China’s view of the situation in Afghanistan is almost entirely about managing threats. China is now anxious on multiple counts. Its perennial concern, going back to the Taliban’s last time in power, is the potential for Afghanistan to become a safe haven for militant groups targeting China. Chinese economic and political interests in the wider region have grown considerably since then, though, and Beijing is also worried about the spillover effects in neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan.

The Chinese government has long sought to reach agreements with the Taliban, largely focused on the question of their ties with Uyghur groups. Although Beijing is pragmatic about the power realities in Afghanistan, it has always been uncomfortable with the Taliban’s ideological agenda. China wants to see them hemmed in by compromises with other political forces in the country, not resurgent after a military victory. The Chinese government fears the inspirational effect of their success in Afghanistan for militancy across the region, including the Pakistani Taliban.

Beijing is also concerned about the risks of entanglement in Afghanistan, which is seen as a strategic trap that has diminished the other great powers that have involved themselves too deeply. There are endless references to the “graveyard of empires” in Chinese analysis. So, while they see the necessity of taking on a more active political role to deal with the fallout of Afghanistan, there is considerable wariness about being sucked in.

China certainly has substantial commercial and economic interests in the wider region, but they are minimal in Afghanistan itself. Its major investments there, the Aynak copper mine and the Amu Darya energy projects, have been in stasis for many years. There have been numerous discussions about Afghanistan’s involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative, including connections to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, but Beijing’s view has been that, in Afghanistan, stability has to precede serious new economic commitments. Beijing has also chosen not to build any cross-border infrastructure through the Wakhan Corridor, despite Afghan government requests, effectively leaving a physical buffer with its neighbour. If there is a permissive security and political environment in the country, then China would certainly take on a significant investment role – but it will be extremely cautious. Right now, it is very worried about recent attacks on Chinese nationals working on projects in Pakistan, not thinking about hair-raisingly risky new ventures in Afghanistan.

The direct connections to Xinjiang are minimal. Virtually every attack in China itself has been entirely indigenous, not tied to international terror networks. The border is locked down and there are no plausible concerns about literal spillover from neighbouring Badakhshan. Any potential cross-border issues have tended to be focused on Central Asia and Pakistan, which is one of the main reasons we have seen a Chinese security presence by the Tajik border with Afghanistan. In the longer narrative, Chinese concerns about the East Turkestan Islamic Movement have tended to be vastly out of synch with the threat posed by any of the Uyghurs caught up in the militant networks in the region.

Since the late 2000s, for reasons partly related to Xinjiang and partly related to Pakistan, China has also been targeted by various other militant and terrorist groups that had previously given it a pass. The Taliban – whatever commitments it makes to the Chinese government and however willing it is to turn a blind eye to the situation in Xinjiang – has engendered an environment in which many of these groups are likely to flourish. Even if it is implausible to expect attacks on the Chinese mainland, it is already clear that threats to soft Chinese targets in the region have grown.

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