Sino-Russian Cooperation Could Be Tested by ‘Pre-9/11’ Afghanistan

By Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke
Freelance 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.
August 24, 2021 Updated: August 25, 2021

News Analysis

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hailed its military drills with Russia earlier this month as an assurance that violence from the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan would not spill over the border into China.

The drills saw roughly 10,000 troops engage in counterterrorism training exercises in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, home to over 2 million Hui, a predominately Muslim ethnoreligious minority group.

Despite the fanfare, experts say that military cooperation between the two nations is not on the same order as the type of cooperation one might expect from the United States and its allies.

Further, with the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, both Beijing and Moscow face the possibility of growing instability in an area they consider their backyard—Central Asia—as experts warn that the region could revert to a “pre-9/11” status quo in regards to terrorist threats.

Cooperation Based on Sovereignty

The China-Russia partnership is “largely about treating one another as equals,” said Arik Burakovsky, Assistant Director of the Fletcher School’s Russia and Eurasia Program at Tufts University.

“Certainly, China understands that it is a rising power and Russia is a declining power, but nonetheless they have similar military strength despite the imbalance in economic strength,” Burakovsky told The Epoch Times.

Their relationship has been evolving since the early 2000s, he said.

Beginning with counterterrorism efforts after 9/11 and their first joint military exercise, “Peace Mission 2005,” ties between Beijing and Moscow increased again in 2014, largely in response to Russia’s need for economic security following a slew of international sanctions due to its annexation of Crimea.

Since then, the two countries have regularly held military exchanges and consultations, including bilateral military exercises every year since 2018.

Burakovsky noted, however, that Sino-Russian military exercises were a far cry different from what most Americans think of when they hear the term.

“It’s important to note that the drills have been generally limited in scale and scope,” Burakovsky said. “They’re usually conducted in parallel rather than jointly.”

“They seem to be more about deconfliction, so to speak, at the strategic level, and about geopolitical posturing rather than any kind of meaningful operational utility,” Burakovsky added.

For the two countries, interoperability is not on the agenda, he said, referring to the ability of a military force to effectively work as a component unit of a multinational force, rather than in mere coordination with a foreign force.

Paul Stevenage, an independent intelligence analyst and adjunct fellow at the Center for American Defense Studies, also told the Epoch Times that the depth of the arrangement was frequently mischaracterized.

“I still think, despite what a lot of people say, that the jury is still out on the degree of integration that Russia and China seek,” Stevenage said.

“They may be able to operate jointly in certain areas, but that’s not integration,” he added.

The two experts highlighted that Russia and the CCP have different theories and methods of warfighting. Between this and cultural differences between the two powers, the military cooperation demonstrated by the two countries does not resemble the traditional military alliances of the West.

To this end, Burakovsky said that the Sino-Russian entente was not based on any real ideological similarity, but rather focused on respecting one another’s sovereignty above other factors such as human rights.

“They don’t let human rights issues get in the way of their relationship,” Burakovsky said. “It’s difficult to imagine Vladimir Putin being critical of the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang or Xi Jinping calling out Chechnya for its treatment of gay people. That’s just not going to happen.”

Different Needs in Afghanistan

That focus on sovereignty above all has led the two nations to a critical point in their relationship, as each power now attempts to navigate a burgeoning relationship with the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. In the end, what involvement with the Taliban looks like for Russia and the CCP could be very different.

“I don’t think that the long-term interests of Russia and China in Afghanistan are the same,” Stevenage said.

In the case of Russia, Burakovsky pointed out that the Kremlin felt vindicated, having spent the last seven years building Taliban contacts. Russia was also one of the few countries to not evacuate its embassy in Kabul this month. China was another.

Nevertheless, Russia is in something of a wait-and-see period with the Taliban. Burakovsky believes that the possibility of the Taliban being recognized by the Kremlin as a legitimate state actor would remain slim until the situation in Afghanistan becomes much more stabilized.

Conversely, the relationship between the CCP and the Taliban is based ultimately on a shared economic ambition, according to Stevenage. The Chinese regime desires to expand its Belt and Road Initiative, a massive global infrastructure investment project, while the Taliban is seeking better funding from international trade. As such, Stevenage believes the CCP is likely to speed up its efforts to collaborate with the Taliban on various economic efforts.

“I don’t think the Taliban particularly like the Chinese, but the Chinese will be able to exploit the minerals and pay them,” he said. “It’s a very transactional relationship rather than an ideological relationship.”

There is roughly $1 trillion worth of mineral wealth in Afghanistan, which the CCP now has the opportunity to extract. It is with such trade in mind that the CCP has accelerated its propaganda efforts to demonize the United States and elevate the Taliban these past weeks.

The CCP has praised the Taliban as a more “rational” partner than it was last time it was in power, while the editor of state-owned media outlet The Global Times called the CCP and the Taliban “friends.”

These efforts to warm ties with the Taliban have not gone unnoticed, and the group has praised the CCP in turn, signaling that the regime would be an important partner in infrastructure development projects in Afghanistan.

A ‘Pre-9/11’ Future

How Russia and the CCP independently decide to deal with the Taliban could affect the trajectory of their partnership in the long run. Regardless of the continuation of their entente, however, recent events in Afghanistan will have enormous knock-on effects throughout the region in the coming years.

Both Burakovsky and Stevenage expressed concern that the new state of affairs could mark an age of increased international terrorism.

“If the Taliban are unable to maintain power, if they are unable to attain international legitimacy and recognition from the Afghan population, or if there’s an insurgency that ensues, I think Afghanistan could become a failed state and a safe haven for terrorist organizations like the Islamic State group,” Burakovsky said.

“The situation could become fairly chaotic for central Asia.”

Stevenage likened the situation to a timebomb regardless of the Taliban’s success. A resurgent Taliban would soon be followed by a resurgent Al Qaeda, he projected, ultimately paving the way for a status quo ante bellum as terrorist-training groups build upon resentment among Muslim minority groups throughout the world, whether it be in Xinjiang, Chechnya or elsewhere.

“I think you will see growing resentment,” Stevenage said. “[Terrorists] will also look at the model that worked: You wait out the power. It’s the old saying: ‘You may have the watches but we have the time.’”

“You may even see a reduction in ISIS as people go back to the more traditional set-up, but you will see more terrorism around the world,” Stevenage added. “Maybe not immediately, but it will go back to a pre-9/11 model.”

Stevenage noted that the Taliban were never an international terrorist organization in their own right, but that they allowed groups that were, such as Al-Qaeda, to develop within their borders.

He fears that now there will be a return to the training and exportation of radical Islamism from Afghanistan, as China and Russia work to stabilize the Taliban’s power.

“The one thing we can say is that AQ [Al-Qaeda] will gradually move back in,” Stevenage said. “They will establish training camps and that will return to a pre-9/11 type of existence.”

Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke
Freelance 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.