus crisis, binary perception of world geopolitics seem out-dated. After all, that perception was premised on Western superiority and had long served to legitimate Western dominance in the world. Yet, this is not to say that this binary vision of the world confronting the East with the West and vice versa has entirely lost its appeal. We find the Western leadership, as well as the Western media, often slipping into the Cold War rhetoric version of that binary, casting totalitarian social against democratic capitalism. It is a habit, as well as nostalgia, for the days of unrivaled world hegemony. Regressing to Cold War rhetoric via Orientalist categories also speaks to a defensive position on the Western front. For instance, MIT economist Daron Acemoglu claims that, regardless of how economically successful China or other eastern economies become, the West will retain its superiority due to its democratic institutions that ensure individuals a say in their decisions that affect their lives, and due to its rule of law whereby individual rights and freedoms are protected by autonomous courts of law. These institutions, Acemoglu tells us, are rooted deeply in the history of the West and cannot be replicated elsewhere- forever providing the West a civilisational high ground. In a talk in Istanbul delivered in February 2020 at Bogaziçi University i, Acemoglu suggested that China pose a threat to Western values and its civilisation. A mirror image of this binary vision of the world and its history is also surfacing on the Chinese end. A discourse of Chinese uniqueness, on China having a moral high ground in the competition with the West, posing its policies in the global economy as being more cooperative and empathetic than the West’s is finding an audience in the Western academia. Once again, idealised images of the East and West are being contrasted- but this time to point to the Chinese superiority.
 Why does the Cold War rhetoric not hold? It is important to distance from these idealised images both from the Western and the Chinese sides and problematise them in view of the very nature of global interdependencies in communications and information technologies that link different regions in ways that defy the premises of former power politics during the Cold War era. That is, the complexity of relations between multi-layered interactions among different regions and different powers. Yet, this does not preclude the fact that co-existence between the two powers, or rivals, in the global economy would be continually negotiated, testing the limits of each powers’ capabilities. In other words, co-existence cannot be taken for granted.
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