China’s “tri-ring” approach to the Afghanistan issue and beyond

Over the past decade, the India-Pacific Quad which includes the United States, Japan, India and Australia has been discussed widely and controversially as well. Due to the uncertainties in Asia and the Pacific, the U.S. has tried to transform this strategic forum into a geopolitical means with a view to containing the rise of China. For sure, sovereign states have rights to set up multiple dialogue among themselves in terms of mutual respects. Yet, it becomes a serious scenario whenever a state or alliance tends to dismiss the legitimate security concerns of other states in the region and beyond.

China has pursued what is called national rejuvenation which has been taken for over one century by Chinese people. According to the doctrine of classic realism put forward by Hans Morgenthau, any nation and particularly a rising power has to deliberate and reconsider the fundamental elements which are the components of what we call national power. First of all, geography is the most stable factor on which the power of a nation depends. Second, equally vital are other elements such as natural and human resources, industrial capacity and military preparedness backed by technology. Third, the decisive element of nations is the leadership which is dispensable, as Henry Kissinger put it, to make strategic decision, earn trust from both domestically and internationally and lead people to reach from where they are to where they have never been and, sometimes, can scarcely imagine going. Without leadership, otherwise, governments drift and nations court growing irrelevance and, ultimately disaster.

As the major neighbor to each other, China and Russia have perceived common threats looming from the hawkish clique of the Anglo-American elites that have driven the AUKUS pact, the Quad security forum and the prospect of the global NATO in both Europe and Asia. Given this, it is self-evident that China is aware of the consequences if it would alienate Russia as the strongest strategic sinew in the global vicissitudes. In the long-run, Beijing and Moscow need to maintain strategic focus and work together with the global partners to warrant the peace and stability in the world generally and the Eurasian region particularly.

Geographically, Eurasia refers to the “Heartland” of the world which stretches from the Volga to the Yangtze and from the Himalayas to the Arctic Ocean. Yet, it is under the jurisdiction of China and Russia.[1] More than that scenario, now the two countries have seen each other as the geostrategic partners in the region and globally. Since 2014, China has used “standing back-to-back” strategic neighbors with Russia to jointly address common risks and challenges. But the United States have highlighted Eurasia as the pivot of the grand chessboard since the end of the Cold War. Then, U.S. strategists like Kissinger, Brzezinski and etc. argued that “no matter which power, either of Europe or Asia, dominates Eurasia, that danger is seen by Washington as a structural threat to its primacy in the world.”[2] China and Russia will definitely react to how the U.S. would have treated them as the major powers of the world.

This article aims to interpret the “tri-ring” approach of China to the issues of Afghanistan and Eurasia which is seen as the strategic corridor for China’s access to its energy and trade markets. First, since the summer of 2021, the regime-change in Kabul has grabbed the world’s attention to how China would respond to the geopolitical void left by the U.S. For China has enhanced strategic coordination with Russia, Pakistan and Iran, known as the Eurasian strategic partners on the Afghan issue. To the strategists in Washington, such a grouping would have the capacity to outstrip the U.S. economically and, in the end, militarily. As Kissinger argued earlier that strategic danger for the U.S. is domination of Eurasia by a single power from either Europe or Asia, so it would be resisted even were the dominant power apparently benevolent or cooperative. To that end, the United States has mastered its economic and high-tech advantages to buttress its military supremacy globally. This is the fundamental reason why the United States has increasingly treated China, Russia and Iran as strategic competitors and systemic rivals in Eurasia due to its geostrategic dimensions and tremendous resources available in the upcoming competitions of the major powers.

For the similar reason, China’s strategic project like the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) led by Russia are seen by the U.S. and its allies as the Sino-Russian joint efforts to remove the West out of Eurasia. Since the Afghan Taliban returned to power in August 2021, the world has questioned how China would play a seminal role in the postwar Afghanistan where the U.S. had faltered during the two-decade military occupation. As the first step, on September 16, the Foreign Ministers of China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran held talks in Dushanbe and presented a five-point formula on national reconstruction in line with the “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” principle initiated by China. One month later, a round of talks were held in Moscow with an emphasis on the issues of Afghanistan and the region along with the member states of the SCO plus Iran and Turkmenistan as well. It revealed that since Afghanistan links the BRI straightly to the heart of Eurasia and also likely acts a new haven to all the terrorists once again as it did before, the future of the country would affect all the neighboring countries including China if the chaos surges again. The Moscow meeting reaffirmed the SCO support to rebuild the war-torn Afghanistan in line with universally accepted principles and norms of international law, primarily the UN Charter.

What China wants to see is a peaceful and friendly Afghanistan as the neighbor. Given the lessons of the Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States in Afghanistan, China has indicated that it will never be involved into the country alone. Yet, the issue remains how China would work with its strategic partners and friendly countries to help the Taliban, now the ruling party of Afghanistan, to attain political stability, economic recovery and diplomatic recognition from the international society. Based on the survey and examined, China’s “tri-ring” approach to the Afghanistan issue is essentially and officially consistent.

First, China has been committed to working with Pakistan, Russia and Iran to jointly deal with the issues in Afghanistan. Next, China has appealed to the neighboring countries of Afghanistan—China, Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan—together to make assure the Taliban to get rid of all the terrorist groups under UN Resolutions. Then, the SCO and the Eurasian partners would be needed to take part in the post-war reconstruction from humanitarian aid, security to diplomacy, including the Taliban in charge of the country be recognized as the de jury government of the country. In doing so, it can assist the restructuring a modest and inclusive governance in the already so-called “failed” Afghanistan. This is the reason why this article aims to dissect China’s “tri-ring” approach to Afghanistan and Eurasia.

On April 12 and 13, the 4th foreign ministers’ meeting of neighboring states of Afghanistan was held in the capital of Uzbekistan. The foreign ministers of China and five Central Asian countries met to discuss the issues like common security, lasting peace and sustainable development in the region. To those ends, they vowed to deepen relations through extensive mutual understandings on cooperation after Chinese F.M. Qin Gang consulted with his counterparts from the five countries in Central Asia. With regards to the scenario in Afghanistan, all the participants agreed to further consolidate the consensus of the neighboring countries on the Afghan issue, and firmly implement the outcomes and consensus of the previous meetings to support its social-economic reconstruction and feasible cooperation in the country. China reiterated to cement multilateral contacts and cooperation with Central Asian partners in the framework such as the U.N. and the SCO to safeguard the basic norms of international relations, the international system with the U.N. In a long run, six countries also agreed to upgrade cooperation in a wide agenda of trade, investment, interconnection, green agriculture, medical and health care, energy and minerals.

Two weeks later, on 27, China once again hosted four countries of Central Asia (this time, Turkmenistan not present) in ancient city of Xi’an, China. The discussion aimed to make full preparations for the upcoming Summit between China and Central Asia. The upcoming agenda is that first, all parties have agreed to host China-Central Asia Summit in Xi’an in May with a view to presenting the high-level China-Central Asia cooperation to the world and also ushering bilateral relations into a new era. Second, all parties have vowed to respect each choice of a development path suited to their own national conditions and resolutely reject any individual or any force creating chaos and turbulence in Central Asia. The Chinese government is committed to taking the responsibility of a major country in the region and beyond. Its stance on the issues of the core interests and national security of all the countries in the region has never changed and will not change. Third, as the largest economy in Eurasia, China will continue making all efforts to increase the level of economic, trade, investment and financing cooperation with the five countries of Central Asia. Meanwhile, China and Central Asian countries will keep close collaboration within such multilateral regimes and frameworks as the UN and the SCO in line with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and other recognized norms of international law.

If it is coincident or not, on 27-28, Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu attended the meeting of the Council of the Defense Ministers of the SCO member states in New Delhi, India where Mr. Li met with Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and the two sides exchanged views on relations between the two countries and militaries. As the media said, Chinese Defense Minister Li who is a career soldier made it clear that China is ready to cooperate with other members of the SCO to build a balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture since it has become a key platform for SCO member states to strengthen strategic communication and discuss security cooperation. Given this, the defense ministers of China and India pledged at the meeting to boost strategic dialogue, expand SCO cooperation and jointly safeguard regional security and stability, all of which were written into a joint communique after the meeting.

Now in summary that China has valued the tri-ring approaches to the issues of Afghanistan and the Eurasian regions. First, on the issue of Afghanistan, China has committed to working with other players such as Pakistan, Russia, and Iran. Second, to make sure the peace in Afghanistan and beyond, China has worked with the Eurasian Quad along with all neighboring states of Afghanistan, which covers major countries of Central Asia. Third, in a long run and from the geopolitical perspective, China as one of the key driving forces of the SCO has advocated the role of the SCO which has included the major and minor countries in the Eurasian regions which not only occupies the heartland of the world, but also possesses the tremendous deposit of oil and strategic routes. Given this, China adeptly follows the lore of ancient China that together, it never fails in foreign affairs.

[1] Hans Morgenthau & Kenneth Thompson, Politics among Nations – the struggle for power and peace, 6th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1985), p. 127 & p. 179.

[2] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p. 813; Also see Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives (NY: Basic Books, 1997), p. 27.

Liu Peng-qi
Liu Peng-qi
Liu Peng-qi, MA in Geopolitics & a junior research fellow at School of Int’l & Public Affairs, Jilin University; Paul Wang, a professor of International Law & International Relations, Shi-liang School of Law, CZU.