The Afghanistan Crisis and the Role of Russia and China


By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

In a recent article published in “South China Morning Post” (27.08.21), under the title “The Afghan crisis draws China and Russia closer to Central Asia stability, as both step up military army drills”, it was reported, that the Chinese Military (PLA) and the Russian troops take part in anti- terror drills under the Shanghai-Cooperation- Organization (SCO) banner, amid rising worries over security fall out in Central Asia after the US exit in Afghanistan.  The article emphasized that “Beijing and Moscow are driven by shared US rivalry and concerns about spill overs from the Afghan crisis, now compounded by the IS-K bombings in Kabul.”

In a spiraling crisis that will push Beijing and Moscow to strengthen bilateral security operations, according to analysts, the article reported that  PLA soldiers will join Russian troops for anti-  terror drills  from September 11- 25 for a SCO exercise in South West Russia’s Orenburg region. The peace- mission exercises will also include the rest of the 8- nation- group, led by China and Russia, and includes India, Pakistan and four of the five countries in Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are all concerned about regional security in the aftermath of the US troop withdrawal from war- torn Afghanistan.

According to “South China Morning Post” Chinese and Russian troops “earlier this month took part in a five day drill in Northwest China and faced off in Russia’s ‘International Army Games’.”  Eagle Yin, a research fellow at the “China foundation for International and Strategic Studies” in Beijing was quoted, saying that “the suicide bombings at Kabul airport could foreshadow a civil war in Afghanistan, heightening concerns of all neighboring countries, China and Russia and other Central Asian countries are worried that the unstable situation in Afghanistan could become a sanctuary for all extremist forces, that share common political and religious values. (…)  The SCO is a good platform to bring all the countries together under the leadership of China and Russia to come up with useful measures to counter terrorist attacks. The SCO leaders’ annual summit in the Tajik capital Dushanbe next month would be an important occasion for those countries to reach consensus and d seek a way out of the Afghan crisis.”  It was furthermore reported that China is set to host its first ever multinational peace keeping live fire exercise starting on Sept 6. Troops from Pakistan, Mongolia and Thailand will take part in the 10-day  “Shared Destiny 2021” drills at the PLA’s combined arms tactical training base in the Henan province.

Chinas Diplomatic efforts in the Mideast

During the last weeks and months China has stepped up its diplomatic efforts in the Mideast. This includes its rapprochement with Iran – a key player in the region which has already hosted 3 Mio Afghan refugees (780.000 registered and 2,5 Mio unregistered refugees according to UNHCR, EH)

On August 18, a first telephone conversation took place between the new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Both leaders agreed on the necessity to work together on the stability in Afghanistan, which borders both countries.  While Beijing stated that it will work with Teheran on “common interests and regional security”, President Ebrahim Raisi underlined, that Teheran was ready to work with China on establishing security stability and peace in Afghanistan, given the concerns of “regional spill over from the war torn country.” One should keep in mind that on the March 27 this year, the “Iran-China 25 year Cooperation Program or comprehensive Strategic partnership between Iran and China”  on the further development of Iran-China relations” was signed in Teheran by the respective Foreign Ministers Wang Yi (China) and Jawid Zarif (Iran).The deal  foresees a $ 400 billion  investment perspective, including  different sectors, such as  telecommunications railroads, ports, health care from the Chinese side, in exchange for Iranian oil.

China and its interest in Syria

According to a recent article in the “EPC” (Emirates policy Weekly Newsletter, August 18), on July 17th Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Syria. At that occasion he met Syrian President Bashar- al Assad and put forward an initiative to solve the crisis in the Arab country. Why such a visit now? the article questions. It emphasized that the Beijing move coincides with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which coincides with a decline in US interest in the Middle East and plans to withdraw US forces from Iraq as well as strategic weapons from the Gulf States.

According to the article the Chinese initiative is based on four main points

* Syria’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity should be respected. However this principle conflicts with the presence of Iran and Turkey, China’s allies and economic partners in Syria.

*The well-being of the Syrian people should be prioritized and the reconstruction process should be sped up.

*A firm stand on effectively fighting terrorism should be upheld. All terrorist organizations listed by the UN Security Council should be cracked down and double standards should be rejected.

* An inclusive and reconciliatory political solution to the Syrian issue should be promoted.

The article emphasized that the Syrian regime, which is internationally isolated, is interested in having a strong ally, economically and militarily, that creates a state of competition, which Al Assad can utilize and ease Russian pressure.  The Chinese Minister offered to include Syria in China’s Belt and Road Initiative and according to sources close to the Syrian regime, the “Chinese have proposed a set of projects that can be implemented under the umbrella of the initiative, in the field of transportation such as a rail link between the port of Tartous and the Iraqi border, and the construction of a land highway linking the south of the country to the north. The proposed projects also include electricity generation and the establishment of Chinese free zones in Syria (Hassia Industrial City, Latakia expansion) focusing on the regional dimension of these projects, in line with the spirit of the Belt and Road Initiative.

It was further reported, that China’s primary interest in Syria lies in the latter’s geographical location, which would give through the “Belt and Road Initiative” China access to the Eastern Mediterranean. “There is a belief that China may be planning to win a contract to establish its own port on the Syrian coast to serve its project aimed at controlling international shipping routes.”

But there are also strategic political reasons, related to China’s desire to convey a message to the USA, that it is able to fill the void after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq.  There are also “security reasons” related to the presence of Uygur Fighters in Syria who may pose a potential threat to Chinese security, if they return from Syria.  They also believe that the US removing “Turkistan Islamic Movement” from the US terrorist list, was a step directed at it and believe that the US wants to weaken the Chinese in the north western region of Xinjiang. For this reason the US is espousing the Uyghurs as a “persecuted religious minority. “China fears that the United States harbors plans to employ the Turkistan Islamic Movement and its fighters, who have gained extensive combat experience in Syria, to carry out military operations on Chinese soil, using Afghanistan as a launch pad, after the withdrawal of US forces from it, especially since the Uyghur party receives support from Islamist Afghan groups.”

China’s economic objective

In a background discussion with a strategic expert about the effects of the present Afghanistan crisis it was underlined that China and Russia are particularly hit hard by the crisis and its potential spillover effects in the region.  It was emphasized that China with its more than 5000 years of history – with a particular non- religious matrix – perceives itself as a “Middle Kingdom.” In history they never acted in an expansionist way, but always followed a carefully elaborate economic plan, similar to the British Free Trade System. Of course there is a rapprochement between Russia and China. In terms of Russia, it was stated that Russia has developed excellent military up to date technologies without significant spillover into the civilian industrial sector. It was further underlined that relations between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are difficult and that the SCO not being as effective, while Syria is becoming too expensive for Russia.

China’s focus on economic expansion

As was documented in a recent essay by Anastasia Stepanova (Russian- Chinese Chamber for machinery, technologies and innovations, Valdai Newsletter 11.08.) “Main direction of Chinese Economic Policy”, the economy of the PRC has been constantly growing over the past years. “China ranks second in terms of nominal GDP, behind only the United States. Since the early 2000’s China’s gross domestic product has increased 12 fold (…) Also China is leading in terms of industrial production. Its companies such as Alibaba and Tencent are among the top 10 companies in the world in terms of capitalization. Their market value is approaching $ 1 trillion each. “Other companies such as Baidu, Xiaomi, Huawei, Lenovo and many others are also actively developing.”

In reference to the “Centre for Economic and Business Research” (CEBR) in the UK, China’s economy will be able to overtake the US economy by 2021, Stepanova reported. She added that relations between Russia and China have recently reached a new peak.  On July 16 2021, the two countries celebrated the 20th anniversary of the “Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation” (that was signed July 16, 2001 between Jiang Zemin and President Putin), exports between the two countries exceeded USD 100 billion in 2018, and there are plans to increase this figure to USD 200 billion by 2024. “The Increase in mutual exports will help Russia and China to further strengthen not only political, but also economic cooperation. For both countries the expansion of settlements in national currencies plays an important role in the process.”

At the occasion of celebrating the 100s anniversary of China’s CP July 5 2021, Stepanova emphasized, that great attention in China is paid to achieving the Chinese dream of revival of the Chinese Nation which consists of three stages:

“The first stage is “wenbao”, the “absence of hunger and poverty”, the second state is “xiaokang”, the construction of a “middle income” society and the third stage is “datong”, the ideal society of “great harmony.” At the Fifth Plenum of the 19th CPC Central Committee, that was held in Beijing in October 2020, the Plenum discussed China’s 14th Five Year National Social- Economic Development Plan (FYP 2021-2025) and long-term goals for 2035. Much attention was given by Chinese President XI Jinping’ speech to the need to achieve a “socialist modernization” of China by 2035, which includes the development of industrialization, as well as the issue of green development and ecology; deepening reforms and openness in the field of competition; property right reforms and market-oriented distribution. Close attention was also given to the development of research and development in the field of digital currencies. Research centers are being actively developed and support is provided to Beijing, Shanghai and the Greater Bay Area, Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau, in the creation of an international center for scientific and technological innovation.” According to Stepanova, “there is great potential in the field of fundamental science and applied research between Russia and China.”

In respect to China’s international initiatives, Stepanova pointed to Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road (BRI) Initiative “which is of great importance for the development of Eurasia. This initiative, billed in China as the ‘Project of the Century’, covers about 78 countries and is aimed at building trade routes between China and the countries of Russia, Central Asia, Europa and the coastal countries of the Indo -Pacific region with a network of roads, railways, pipelines, electrical networks, ports and other infrastructure project.” Stepanova further outlines, that “an important goal of the Belt and Road Initiative is not only to stimulate the development of the eastern regions of China, but also to significantly strengthen economic ties with neighboring countries, which will contribute to the stability of Eurasia. In that context, the development of Russian- Chinese relations in the Eurasian region has great potential for linking the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP).”

Shortsighted view of China: MSC report “Priorities for Transatlantic China Policy”

A report that was released in July by the “Munich Security Conference” under the title: “Mind the Gap. Priorities for Transatlantic China policy”, reveals a deep strategic perception gap between the West and China. Instead of constructive economic and scientific cooperation, the report stresses the significance of Western “geopolitical competition and containment” of China. The report was issued by MSC chairman, former Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger and Joseph Nye, Jr. (US), and it was authored by a 19-member group of so called exerts on “Transatlantic China policy” (which includes the notorious China basher, the Green EU parliamentarian Reinhard Bütikofer EH). In essence the report outlines a “plan for competitive measures, including how to provide alternatives (against the Belt and Road Initiative) on infrastructure and connectivity as well as preserving liberal society and promoting human rights.” It calls for the USA, Canada and EU to jointly act, so as to counteract the “growing Chinese influence” and it explicitly refers to the communiques of the recent G7, NATO and EU summits, which described Chinas drive for world power as the most “threatening geostrategic conflict of the future.”

According to the introduction of the report there is “a principal challenge emanating from China is in the areas of technology, trade and investment – and China’s neo mercantilist techno-nationalism and sustained non-convergence, (which) undermine free market economics and the existing global system of economic governance.”  The report emphasizes that in March 2021 for the first time since 1989 -and in coordination with the US, Canada- the EU imposed human rights sanctions against China over abuses in Xinjiang, stating, that “increasingly transatlantic partners perceive the CCP as “engaging in assault on liberal values and norms as well as human rights, threatening their core interest.” The report however also carefully notes that, there is a gap between the North American and European perception concerning the China threat, and identifies Europe as being more “reluctant” about confronting China, especially in the “economic realm” – hinting at statements from Macron and Merkel in particular.


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