China's Budding Romance with the 'New' Taliban
The following commentary examines how after the withdrawal of US troops and the Taliban regaining control in Afghanistan, China is preparing itself as a significant player in Afghanistan’s politics and a potential investor.
By Preeti Khenta
American withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan airbase in Bagram, in the dead of night, without informing the Afghanistan government, has raised apprehensions about the possibility of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the near future. The 12th report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the United Nations confirmed East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) militants located primarily in Badakhshan and neighbouring provinces, submitted to the UN Security Council. China—which shares a 90 km border with the northern Afghan Badakhshan province—is concerned that hundreds of ETIM fighters are reportedly grouping in Afghanistan. There are legitimate fears that terrorists might infiltrate through the Wakhan corridor or Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) and Central Asian countries. The ETIM has tried to carry out insurgency in the Uyghur Muslim-dominated Xinjiang province in China—which also shares borders with POK and Tajikistan.
Back in 1980, when China and the US established full diplomatic relations, the Carter administration supported China militarily to counter Afghani communists and fight with the Soviets. During the Cold War, China helped United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia arm Afghan mujahideen to defeat the Soviet Union from gaining influence in the country. However, since 9/11, the US military presence has presented somewhat of a "dilemma" for China. While Beijing has criticized America's military presence in the country, it is intrinsically sceptical that the US "abandoning" the country will harm China's national interests. However, many countries hope China will be the next potential player to stabilize the "graveyard of empires", where others- Britain, Russia, and now the US have failed miserably.
Chinese stakes in Afghanistan
China's central project Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in South and Central Asia—including critical energy and transport infrastructure projects—is a significant risk due to the instability in Afghanistan. Through the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—the flagship project in BRI—both Pakistan and China want to engage Afghanistan, as its geostrategic location is a massive benefit.
China's involvement has increased over the past twenty years in Afghanistan through Chinese investment and development aid amounting to around $240 million between 2001 and 2013. Since NATO started its troop withdrawal in 2014, Chinese investments have been steadily increasing, a trillion-dollar program that focuses on infrastructure through China's Belt and Road Initiative
In 2007, an agreement was signed between the Afghan government and the state-owned – China Metallurgic Group Consortium and the private company Jiangxi Copper Company Limited to extract copper from the Mes Aynak Mine in Logar province for US$ 3.4 billion. Due to security risks, the project has been stalled but remains lucrative for China. Afghanistan reportedly has the world's largest unexploited reserves of copper, coal, iron, cobalt, mercury, gold, lithium, and thorium, valued at over US$ 1 trillion.
In 2011, China National Petroleum Corporation was awarded three Amu Darya basin exploratory blocks in Afghanistan's license round. The cabinet approved the 25-year deal, which was signed in 2012. The three-oil field contains giant gas condensate fields. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2016 between Beijing and Kabul, and around $100 million was allocated in loans for infrastructure projects. In the same year, under the umbrella of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the first rail freight was built connecting the Chinese province of Jiangsu and the city of Hairatan on the Afghan border. In 2017, Afghanistan also became a member of the Beijing developed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in the same year to facilitate Chinese investments into the country further.
When the US sent its troops into Afghanistan in 2001 to fight the 'war on terror’—China was busy building its economy and showed no interest in 'fighting' the Taliban. China continued communication with Afghanistan on the diplomatic level and even conducted a joint training program for Afghan diplomats. The Chinese Defence Ministry in 2016 established an official military dialogue with Afghanistan and provided $70 million in military support defence and counter-terrorism efforts. Later in 2018, the Afghan embassy in Beijing confirmed that China had helped Afghanistan militarily to counter possible attacks by al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization ( SCO), created by China and Russia in 2001, aimed to target the "three evils" – terrorism, extremism, and separatism and developed into a regional security grouping that also includes- India, Pakistan, and four other former Soviet Republics-Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. In 2012, Afghanistan was granted observer status. The member countries set up a liaison office and conducted many joint military exercises together. The SCO contact group on Afghanistan met in Tajikistan on 14 July 2021, where Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi discussed the situation in Afghanistan amid growing security threats and finding ways to facilitate Afghanistan's socio-economic restoration. According to the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi- "The development of the situation in Afghanistan is at a critical juncture. As close neighbors of Afghanistan, the SCO member states can play a positive role in promoting the peace, reconciliation and reconstruction process in Afghanistan ".
China had even initiated a trilateral foreign ministerial relationship with Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2017, with the aim was to promote the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan and to ease tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan as latter blamed Pakistan for supporting Taliban insurgents. However, the peace talk process collapsed in 2015.
Recently Taliban spokesman Suhail Shahen welcomed Chinese investment in reconstruction and guaranteed the safety of investors, describing Beijing as a "friend." He also commented on China's Uyghur separatists and assured them that they would not allow them into Afghan terror. In response to this, state-sponsored media Global Times published a piece with the title "making an enemy of Taliban is not in the interest of China." The piece cited Chinese experts arguing that the Taliban is quietly transforming itself into a political organization. The "new Taliban" is a "reformed" one that focuses more on the internal affairs of Afghanistan and is prepared to take power. Such statements indicate the budding "romance" between the two sides. With a Taliban takeover looming, this is good news for China. In the past, to win the Taliban's cooperation, China has offered to build roads in Taliban-controlled territories and several energy projects, including generating electricity. Although Beijing officially supports Afghan national reconciliation, it is sending strong signals that it plans to treat the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan to secure its interests.
China's foreign minister Wang Yi had previously also urged the Taliban to make a clean break with terrorism, and in the past, it hosted Taliban delegations for negotiations in 2019. China is also joining hands with Pakistan to deal with the instability in Afghanistan. Wang Yi met his Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, earlier this month and released a joint statement. They stressed that peace and stability in Afghanistan were vital for socio-economic development, connectivity, and prosperity in the region and called on all Afghan stakeholders for a comprehensive ceasefire and to work together in earnest to achieve broad-based and comprehensive, inclusive negotiated political settlement. China has relied on Pakistan to engage with the Taliban, the same terror state which backed and sponsored the Taliban in Afghanistan and other terror outfits in the region if Pakistan prevents terror outfits like Tehrik-i-Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Jaish-e-Mohammed from operating in Afghanistan. The growing attack on CPEC projects in Pakistan, including one in Kohistan on 14 July 2021, a bus explosion that killed Chinese workers travelling in Pakistan for the BRI project, highlight the difficulty of pursuing economic development in such a volatile region.
The ties between China and the Taliban are significant for Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative. China—which is positioning itself to play a defining role in the region—sees the Taliban be an undeniable part of Afghanistan's political future. At the same time, the Taliban views Beijing as crucial for its international legitimacy and a much-needed potential investor in the country. Despite this bonhomie, one crucial question remains: Can the Taliban forgive China's Muslim gulag and other harsh anti-Islamic measures in Xinjiang? Only time will tell.
Preeti Khenta is a Research Intern with the Usanas Foundation.
Disclaimer: This paper is the author’s individual scholastic contribution and does not necessarily reflect the organisation’s viewpoint.