The withdrawal of American troops and advance of the Taliban clears the way for Russia and China to vie for influence in the region; while Beijing bets on its weighty economy, Moscow uses military cooperation.
The withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan and the withering advance of the Taliban to control the country clears the way for a dispute between China and Russia over influence in Central Asia. While Beijing is betting on asserting its economic weight in the region, Moscow is using military cooperation with former Soviet republics to project its influence.
Analysts point to two principal reasons for the entrance of the Chinese and Russians into the Afghan geopolitical scene. The first is the real power vacuum left by the Americans. The Russians see in this an opportunity to project more influence in the region, as already Afghanistan is encircled by former Soviet republics such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Moreover, as a point of passage between the Middle East, South and Central Asia, Afghanistan is a strategic asset for China and its New Silk Road, the network of roads, bridges, railways and ports sponsored by the Chinese government in various countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
The resurgence of the Taliban in Central Asia also worries the Chinese and Russians, who have a history of repressing Islamic minorities in their own territories. Even the old Soviet republics in the region are the origin of many radical Islamic movements that influence the Taliban and al-Qaida, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
“The crisis in Afghanistan greatly concerns the countries of Central Asia, who have had a problem with militant Islamics for decades, that many times were trained by the Taliban”, explains Vanda Felbab-Brown, a researcher at the Brookings Institution. “Russia managed to get a commitment from the Taliban to stop these militants from acting in the region and has influence in financial and political terms among the political and tribal leaders in Afghanistan to secure their interests.”***
Last week, the Russian military conducted joint exercises with the Tajikistan and Uzbekistan military and announced military partnerships with the two former republics. Moscow has drawn closer to the Taliban since 2018 in the hopes that the group will stop the infiltration of the jihadis into minority Islamic areas in Russia.
“Russia acts to guarantee the security of its allies in Central Asia,” the Russian political scientist, Arkady Dubnov, reminded the Financial Times. “It is a question of image. Putin has to convince his allies that only he can guarantee their security”.***
China, in turn has economic and strategic interests in Afghanistan, and the Americans’ departure from the scene facilitated them both. Two New Silk Road infrastructure projects pass through Afghanistan, a road which will link Kabul and Peshawar in Pakistan, and another route which will connect the majority Muslim province of Xinjiang to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“When these projects are concluded, Peking can advance its goal of increasing commerce and the extraction of natural resources in Afghanistan,” said Derek Grossman, a Rand consultant. “It is estimated that the country has immense reserves of rare metals crucial for China’s cutting edge industry.” ***
The Chinese and Russian interests in Central Asia, however, do not coincide and could generate rivalries in the future. “Russia has promised a role in offering security to these countries and sees them as an area of influence”, Vanda added.*** “China has made diplomatic and economic offensives in the region, that Moscow sees as contrary to its own interests.”
*Editor’s note: The original version of this article is available with a paid subscription.
**Editor’s note: The Taliban assumed control of Afghanistan on Aug. 16.
***Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quoted remark could not be independently verified.