In early 2017, reports began to circulate in the international media that China’s security forces were patrolling the Wakhan Corridor, a tiny strip of Afghanistan bordering the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Although Beijing would only confirm that it was undertaking “joint counter-terrorism operations” with Kabul, the patrols are actually indicative of a broader shift in Chinese policy in the region. After years of heavily promoting its vast Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as being purely about development, China now seems to view security engagement as its primary concern.
It remains unclear whether China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is still a purely development-focused operation, or whether there is a planned and profound long-term shift in Chinese security priorities. So far, Beijing’s most substantive engagement with Afghanistan has been in border control efforts designed to prevent terrorists from entering China. Moreover, a similar scenario has emerged in Central Asia: China is working to intensify its cooperation with countries in the region by largely focusing on measures to combat terrorist groups and other threats. Although Beijing seldom speaks about expanding its security ties with other countries, these trends suggest that it could be developing a capacity to promote stability in Central Asia.
Meanwhile, there has been no commensurate increase in Beijing’s development initiatives in Afghanistan. Although Afghanistan could be a central hub for the Silk Road Economic Belt (the BRI’s land component) linking central Asia with south Asia, Beijing has avoided large-scale infrastructure projects there – likely fearing that growing security threats and governments’ financial weakness will make for a poor return on investment. Therefore, despite many Europeans’ hopes to the contrary, China does not appear to be using its growing economic power to become a provider of public goods. As Beijing’s engagements within Afghanistan show, the BRI is no Marshall Plan. And, if its interactions with Kabul are consistent with true BRI policy, Beijing will be equally reluctant to engage in substantive, long-term development projects elsewhere in the world.
Even though cooperation between the EU and China on security issues seems unlikely at this stage due to the major differences in their approaches, nonetheless, European states may be able to capitalize on the shift in China’s approach away from development and towards security – if they can understand why it has occurred. Understanding China’s shift would enable Europeans to focus on the right areas to cooperate with Beijing while at the same time to question China’s engagement in other areas. This interesting report examines the evolution of Beijing’s engagement with Afghanistan, assesses what it means for China’s overall approach to the BRI, and explores ways in which European Union-China cooperation could promote stability and prosperity in countries in crisis.
‘Fear and Loathing on the New Silk Road: Chinese Security in Afghanistan and Beyond’ – Policy Brief by Angela Stanzel – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.