Russia and China Differ in Afghanistan Ambitions: Experts

By Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke
Reporter
Andrew Thornebrooke is a freelance reporter covering China-related issues with a focus on defense and security. He holds a MA in military history from Norwich University and authors the newsletter Quixote Hyperdrive.
September 23, 2021 Updated: September 23, 2021

Policy factions in Russia are split on whether the nation should commit to trying to match the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) economic ambitions in Afghanistan or merely recommit to working in the central Asia security space, according to experts familiar with the matter.

Maxim Suchkov, a senior fellow at the Laboratory for International Trends Analysis at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, said that there was a divide over whether the risks of state building in the Middle East were worth the potential lucre of tapping into Afghanistan’s $1 trillion worth of rare earth metals.

“There is this debate in the Russian policymaking community right now about the scale of ambition that Russia should seek in Afghanistan,” Suchkov said, “with one group suggesting that Russia should seek the full deal, not only security, but also trying to exploit some opportunities of the exploration of rare earth metals, and other economic development projects.”

He added: “The other group is cautioning against this deep involvement and says our strategy should be security-oriented only. So Russia should not care about the state building or the development or infrastructure of Afghanistan because it’s a black hole that will drain all the resources.”

Suchkov’s comments came during an online panel hosted by Tuft University’s Fletcher School that explored the repercussions of a Taliban-led Afghanistan on the futures of Russia, China, and Central Asia.

Following the resurgence of the Taliban, there was some speculation that Russia and China would be quick to seize upon the opportunity to develop the massive mineral wealth of Afghanistan, but Suchkov’s remarks indicated that, for Russia at least, such a proposition had clear pitfalls.

Suchkov also noted that this difference might be overlooked in the American context because there was a tendency to view Russia and China as acting together against the United States when, in point of fact, they may just be acting similarly. He highlighted the Russian and Chinese attacks on the United States’ failure in Afghanistan as an example of this.

“As far as Afghanistan is concerned, the U.S. has done a lot more than Russia and China together in terms of undermining its position,” Suchkov said. “So Russia and China here are in a way picking up the low hanging fruits of gloating and bashing, and making the most of U.S. actions in Afghanistan.”

“It may create the sense that they’re trying to do something together in Afghanistan. But, perhaps the only new factor that unites Moscow and Beijing right now is a grave concern over what may come next [in Afghanistan].”

Niva Yau Tsz Yan, a fellow at the Eurasia Program of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, agreed that Russia and China maintained a solid consensus about one another’s goals in central Asia, but that there was a pressure in China for the CCP to try to match Russian security presence.

“Chinese scholars have said that if China doesn’t engage militarily or China doesn’t do more on the security front, then eventually the Central Asian states are going to realize that Russia after all is the only security provider that can concretely do things that provide actual reassurance that things are going to be okay,” Yau said.

“China is extremely insecure about this,” Yau added.

Yau noted that Chinese commanders in the region were frequently flanked by translators because Russian was the regular language of the security space. Though China may be economically ascendent, the Russian military was the team to beat in military matters, Yau said.

According to Nargis Kassenova, a senior fellow at the Program on Central Asia at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University who also spoke on the panel, the security dominance of Russia in Central Asia may be waning.

“In central Asia there is some competition in the security sphere. The situation is changing,” Kassenova said. “Before, Russia had this sort of monopoly, but it’s getting diluted now.”

As evidence of this shifting tide, Kassenova pointed out that the CCP recently developed a military base on the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, African forces with Chinese ties were beginning to learn Mandarin and could thus begin to move the linguistic hurdle to greater military cooperation, she said.

In all, the three experts agreed that Russia and China had differing ambitions in Afghanistan, but that any reports of fractures in their relationship were overstated. They maintained that the two nations were likely to continue building their relationship but, as with so many Sino-Russian endeavors, the shape that the process will take is likely to be one of two nations pursuing their own goals side by side, rather than in tandem.

Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke
Reporter
Andrew Thornebrooke is a freelance reporter covering China-related issues with a focus on defense and security. He holds a MA in military history from Norwich University and authors the newsletter Quixote Hyperdrive.