China Faces Quandary over Afghan Security

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

The East Asian power is “between a rock and a hard place” trying to engage with the Taliban, scholar argues.  

As the Taliban strengthen their Islamic rule in Afghanistan, China and other bordering states fear the country is becoming a staging ground for extremist groups that can spread terrorist activity into their territories and threaten their internal order, an expert tells Middle East Policy

“The security situation in Afghanistan is still precarious,” observed Raj Verma, an associate professor at Huaqiao University in Xiamen, China. “There are various anti-Taliban groups operating in Afghanistan” that could pose a threat to state stability.  

One such organization is the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), which represents “the biggest threat to the Taliban regime,” Verma warned in an email interview with Middle East Policy. “IS-K wants to create chaos and does not want the Taliban to transition…into a state or legitimate political entity which can govern and administer the country successfully.”  

Undermining Taliban governance would enable IS-K to “assert itself as a potential powerbroker in Afghanistan,” encouraging recruitment and aiding the larger cause of Salafi jihadism, Verma added. 

At the time of the US withdrawal in August 2021, IS-K was active in nearly all 34 provinces of Afghanistan. Though the number of attacks inside the country decreased the following year, the group remains a serious threat to Afghan security. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin emphasized this week that his country wishes to see the Taliban “adopt a more resolute attitude in combating terrorism.”  

In a recent Middle East Policy article, Verma examines how China is seeking to engage with the Taliban in an effort to reduce the threat from extremist groups. Beijing fears that a terrorist base so close to its border could fuel separatist movements, such as in China’s Xinjiang region. At this time, Verma argues, IS-K “is not in a position to undertake attacks in mainland China,” but it has “conducted attacks on Chinese nationals and Chinese interests in Afghanistan” and perceives the state as an ally of the Taliban, making it a target. 

The main component of China’s approach to the Taliban, Verma shows in his article, is economic engagement: Its New Security Concept asserts that development promotes security. But Verma casts doubt on the effectiveness of the strategy: “Beijing believes that economic growth and development will lead to socioeconomic and political stability…[and] reduce extremism, radicalization, fundamentalism and terrorism,” he writes, “but this has not materialized on the ground due to security concerns.” 

Without aid and financial assistance, social and humanitarian conditions will worsen and Afghanistan could once again slide into “chaos reminiscent” of the Taliban rule of the 1990s, Verma contends. However, the economic approach has not been proven to work, including in neighboring Pakistan. Verma argues in his article that “Pakistan’s society is becoming increasingly radicalized despite economic growth” and billions of dollars of Chinese investment. 

“There is no guarantee that Afghanistan will become stable and peaceful,” Verma asserted in his interview with Middle East Policy. “China has very few good choices.” 

Among the major insights readers can find in Verma’s Middle East Policy article: 

  • The Taliban have become more dogmatic since taking power in 2021. 

    • As a result, international aid has been scaled back, compounding an already dire humanitarian situation. 

  • There are serious concerns that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan has the potential to become a haven and launching pad for extremist groups.  

    • China fears that any instability will leak into Pakistan and Central Asia and embolden separatist movements in China itself, threatening security and the economic considerations of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

  • China’s strategy of engaging the Taliban is influenced by its 1996 New Security Concept, which is built on these key considerations: 

    • Traditional and nontraditional threats, such as terrorism, must be addressed. 

    • Internal and external security are of equal importance. 

    • Economic development promotes security. 

  • After the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, China supported Afghanistan’s reconstruction through economic measures such as “engineering contracts, training quotas, tariff preference, and financial assistance to Kabul.” 

  • China is seeking to incorporate Afghanistan into the economic benefits of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a massive infrastructure investment and partnership that aims to promote development. 

    • There are plans to build a 573-kilometer railway from Termez, Uzbekistan, to Mazar-e-Sharif via Kabul in Afghanistan and on to Peshawar in Pakistan. 

    • Afghanistan has also already used the Gwadar Port, a major BRI project, to import tens of thousands of tons of fertilizer for agricultural use. 

  • Despite these measures, there are doubts about the viability of this approach: 

    • China’s investment in Pakistan aimed to reduce the threat of terrorism, but the economic growth has not brought the desired decrease in extremism. 

    • The approach “ignores other factors affecting radicalization, such as social alienation, cultures of violence, government repression and human rights abuses, [and] psychological and social trauma.” 

    • It is deeply unlikely that China will be able to alter the Taliban’s ideology. 

    • Building state capacity at the level required to reduce the threat of extremism will take years. 

    • The Taliban have a history of working with terrorist groups, not against them. 


You can read Raj Verma’s article, “Taliban 2.0 and China’s Counterterrorism Diplomacy in Afghanistan” in Middle East Policy, available through Wiley

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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