Afghanistan is a multiethnic landlocked country, located in Central Asia, which is bordered by several nations. It shares borders with Pakistan from the south and east, then from the west with Iran and China from the northeast. This location makes Afghanistan important strategically and geographically and has also made it a focal point for regional and global powers including the United States and China.
Afghanistan’s set of experiences is replete with wars and other violent conflicts including the struggles of more than two decades of foreign occupation, nationwide conflicts, and insurgency started back in 1978.
These experiences have given this country a rich arrangement of encounters and potential examples of its current ongoing transitions and what follows. After the withdrawal of US troops in 2021 Taliban took over the country and is currently ruling Afghanistan. Before the US withdrawal, there was an agreement that had to be signed between both states in September which composed of the following points: that the United States and NATO need at least 14 months to draw out from Afghanistan, another point that the land/soil of this country will never be used to launch any attack that poses threat to US security, and lastly that Intra-Afghanistan negotiations must be launched by March,10 all these deals and then trump unexpectedly announced withdraw of US troops creating chaos globally. Now, let’s delve into the US-China simultaneous involvement in Afghanistan in recent years and how both the world’s big powers struggle for their influence in the region.
As both are world-powerful states, the US and China, seek to take an interest in Central Asia specifically in Afghanistan raises dynamic and potential challenges. This much importance to the region shows both states are trying to have an influence on the Afghani people more importantly on the Taliban ruling the country. China has supported Afghanistan economically since 2007 it is providing various telecom tools and also getting the mineral rights from Afghanistan. When the US was present in this region the influence or the involvement of China was very limited but still trade activities were carried out among them as China is considered to be one of the healthy trade partners of Afghanistan. The relationship of China-Afghanistan dates back several centuries they used to have historic trade routes like the Silk Road which connected both the regions, promoting cultural and economic changes.
Moreover, China built diplomatic ties with Afghanistan during the Tang dynasty (618-907) and from there they were involved in trade and cultural exchanges. The exchange of goods from both the country included Chinese tea, silk, and ceramics whereas Afghanistan’s precious gems, horses, and spices. Both countries’ relationships faced hardships and difficulties during the period of the Afghan civil war and the Taliban’s rule. It was the time when the Taliban proposed their regime and named it as “Taliban regime” which they wanted to be recognized by the international community but unfortunately, no one supported the regime including China and it failed. China and Afghanistan relations were going smoothly throughout their diplomatic history except for the years 1979-1989 when the Soviets occupied Afghanistan which China did not recognize their installed government. Then in 2001, when the Taliban did not succeed China actively invested in Afghanistan reconstruction efforts provided humanitarian aid, and initiated several infrastructure projects. This involvement basically aimed to ensure stability, economic growth, and regional connectivity in Afghanistan.
During the period of the US and Afghanistan war, the region was supported by China throughout the war by helping them with millions of dollars. Although this war situation created few hindrances for China to actively conduct its trade activities. In 2021, when the United States started pulling out its military troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban returned to the region and are currently in the ruling power. Now China gradually started to show its interest in Afghanistan getting the open stage to support them. These were the years when China’s interest increased in this region due to its strategic location and abundant mineral resources. Afghanistan and US relationships were not always in a worse position, they also shared a good time together in their history when the US provided aid to Afghanistan to help them develop their infrastructure and to build strategic ties with them. It was during the rule of King Amanullah Khan in Afghanistan when both head states came together and formed a strong relationship. In 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan US helped the region financially to fight against them. Pakistan played a very important role because the US supported Afghanistan by sending aid to Pakistan and from there all mujahedeen and Afghan armed people got their desired equipment. In 2001, the Taliban attacked the United States also known as the “9/11 terrorist attack”, one of the deadliest attacks in US history. In response the US cut its ties with Afghanistan to capture their leader “Osama bin Laden” who confessed that this attack was revenge for killing one of their leaders then the US sent their troops into the region and the situation got worse which made the relationship between both nations more complicated.
China and the US have distinct interests in Afghanistan, leading to a power struggle for influence in the region. The US aims to maintain regional stability and counter-terrorism, while China focuses on economic opportunities and preventing extremist influence. This rivalry between both states led to a mutual suspicion that both have strategic and diplomatic interests. China along with Pakistan through a mutual decision decided to include Afghanistan in their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project. This is a good move towards making their strong influence in the region Also China will get an advantage to connect directly to Central Asian countries. Whereas, following the Taliban’s takeover in 2021 the US has altered its strategy towards Afghanistan, which is a shift from reconstruction efforts to delivering humanitarian aid and specialized support. It shows that the US is not willingly supporting Afghanistan but since there has always been a purpose behind its activities this aid and showing their soft corner led to talk between the Afghan Taliban which they rejected by stating that we would only negotiate if the US returned the assets it is holding of us and remove its sanctions. Apparently, after the US withdrawal, it is upholding Afghan’s reserves of around $7bn to $9bn. In 2012, an agreement was signed between the US and Afghanistan named as “Strategic Partnership Agreement between Afghanistan and United States (SASPA)” which laid the long-term framework of their relationship. This was signed before the US withdrawal, Recently they tried again to negotiate with the Taliban, a meeting held in Qatar for two days, in which they talked about confidence-building measures, lifting sanctions, and trade ban removals. Now looking at both state’s relations with Afghanistan, it is clear that the US has lost the level of trust in Afghanistan that it once used to have and on the other hand, China which has always been involved in Afghanistan matters has a chance to create a huge impact on Afghani’s by not just helping them financially but letting them freely have their rights fulfilled on any international platform.
China has also indirectly told the US to release whatever assets they are holding to help stabilize Afghanistan. China’s one interest in supporting this much to Afghanistan is stability to counter the terrorist organization East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) whose roots can be traced in China near the area of Afghanistan This organization poses a threat to China referring to the “humanitarian violence in Uyghur Muslims”. So, the simultaneous engagement of both states can cause hindrances to effective influence in the region because the US has already left Afghanistan at the time when they were in a vulnerable situation now returning, and creating a positive influence will let the US struggle the most.
China will never want the US to again exploit the Afghan people and take advantage of them, Although China is also not solely true to Afghanistan it is quite easy for them as they haven’t faced a similar situation to the US with each other.
So, the struggle for power between the US and China in the region emphasizes the importance of maintaining their competitive influence effectively. They should recognize the potential risks and consequences of their actions find the common ground and work towards shared goals which is again a complicated process. But for stability and prosperous outcomes, it is necessary. The focus should be more on prioritizing their diplomacy, and mutual understanding and adjusting to co-exist in the region to balance the influence. Where both states share strategic and diplomatic interests, it is important to know that there has never been a single agreement signed by China in any Central Asian countries regarding their investments. Their main focus has always been boosting the economy.
The author graduated in Social sciences from SZABIST University. Her area of specialization is International Relations. She is keen to understand the global power dynamics and how international relations can impact political decision-making and the pursuit of peace. She Tweets @gul_zoyaag16