China is very active in Afghanistan one year after the U.S. withdrawal — Q&A with Niva Yau

Politics & Current Affairs

Niva Yau is a Hong Kong–born scholar who lives in Kyrgyzstan, from where she observes China’s relationships with its western neighbors. She told me all about Beijing’s business in Kabul a year after America pulled out of Afghanistan.

Illustration by Nadya Yeh

U.S. President Joe Biden pulled American troops and diplomats out of Afghanistan almost exactly one year ago: On August 15, 2021, “Taliban insurgents entered the Afghanistan capital Kabul on Sunday, an interior ministry official said, as the United States evacuated diplomats from its embassy by helicopter.”

With the U.S. completely out of the picture, what is China doing in Afghanistan? How can the Chinese Communist Party work with the Taliban, an extremist Islamic organization?

To answer these questions and talk about much more, I called up Niva Yau, a Hong Kong–born scholar who lives in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where she is a senior researcher at the OSCE Academy. Yau’s scholarship is focused on China’s foreign policy, trade, and security in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

Yau says China has multiple goals in Afghanistan, including regional trade and stability, making sure exiled Uyghurs don’t find a haven for organizing against China, and making the U.S. look bad.

We chatted by video call at the end of July. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Jeremy Goldkorn

My impression is that China has gone all in with the Taliban. Is that correct? And could you explain a little bit about what Beijing seems to be thinking about Afghanistan?

I think it’s not that China wants to go all in. Afghanistan, with the Taliban leadership right now, is in a very isolated position because of Western sanctions and lack of engagement with the regime. There was a lot of thought that the Taliban will not be able to manage the country. They will not be able to manage the Taliban in-fights that they have. The country would descend into another civil war..

China came in at a time when the Taliban was really desperate for cooperation and partnership, particularly in humanitarian aid. And that was very evident at the end of last year when the winter was approaching: The first batch of humanitarian aid that China delivered was blankets, coal, and food. The Taliban leadership was in a very vulnerable position, and so they asked for China’s help.

Neighboring countries like Iran and Turkmenistan were also giving humanitarian aid but China looked at this from a very special angle. The world was already criticizing American policy on Afghanistan. China was able to hop on this ride and dig a little bit deeper and say, “Look, China’s actually doing something that helps Afghanistan.” You had Chinese military jets delivering humanitarian aid, along with direct images that were being used to compare with images of American military jets leaving the country.

I think the propaganda element is definitely something that interests the Chinese side a lot. Apart from that, it’s also a special opportunity to strengthen its image in the region as well as with regional partners.

And is that working, do you think? Is China strengthening its image in Central Asia?

I think it is effective to some extent. Central Asia was relatively stable in the past 20 years, but this year, there are a lot of changes. We have a new Turkmen president. Even though he is the son of the long-term president, this is still quite new. People are waiting to see what his policies may be. He invited Modi, India’s prime minister, as the first head of state to visit Ashgabat after he became president. People didn’t really quite expect that and they were speculating whether or not this means that there will be changes in Turkmen foreign policy, particularly regarding TAPI, the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India gas pipeline, because that will divert a lot of gas sales away from China and introduce India as the next partner for Turkmenistan.

We still don’t know what’s going on because now Turkmenistan is also selling gas to Europe via Iran and Azerbaijan.

Kazakhstan also has had a very sharp consolidation of the new leadership. Apart from that, some unstable issues were brewing in the autonomous region in the western part of Uzbekistan. And of course, directly north of Afghanistan, we have Tajikistan: Their leaders are vocally opposing the Taliban because of the large ethnic Tajik population that’s living in Afghanistan.

Plus, Tajikistan has another autonomous region in the east side, whose population is not Tajik, but Pamiri [an Eastern Iranian ethnic group]. That area also has ongoing new problems this year. Many reports say people are being murdered and slaughtered by Tajik intelligence services. All of these new regional Central Asian issues are something that are occupying the minds of central Asian leaders.

There’s also the impact from Russia and the sanctions and the war on Ukraine, particularly with Kazakhstan, which is now genuinely worried about potential threats from Russia, and has increased their military defense budget by 50%. Now, I’m saying all these things because I want to put the context of how and why it affects Afghanistan: Afghanistan is not the most important issue right now. And that plays a very important role in whether or not China is effectively portraying this regional peacekeeper image.

I think that, given all these problems, no one has time to deal with Afghanistan, its problems, and all the spillover effects coming from it. China is actually, in that sense, quite effective because China is the only one that’s able to put everybody on the table, draft these agendas, and think what needs to be done at a time when nobody has the mental space to really think about their engagement with Afghanistan. The regional countries have a set scope of things that they’re willing to do. Trade is something they’re happy to do with Afghanistan, in the sense of using the country as a transit route to trade with Pakistan, and therefore earn money with Pakistani and Indian businesses.

But Chinese goals in Afghanistan are a little bit more than that. It’s not just about trade — it’s about image, it’s about a long-term strategy in connecting the region and their role in it. There’s a lot of talk about mining and resource extraction in Afghanistan, but none of those things can exist without the basic infrastructure, like roads, electricity lines, all those things. Only China is discussing that with Afghanistan.

In one of your recent published articles, you talk about China’s interest in getting the Taliban fully on board regarding issues related to Xinjiang. I suppose the obvious thing is it doesn’t want Uyghur militants in Afghanistan, but can you explain in a bit of detail what Beijing’s specific goals are when it talks to Kabul regarding Xinjiang?

I think the Uyghur issue is one problem, but is also a deeper layer of the one big issue that China is incredibly worried about when it comes to Taliban leadership: How much of their so-called policy in Afghanistan will be driven by Islam? And what kind of Islam? And how radical would this Islamic principle be?

There was [Chinese talk] that Afghanistan should establish a more stable, more realistic Islamic policy that is in line with the modern world — this sort of vocabulary. They used to have that kind of language in the Chinese press when they talked about Afghanistan. But after the Taliban leadership established itself, basically since August last year, this sort of vocabulary has just completely vanished.

There was no more talk about stable, manageable Islamic policy. The talk now is much more focused on vocabularies that are like, no support for East Turkestan movement, no support for Xinjiang separatism — all the vocabularies that are actually found in the 1990s when China first established relations with Central Asian states.

What this looks like to me is that China is at step one with what they negotiated with Central Asian leaders back in the ‘90s, of really establishing this understanding of what the region, Xinjiang, means. And of course, that means it is part of China. China rules that piece of land. They don’t want people to frame that narrative as colonization, of moving Han Chinese people to that region, and extracting resources from Xinjiang.

The problem with why the Chinese side is so concerned about the Islamic and the religious element in Afghanistan is because it is not just the Uyghurs that are present in Afghanistan. It’s the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, and other ethnic minorities. I’ve heard from some Afghan experts that the Taliban actually know what’s going on in China because they’ve heard from the people that left Xinjiang.

China is extremely concerned about that. And when you read what Chinese scholars write about Afghanistan since August last year, you can see this concern. It’s almost set in stone the idea that look, the Taliban are going with this radical Islamic policy. It is a direct threat to China’s Xinjiang policy. This is something that Chinese policymakers need to keep in mind. There is very little that the Taliban can actually promise with regards to that.

I think, particularly, with the Taliban’s story of winning against the imperialists — the Americans and the Russians, and the British, all those foreigners that came before — they really understand the narrative that Xinjiang is colonized by the Chinese. This is a narrative that would appeal in a place like Afghanistan, but not Central Asia. Why? Because Central Asia is still a region that doesn’t quite see the Soviet Union as “colonization.” Central Asians don’t see their relationship with Russia as one that is like India and Great Britain. That’s where the first layer of the problem is. And then the second layer of the problem that the Chinese side has been trying to track and request to monitor the presence of ethnic Uyghurs that are in Afghanistan.

And these are people who, some of them many years ago, were recruited from Xinjiang to join certain groups and missions. These are people that have been working alongside other ethnic minorities in Afghanistan, fighting alongside each other. They’re not just men, right? They’re also women that are married to other ethnic groups in Afghanistan, the children as well. These are the people that the Chinese side are constantly trying to monitor. And this is not just in Afghanistan, right? This is everywhere in the region.

This is the multi-tier problem. To be quite honest, there is nothing that the Taliban can practically deliver that can really satisfy what China is so concerned about with the ethnic minorities in Afghanistan.

You talk about how the Central Asian states were secularized. But how about ethnic identity? Because of course, aside from Uyghurs, Xinjiang has quite a substantial Kazakh population, ethnic Kazakh, also Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz.

What is the sentiment in Central Asia regarding China’s treatment of all the ethnic minorities in Xinjiang at the moment?

I think identity based on ethnicity is a little bit of a different picture across the region. So, Kazakhstan, for example, would be the country that places the most significance on ethnicity when it comes to nationhood formation since 30 years ago. Kazakhstan has an idea that because of the large population of ethnic Russians that they have in North Kazakhstan, since the 1990s, they have had programs to repopulate Kazakhstan with Kazakhs. This is not just Kazakhs from China, but Kazakhs from other parts of the world, from Uzbekistan, from Turkey, etc. to go back to Kazakhstan and become Kazakh citizens. Actually, if you are ethnic Kazakh, it’s very easy to become a Kazakh citizen within a couple of years, especially if you’re young and you’re educated.

For Kazakhstan, the idea that, ‘oh, there is a Kazakh, a brother who is suffering overseas’, is much more appealing of a concept than somebody who is, say ethnic Kyrgyz, and is suffering overseas, and you’re telling the story to somebody who’s from Bishkek.

I’ve been doing a study trying to understand this propaganda show about Xinjiang that China inserted to the Kyrgyz National TV, which has been running and paid to insert to national TV over the past 20 years. And this propaganda program, of course, talks about Xinjiang like it’s the most wonderful place in the world. It shows ethnic minorities doing really well there, and is produced in Kyrgyz language and everything. Recently, I started talking to a lot of people about this program. A conversation with this woman stood out to me the most because when I asked her, what is her impression of Xinjiang? She said, “I don’t know, where is it? Is it a village in China?”

And it dawned on me then, the understanding of Xinjiang in this region is just completely wiped off, not just by the Chinese, but also by the Russians in the Soviet time. The idea that there are Kyrgyz people across the border in the Eastern side, and that these people are not considered as the Kyrgyz that are from Kyrgyzstan. These are people considered as Chinese. So, there are Kyrgyz people in Kyrgyzstan that will refer to these people as Chinese. Opposition to the current Kyrgyz President Japarov created a big fuss about his “Chinese-ness” because his parents were born across the border in China, they called him Chinese during the election. Yes, they are ethnic Kyrgyz, but they’re from China. Therefore, they are Chinese. They don’t speak Russian. They don’t share the same culture, same background. They don’t look at Russia with the same sort of admiration and aspiration to go to Moscow and go to Russia.

The cultural differences are huge. The ethnicity here carries very little meaning when it comes to China. And therefore, these people do not really have sympathy for each other. Five, six years ago, there was a lot of news and a lot of coverage here about Uyghurs in China, how they’re suffering, and how there were, I think the list was some 60 or 80 ethnic Kyrgyz, that were from China. They were studying in Bishkek, and one summer they all went home and they just disappeared.

These cases were all over the media. People were talking about it, but at the end of the day, Kyrgyz people were talking about this news as if it were happening in a very faraway place. It was not the kind of sentiment that people would place on something that is happening within Kyrgyzstan. I think the identity and the sympathy is much more placed among groups that are actually of their own land. And once it’s across the border, even though it’s the same ethnicity, it’s a very different case.Then again, Kazakhstan is an exception here.

Sometimes I would contrast this as comparing different Chinese people in the diaspora. We cannot say that the Hong Kong Chinese would necessarily feel for Singaporean Chinese, even though we are, at the end of the day, Chinese people, but we are separated in two different places. We grew up very differently. Our thinking is very different.

We do not identify. That’s the picture unfortunately. And that’s the picture that we really need to understand in order to think about how to engage with Central Asian countries when it comes to Xinjiang issues.

This is maybe impossibly broad to answer, but how are the Central Asian countries looking at China now?

Is there a sense of discomfort with China’s power and wealth? Or is China becoming more like — you alluded to Central Asians looking up to Russia and wanting to go to Moscow — is China becoming something that is worthy of admiration, or is it something to be feared?

I realize I’m asking you about a bunch of different countries and vastly different people.

Yeah, I mean, I think 2008 was a very serious turning point for Central Asian perception of China. I think the Olympics was absolutely something that wowed a lot of people in the region. And when you talk to the people in the region about China, they take the 2008 Olympics as something that really showed what China is capable of.

Before 2008, of course, the country was perceived as not a very rich country. Before 2008, this region was flooded with bad quality Chinese products. T-shirts that you pull and they just break off. Toys that are harmful to children.

People’s perception of China was damaged by these sorts of things. But then, 2008 came, and people actually saw, oh, wait a minute, China’s actually capable. It’s just that we are poor and we can’t afford the nice things that China makes. At the leadership level, there were a lot of Central Asian leaders and government officials that went to the 2008 Olympics. And that trip was something that changed a lot of how they perceived Chinese governance. And this was when China was really trying to push for certain governance styles in Central Asia, particularly regarding security issues. So, the perception has definitely changed over time, but right now, it’s tilting towards different directions.

The views are not polarized. I would say, actually most people, their perception of China is in the middle. There are factors that will really push them to think positively of China, but there are also very serious factors that will push them to be negative towards China. And people are aware of those two factors.

The positive factors are the economic benefits of trading with China. This region shares a long border. So, a lot of people engage in just petty import-export trade. They used to go to China a lot. Their children would study in China. They used to find a job in China. And so, they know the country firsthand and they understand, because of cheap labor and productivity, they can actually make a lot of money in China if they speak a little bit of Chinese. They understand that China brings a lot of opportunities.

But the negative things, they also are very, very much concerned about. And that’s not the Xinjiang issue at all. What they’re really worried about is the debt issue and the potential of losing their own land, their sovereignty, and how assets could potentially be taken away because of the loans and the failure to repay these loans, because it happened before in Tajikistan. And it happened 10 years ago in Kyrgyzstan when the then president allegedly made a corrupt bad deal and gave away parts of Kyrgyz mountains, which contains the source of a river that feeds into southern Xinjiang.

When you only focus on the positive aspects, the person could sound like they are quite favorable of China, but then if you talk about the other negative aspects, they can also talk about it as if they have this genuine hatred. It’s very interesting. Nobody has a set view, per se, on China. There is no collective decision on how to look at China yet. I think right now is a critical period.

I would like to end this by bringing back what I said earlier about the regional changes and the regional instability, right? I said the new president in Turkmenistan invited Modi as the first head of state to visit Ashgabat. Now, Turkmenistan is a country that, in the past 30 years, experienced first, trading oil and gas with Iran.

And then Iran got Western sanctions. Turkmenistan had zero budget in their government because it’s a country that heavily relies on exporting oil and gas. When Iran was sanctioned, they had to find a new buyer, so they went to Russia. When Russia was sanctioned, they went to China. Now, from a Turkmen perspective, they are genuinely worried about China being the next target of Western sanctions. Because of that, they are now actively looking for diversification. They want to sell to India, they want to sell to Europe. They are opening these talks.

What I’m trying to say is that Central Asia is very pragmatic. The Xinjiang issue is very important and has to be dealt with from a regional perspective. I completely agree with that. But we have to understand what this region cares about in order to make them understand why Xinjiang is important.

Invited to Tea with Jeremy Goldkorn is a weekly interview series. Previously: 

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