China’s evolving approach to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran offers a glimpse into how Beijing might advance its interests in the Middle East, since China views its foreign policies toward Afghanistan and Iran as interdependent.
Beijing’s focus in this difficult region reveals three interrelated dimensions: (a) prioritizing and securing immediate and well-defined Chinese interests; (b) attempt to facilitate the resolution of disputes; and (c) the pursuit of long-term strategic goals.
First, China is focused on securing its own interests, that is, the physical protection of its investments, including personnel and construction operations, and turning its borders into an impenetrable barrier. That being said, China uses extensive monitoring systems to limit cross-border infiltration along the Wakhan Corridor. While China expects its partners to cooperate and support Chinese security interests, such as facilitating full access for private security companies, it also deploys soldiers at checkpoints it has funded in neighboring Tajikistan to monitor the Tajik-Afghan border.
While Chinese leaders and experts hope to strengthen China’s position by managing hotspots, China also declares its commitment to “non-interference” in the “internal affairs” of other countries. Since China’s approach to Afghanistan actually delves into the country’s internal affairs, Chinese experts have proposed a more flexible approach they describe as “constructive engagement” to justify Beijing’s actions.
In June 2021, China presented its eight-point Afghan plan, which included an “inclusive” Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation process aimed at creating a stable and functioning government. However, the Taliban’s seizure of all of Afghanistan without resistance made the initiative lose its importance. Whenever Beijing saw the direction of events, it immediately announced its support for the Afghan “people’s choice”, which is a state led by the “Taliban”. And she emphasized China’s red lines: preventing transnational terrorism targeting China, specifically in the Xinjiang region, or Chinese interests in Pakistan. Indeed, the Chinese media expressed satisfaction with the Taliban leaders’ statements seeking to assuage Beijing’s concerns.
China’s first “practical” engagement with an active point on its borders, which also affects its core interests, is a learning experience in trying to manage conflict using the basic elements of Chinese foreign policy. It is still not clear whether the Taliban, with or without Pakistani participation, will create a stable environment among the tribal warlords and remnants of al-Qaeda and ISIS elements.
Nevertheless, Beijing appears confident. Senior Chinese policy advisors began to study a broader strategic vision after achieving stability in Afghanistan, by leading a strategic axis from Pakistan through Afghanistan to Iran. In this context, Chinese strategic thinkers are studying how to benefit from Beijing’s partnership with Iran and its sponsorship of the “AFPAC” region to highlight its influence in the Middle East.