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Afghanistan: The West Fails – a Win for China and Russia?

The Views from Beijing and Moscow

SWP Comment 2021/C 50, 22.09.2021, 5 Pages


Research Areas

Russia and China are seen as the main beneficiaries of the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan regarding their political influence and potential exertion of power. In both the Chinese and Russian debate, however, alongside triumphant comments about Western failure, serious concerns about the regional security situation are being voiced. Western actors should seek a more nuanced understanding of Beijing’s and Moscow’s perspectives. This could also lead to opportunities for cooperation that would serve to stabilise Central Asia and Afghanistan. In view of the intensifying global systemic rivalry, however, the scope for cooperation will remain limited.

In the Western debate, the prevailing belief is that Moscow and Beijing are now using the power vacuum left by the United States (US) and its allies in Afghanistan to expand their own positions. This is certainly true in part: The US is withdrawing from Af­ghani­stan in order to transform its global strat­egy. European allies have little choice but to follow Washington. Thus, from the Chi­nese and Russian perspectives, the with­drawal from Afghanistan is further evi­dence of the progressive weakening of the Western alliance. This alone is a boost to Moscow and Beijing, which for years have been calling for the end of a Western-dominated liberal world order. But those who limit the perspectives of both actors to the global level will fall short. For the failure of the West does not automatically mean gains for Beijing and Moscow. After all, China and Russia must also confront the dangers that could emanate from Afghanistan at the regional level and directly endanger Chinese and Russian interests.

Decline of the West – Beginning of a New World Order

From Moscow’s perspective, the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan is an indica­tion of the decline of American hegemony. According to this view, the withdrawal from Afghanistan deepens the crisis of American identity and testifies to the grow­ing instability and vulnerability of Western democracies and their foreign policy. The Western failure in Afghanistan is seen by Moscow as a further milestone on the way to a multipolar world order in which the US is merely one great power among others and is visibly coming under Chinese pressure.

In the future, a disparate West under weakened American leadership will have to refrain from exporting democracy by means of regime change policies in other regions of the world. The withdrawal of NATO troops is thus symbolic of Washington’s new unreliability in relations with its part­ners and allies around the world – from Russia’s point of view, this is a message that in its neighbourhood primarily concerns Ukraine. Russian observers are attentively registering the disappointment of those European NATO partners who were hoping for a renaissance of the transatlantic alliance under the Biden administration in Washington. In Moscow’s eyes, the Afghan turmoil proves once again that the Euro­pean Union (EU) is incapable of acting in­dependently. In this view, the question of whether – and how many – refugees from Afghanistan should be accepted in Europe is putting its cohesion to the test and under­mines the European consensus on values. With regard to Afghanistan (and beyond), the stage now belongs to China, Russia, and relevant regional actors such as Pakistan and Iran.

In Beijing, too, the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan is seen as a further indi­cation that “the West is declining and the East is rising”, a narrative that is increasingly used in the context of global systemic rivalry. China also immediately took the US with­drawal from Afghanistan as an oppor­tunity to signal to other countries, including Euro­pean ones, that they cannot rely on the US. At the same time, this withdrawal also directly affects China, insofar as the US has announced that it will henceforth concentrate its resources on the conflict with China in the Indo-Pacific. The official Chi­nese nar­rative often points out that the US and the Europeans left a mess in Afghanistan and now expect China and Russia to bear its costs and consequences. Whether China will co­operate with the US in Af­ghani­stan, how­ever, depends on how the US acts towards China elsewhere (i.e., in the Indo-Pacific).

At the Regional Level, the Dangers Prevail

Below the level of global order issues, multi-layered risks come to the fore, which Moscow and Beijing are now confronted with in Afghanistan.

From the Chinese perspective, the greatest danger is a “spill-over” effect, which could arise from both radical Islamic terror­ism and the influx of drugs into China. China’s core interest with regard to Af­ghani­stan has long been focused solely on the security of its own borders. This is due on the one hand to the security threats ema­nating from Afghanistan, and on the other hand to its proximity to the autonomous region of Xinjiang. In Xinjiang, Beijing sus­pects there are potential Islamist terror­ists among the Uighur Muslim mi­nor­ity and has therefore taken a series of new extreme security measures to tighten con­trol over the Uighurs, including so-called re‑educa­tion camps, which are effectively internment camps. The Chinese govern­ment sees terrorist groups – particularly the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which seeks independence for Xin­jiang – as the greatest threat to national security.

In this respect, the security situation in Xinjiang is one of the main concerns of the leadership in Beijing. When NATO announc­ed in 2010 that it was ending the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, Beijing had already been questioning whether and how security in Afghanistan could be guaran­teed in the long term in the event of a gradual withdrawal of international troops. The threat to China became more tangible after an offshoot of the “Islamic State” (IS) established itself in Afghanistan in 2015. Beijing fears that “ISIS-K” – the “K” stand­ing for the historical region of Khorasan – has also gained a foothold in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, which borders China, and that a growing number of ETIM sup­porters are joining the grouping (a parallel to developments in the late 1990s under the then-Taliban rule when radical Islamists supported the separatist movement in Xin­jiang from Afghanistan).

Although the only border (which is 76-kilometre-long and located at the eastern end of the Wakhan Corridor) between China and Afghanistan can be easily con­trolled (since 2017 also by Chinese security personnel on the Afghan side), China is also concerned about other borders, especially with Tajikistan. Due to the difficulty of accessing areas on the border with both Afghanistan and China, Tajikistan is con­sidered a country that offers terrorist groups a particular opportunity to infiltrate Xinjiang. China therefore now conducts joint counterterrorism exercises with Tajiki­stan, the most recent of which took place 18–20 August, and it has maintained coun­terterrorism cooperation with Afghani­stan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan since 2016.

China has sought dialogue with the Taliban in bilateral and minilateral formats in recent years (since 2016, for example, within the framework of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group together with Afghani­stan, Pakistan, and the US). These contacts have laid the groundwork for the current exchanges between Beijing and Taliban representatives: At the end of July, Taliban representatives visited China and met with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, in Tianjin. Beijing’s calculus here is that, at present, a Taliban government might be the most likely to be able to stabilise the secu­rity of China’s borders and keep ISIS-K at bay. By welcoming the Taliban to Tianjin, China has signalled that it is quite willing to recognise a Taliban government in Kabul. In return, it can only be assumed, Beijing has received assurances that the Taliban will cooperate with China in order to prevent radical Islamist terrorist groups from entering Xinjiang.

Moscow is pursuing three main goals with its Afghanistan policy: First, the current instability in Afghanistan must not spread beyond its borders into Central Asia. This concerns hostilities, but also flight and migra­tion. The danger of destabilisation of the allied Central Asian republics is of great concern. The current situation also offers Moscow an opportunity to consolidate its position as a security guarantor for the Central Asian region. A renewed Western presence in Central Asia to stabilise the en­vironment around Afghanistan is explicitly being ruled out in Moscow as undesirable.

Russia has suffered a series of Islamist-motivated terrorist attacks in its recent his­tory and sees the combination of Islamist groups in the Russian North Caucasus, re­turnees from war zones such as Syria, and transnational terrorist networks as an ex­treme­ly significant threat. Therefore, sec­ondly, transnational terrorist groups such as ISIS(-K) or al-Qaeda should be prevented from regaining a foothold in Afghanistan and conducting operations from there in Central Asia or Russia. Curbing the traf­ficking of drugs originating in Afghanistan or transiting the country is the third objec­tive of Russian policy.

Like Beijing, Russia’s political leadership sees the new rulers in Kabul as the main contact for the implementation of these primary goals. The Taliban was banned as a terrorist organisation in Russia in 2003. Nevertheless, Moscow began talking to the Taliban as early as the middle of the last decade – at first covertly, then with in­creas­ing confidence and in full view of world public opinion. This was one (among many) breakaway movement(s) from West­ern-dominated diplomatic initiatives. The change in attitude towards the Taliban, how­ever, stemmed primarily from the reali­sation that they were regaining influence, despite the presence of US and NATO troops. However, Moscow was as surprised by the rapid collapse of the Afghan army as its NATO allies. To this day, there is uncertainty about the character and goals of the move­ment, and about the possible consequences of its policies for Russia. Moscow follows a realpolitik line that is typical of Russian foreign policy and refrains from commenting on the domestic political situation or the human rights situation in Afghanistan. After the capture of Kabul, Russian diplo­mats were initially positive about the Tali­ban’s first steps. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, however, took a much more critical stance, pointing to the major security risks posed by the new situation in Afghanistan. Thus, Russian government institutions and security services do not necessarily seem to be united in their assessment of the situa­tion. Nevertheless, there are many indica­tions that Russia will recognise the Taliban and remove them from the national list of terrorist organisations.

Economic Gain?

During their visit to Tianjin at the end of July, the Taliban representatives expressed the hope that China would support their country economically and financially. In­deed, China can offer Afghanistan – and potentially a Taliban government – much more economically than, say, Russia. Chi­nese media already attribute a role to Af­ghanistan in China’s Belt and Road Initia­tive (BRI). In return, a China-friendly Taliban government could offer Beijing the prospect of exploiting its supposedly immense natural resources (such as copper and lithium).

Whether Afghanistan could actually become part of the BRI (there was already a memorandum of understanding to this effect by China and Afghanistan in 2016) and China will invest heavily in Afghan in­frastructure and resource extraction depends primarily on whether the Taliban will be able to stabilise the country. To date, the Taliban does not control all Islamist groups in Afghanistan, and certainly not ISIS-K, which was responsible for the terrorist attack at Kabul airport in August. As long as Chinese investments are fraught with major security risks, Beijing is likely to remain cautious. The question also remains whether the Taliban-led Afghan government will be able to organise the extraction of the coun­try’s natural resources. China might have to invest not only in mines, but also signifi­cantly in the necessary infrastructure. An­other dilemma from the Chinese perspec­tive may also be the cultivation of opium pop­pies, which is – and is likely to remain – the Taliban’s largest single source of income. It is likely to be difficult for any partner of a Taliban government to convince them to give up this lucrative source of income.

There is little doubt in Moscow that China will play the decisive role in Afghani­stan’s further political and economic devel­opment. Economically, Russia has little to offer – as in Syria, it lacks the capacity for reconstruction and development. The ex­treme instability is also deterring Russian investors. It is not for nothing that Russian discourse revolves almost exclusively around security issues. The Eurasian Economic Union, of which only Kazakhstan and Kyr­gyzstan are full members anyway, hardly plays a role here.


Beijing and Moscow have so far been align­ing their statements and positions on the situation in Afghanistan. On 30 August, by abstaining in the UN Security Council, they allowed for the adoption of a resolution calling on the Taliban to continue letting people leave the country and to not allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for transnational terrorism. It is likely that they will continue this form of coordination at the international level. The continuing un­certainty prohibits further statements about how Russian and Chinese policy will devel­op. Provisional conclusions can be drawn, how­ever, with what has been said so far.

  • For the time being, Russia will remain the most important security guarantor in Central Asia through its bilateral rela­tions with the Central Asian states and through the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which it leads. As China focuses on securing its own borders, its involvement is likely to be selective. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Dushanbe on 16–17 September, the situation in Afghanistan dominated the agenda. Although China and Russia agreed that there must a co­ordinated approach towards Afghanistan among the SCO members, there was, how­ever, no concrete proposal or road map as to what such a coordinated ap­proach would look like. How intensively Moscow and Beijing cooperate on region­al security issues and whether disagreements on the security situation in Central Asia may arise will depend on how the highly volatile situation in Afghanistan and along its borders develops.

  • Beijing and Moscow will confine them­selves primarily to security cooperation in Afghanistan and in the neighbouring region of Central Asia. Even if it had the political will, Russia lacks the economic strength for more far-reaching engagement. Beijing is concentrating on the nar­rowly defined protection of its security interests and has so far shown no great inclination to take economic risks. The economic integration and stabilisation of Afghanistan within the framework of the BRI is therefore unlikely, at least in the medium term. As rarely seen before, Russian discourse is emphasising China’s primacy as a state that is decisive for Af­ghanistan’s economic – and thus also political – future. This speaks for the increasing asymmetry in Russian–Chi­nese relations.

  • Because China, in particular, has so far shown no interest in any significant eco­nomic engagement, Afghanistan will remain dependent on Western humanitarian and development aid in the future. This is also where the greatest potential lies for Germany, or rather the EU, to get involved – to the extent that this is pos­sible with the new Taliban government in Kabul. Beyond that, however, cooperation with Beijing and Moscow would also be desirable. However, the major geo­political conflict over the orientation of the new world order, which determines Mos­cow’s and Beijing’s attitudes towards the US and the EU, will set narrow limits to this. Cooperation with the US and the EU would contradict the “great power” rhetoric that both states are currently using. Both China and Russia are making it clear that they will not solve problems created by the West. Even if cooperation were to materialise, Western actors should not be under the illusion that this rhetoric – and the perceptions associated with it – will change.

  • Moreover, fundamentally different ap­proaches to development cooperation and the fights against terrorism and drugs make any practical cooperation difficult: China and Russia focus on security, Moscow in particular on military means. The EU, on the other hand, has in the past focused on civilian aid, state-building, police reform, and substantial development assistance. For the EU, the task now is to identify possible areas of cooperation with the new Taliban regime and to ensure that, for exam­ple, the humanitarian aid announced by the EU also reaches the Afghan population. Whether this can be achieved in cooperation with China and Russia, how­ever, is questionable. In times of systemic rivalry, conflicts and stalemates are more likely than synergies. The more this competition between the US and China (and Russia) intensifies, the narrower the scope will be for actors such as Germany and the EU to cooperate.

On a global level, Russia and China are benefiting from the weakening that the West has been experiencing since the with­drawal from Afghanistan. However, the new situation also confronts them with serious security challenges, for which they have no solutions so far. Western actors must take this into account and should not interpret Chinese and Russian policies only in a geo­political context. The major conflict with the West overrides the common interest in regional security and will hinder cooperation that could serve the economic and political stabilisation of Afghanistan and its neighbourhood. The EU should neverthe­less seek talks with both states, but above all with Beijing – if only to do justice to the responsibility that Western actors bear for the humanitarian catastrophe in Af­ghani­stan. Russia is a secondary player in this regard and will almost certainly follow China. Limited cooperation could lead to a slow improvement of the situation in Af­ghani­stan – but it cannot be expected to substantially ease relations between the EU, Russia, and China.

Dr Sabine Fischer is a Senior Fellow in the Eastern Europe and Eurasia Research Division at SWP. Dr Angela Stanzel is an Associate in the Asia Research Division at SWP.

© Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, 2021

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This Comment reflects the author’s views.

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Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik

German Institute for International and Security Affairs

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ISSN (Print) 1861-1761

ISSN (Online) 2747-5107

doi: 10.18449/2021C50

(English version of SWP‑Aktuell 59/2021)