1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Japan, South Korea wary of China's clout in Afghanistan

Julian Ryall Tokyo
August 17, 2021

As the US and other countries withdraw development staff and aid, China's regional rivals are watching whether Beijing can extend its sphere of influence by building ties with a new Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar stands next to China's foreign minister Wang Yi
Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar met China's foreign minister Wang Yi in JulyImage: Li Ran/Xinhua/AP/picture alliance

Japan and South Korea shuttered their respective embassies in Kabul and evacuated the last of their diplomats and aid workers from the Afghan capital after the Taliban effectively seized control of Afghanistan on Monday.

Neither Tokyo nor Seoul sent military forces to Afghanistan, but both have been significant providers of infrastructure development aid over the two decades of US and NATO presence in the country.

Analysts say that aid will now be suspended until the policies and plans of the Taliban regime become clear, including their attitudes towards women and educational opportunities for girls.

And both Japan and South Korea will also be keeping a watchful eye on the actions of the Chinese government, which on Monday effectively accepted the Taliban's overthrow of the previous Afghan government.

A Chinese government official expressed hope that the Taliban will set up a political structure that will help to bring about lasting peace in Afghanistan, saying Beijing has "maintained contact and communication with the Taliban" and that China intends to "play a constructive role in the peace and reconstruction of Afghanistan."

A big question is whether Beijing intends to continue expanding its sphere of influence through the provision of generous amounts of foreign aid, which can make recipient nations increasingly dependent on Chinese largesse.

China has already forged close ties with Pakistan as it seeks an outlet to the Indian Ocean, and Afghanistan could prove another important strategic ally in central Asia.

Japan likely to suspend Afghan aid

Since 2001, Japan has provided around $6.8 billion in assistance for the reconstruction of infrastructure across Afghanistan.

A further $720 million in Japanese government aid was due to be provided between 2021 and 2024, although it is likely this assistance will now be frozen.

"Japan has been very active in helping to rebuild infrastructure, develop agriculture and other similar projects and it's difficult to see how those can go ahead now if the aid organizations and embassy staff have been withdrawn," said Hiromi Murakami, a professor of political science at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

"I think Tokyo is likely to wait and see what other government do in terms of engaging with the new Taliban government there because Japan's involvement is purely in the form of development assistance and there are no strategic implications," she told DW.

And Japan has seen the risks of carrying out development aid in an unstable Afghanistan.

In 2019, Tetsu Nakamura, head of Peace Japan Medical Services, was gunned down near Jalalabad. He had been spearheading a number of irrigation projects to help local people, and his killing was blamed on the Taliban.

'Wait and see' on Taliban

Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University, said that both Japan and South Korea will now "wait and see" how the Taliban imposes its laws on Afghanistan over the next six months before making a decision on resuming assistance and aid to the country.

"If the Taliban are moderate in their actions and have learned their lessons from the last time they took over the country, then I can see Japan being ready to re-engage," he said.

The situation for South Korea is more complicated, he pointed out, as a large percentage of Korean aid is provided through Christian churches and affiliated organizations, which is unlikely to be welcomed by the Taliban.

"At the moment it is not clear just what sort of rule the Taliban is bringing with it, so it's a waiting game at the moment," Nagy said.

And if it is harsh, based on a close reading of the Koran, denies girls an education and restricts the freedoms of women, then Japan and South Korea, "will walk away and take their aid elsewhere," he added.

China's regional ambitions

Murakami said that China, which has a 76-kilometer (47-mile) remote mountain border with Afghanistan, may try to take advantage of the Taliban takeover and the potential vacuum in international engagement with the Islamist regime.

Afghan's hold a sign mourning the death of Tetsu Nakamura
A vigil was held after a Japanese doctor was gunned down in AfghanistanImage: Getty Images/AFP/N. Shirzada

"Recognizing the Taliban government so quickly was a bold move on the part of China and will be seen by the wider international community as a challenge," she said.

"Beijing has been aggressively gaining ground all across Asia and the Pacific in recent years, politically, militarily and through its aid programs, and they are likely to try the same tactics in Afghanistan."

And previous criticism of the Taliban from both Seoul and Tokyo may not endear Japan and South Korea to the new regime in Kabul.

As recently as May, the Japanese Foreign Ministry condemned a "terrorist attack" against a school in Kabul, in which a number of girls were killed.

Earlier in August, the foreign ministry of South Korea, which in 2018 alone donated $2.2 million in support of "vulnerable children and women in Afghanistan" said an attack on the United Nations compound in Herat and "subsequent violent incidents" should be "investigated as a possible war crime."

"The Taliban must stop denying their involvement in human rights violations and follow the rule of law to investigate and prosecute those responsible in their ranks," the statement added.