China pushes Belt and Road for Afghanistan with an eye its interests in Central and South Asia

Politics & Current Affairs

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang met with top officials from Central and South Asia last week. While China’s influence in the region is growing, so are its security concerns.

Illustration by Derek Zheng for The China Project

China has embarked on a slew of diplomatic activity with Central and South Asian nations to shore up its strategic and security interests in the region.

The foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) convened in Goa, India, on May 5. China’s Foreign Minister Qín Gāng 秦刚 gave a five point proposal, calling for deepened cooperation among SCO members and urging them to exercise “strategic autonomy” to safeguard their interests and “oppose the attempts of external forces to interfere in regional affairs and plot ‘color revolutions’” — a nod to the anti-regime protest movements that took place in post-Soviet Eurasia during the early 21st century.

He also called upon the group to “continue to crack down hard” on the “three evils” — terrorism, extremism, and separatism — and to continue to support a stable Afghanistan. He specifically named the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which Beijing has long labeled a threat to China for stoking instability in the restive province of Xinjiang. (The U.S. State Department placed ETIM on its list of terrorist organizations in 2002, but removed it in 2020 saying it had “seen no credible evidence for more than a decade that the group still exists.”)

The foreign ministers meeting will set the stage for an SCO summit with the heads of member states in New Delhi on July 3-4, which Chinese leader Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to attend.

The SCO and China’s multipolar ambitions

The SCO is a political, security, and trade alliance that was created from the “Shanghai Five” forum in response to the Afghan civil war, and has always been sensitive to regional security risks, particularly from Afghanistan. It was officially founded in 2001, and now includes eight permanent members: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, and Pakistan. (India and Pakistan were inducted as full members in the first expansion of the organization in 2017.)

While many view the SCO as a China and Russia-led “anti-Western” force to counter U.S. influence in the region, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar dismissed those concerns when asked at the Goa summit, saying that “how people perceive it is something I cannot answer for.” He stressed India’s “multidirectional foreign policy” and said “it’s not always possible that all our partners get along with other partners.”

“The group has always looked a bit like a gathering of authoritarians, but it is increasingly also looking like a place where powers in conflict with the West can also gather,” Raffaello Pantucci​, senior fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told The China Project today.

Some have questioned the functional power of the SCO, but China has been eager to expand the group in a bid to build a “multipolar world.” Gulf states Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were two of the four countries that signed memorandums granting them dialogue partner status in the group on the sidelines of the Goa summit, the first step towards full membership. The other two were the Maldives and Myanmar.

In 2022, Iran signed a memorandum to become the SCO’s ninth permanent member state, with Belarus not far behind. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar — all three of which hold longstanding security ties to the U.S. — were also admitted as dialogue partners during that same meeting.

“It is important to note that a number of key Western allies are also members or trying to join, highlighting how the narrative which China is trying to shape which is that the SCO is part of an alternative non-Western led order that exists, actually has some resonance around the world,” Pantucci added. “In practical terms it is unlikely to mean much, the group does not actually do much that obligates members.”

China’s influence in Central and South Asia

China will host the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation this year, Qin told his counterparts in Goa, and will “work with all other parties to ensure that the road to opportunity and prosperity will enjoy broader prospects in a new decade.” The majority of SCO members are large beneficiaries of China’s multi-trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its mega-infrastructure project aimed at connecting Central and South Asia to markets in Europe and Africa.

China has become the dominant player in Central Asia, making significant inroads into the region’s vast mineral resources and lucrative transport corridors. Western countries have lagged behind in economic and strategic engagements — only recently has Washington prioritized its interests in the region, given the shifting geopolitical landscape from the war in Ukraine and the U.S.’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, China has a number of vested interests, particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan, under the BRI. Beijing has sought to connect the three countries under the $65 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) investment plan through a network of roads, railways, and pipelines. In March, a leaked internal memo written by Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s minister of state for foreign affairs, argued that her nation “can no longer try to maintain a middle ground between China and the United States.” “Islamabad should avoid giving the appearance of appeasing the West,” the letter stated. “The instinct to preserve Pakistan’s partnership with the United States would ultimately sacrifice the full benefits of the country’s real strategic partnership with China.”

And in Afghanistan, the Taliban has become heavily dependent on regional partnerships, particularly with Beijing, to prop up its crumbling economy and fend off its international isolation since coming to power after the U.S. withdrawal in 2021.

China’s regional security issues with India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan

The SCO’s cooperative efforts, however, are underlined by regional disputes and longstanding concerns about the security of their borders.

Prior to the main SCO event, Qin met with his Indian and Russian counterparts on the sidelines of the summit last Thursday. China has had a decades-long dispute with India over their shared border, the Line of Actual Control. Renewed tensions over the past few years have only further strained Beijing’s relationship with New Delhi, as it looks to boost its longstanding security ties with the U.S. While Qin earlier said the current situation at the border was “generally stable,” Indian counterpart Jaishankar made a point to say that India-China relations “are not normal and cannot be normal if peace and tranquility in the border areas are disturbed.”

Following his meeting in Goa, Qin flew to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, to meet with his counterparts in the Pakistan-China-Afghanistan trilateral dialogue on May 7. The Taliban’s foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, was granted a travel exemption by a United Nations Security Council committee to attend, despite the sanctions lodged against him in 2011.

The three foreign ministers pledged to strengthen cooperation on security and counterterrorism. Qin also urged to “advance the Belt and Road cooperation, support the extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan.”

But many of those ties are at risk due to mounting instability in the region. Despite China’s slew of investments, Beijing has ramped up pressure on Islamabad to crack down on a growing number of attacks against Chinese nationals and interests in the country. Pakistani President Arif Alvi told Qin during their earlier meeting on May 5 that his country “will make every effort to ensure the safety of the Chinese personnel and institutions in Pakistan and is ready to work with China for peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan.”

In neighboring Afghanistan, Beijing has been reluctant to position itself as responsible for the country’s growing security problems. While the Taliban “stressed that it will not allow any forces to use Afghanistan’s territory for activities against China and Pakistan,” it has struggled to reassure its two neighbors that the country’s growing instability will not spill over into their borders.

“In fact, Afghanistan is more stable now than it was under the Republic government…But at the same time, what groups are there are creating problems for neighbors,” Pantucci told The China Project.

A number of Pakistan-focused groups, particularly the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), have used Afghanistan as a base, with a knock-on effect on Chinese interests in the country. Concern has also been growing over the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-KP) in Afghanistan, which has launched a few attacks on Chinese interests and nationals in the country.

“And then of course there are the Uyghur militants China sees based there which it worries about,” Pantucci said. “Aside from going after ISIS-KP (and killing their number two today), the Taliban have not done a huge amount about some of these problems, and have proven a very stubborn interlocutor. All of which makes it a very challenging regional environment.”

“Security is a problem in Taliban ruled Afghanistan, but not the only problem. There is the reality about the total lack of infrastructure, a lack of managerial experience on the government’s side, and the danger of working with sanctioned individuals and entities,” Pantucci added. “All of this means that big Chinese-backed firms will tread relatively carefully in the country. The Taliban could likely deliver on some security promises, but whether these would last very long or far is hard to tell.”

Nadya Yeh