The recent flurry of attacks on Chinese nationals in Afghanistan has raised concerns inside Beijing’s foreign policy circles. Beijing has a self-made reputation for operating on an astute business model. While Beijing is somewhat risk-averse, it does not let values and norms impede its economic interests. Its conduct and policies toward Taliban-ruled Afghanistan mirror this approach. So far, despite facing some obstacles, China has remained committed to cementing its presence in the country to advance its strategic and economic objectives. The future, however, doesn’t look very promising for Beijing.
Months before the Taliban took Kabul in August 2021, Beijing appeared to have thrown its dice in favor of the insurgents. In July 2021, China hosted a Taliban delegation, which reportedly assured Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi that it would not allow any terrorist group, especially the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), to carry out anti-China activities on Afghan soil. The Taliban did act on their promise, shifting ETIM forces away from the Afghanistan-China border and restricting their activities.
There are two core aspects to Beijing’s interest in Afghanistan: establishing security in its western frontier by controlling Uyghur separatism and protecting Belt and Road projects in Central Asia and Pakistan. Afghanistan has emerged as a lynchpin for both. Beijing’s twin strategies are now playing out.
First, China has positioned itself as the Taliban’s savior, a true friend that it can rely on when the entire international community has not only washed its hands of Afghanistan but also remained selectively opposed to the Taliban’s policies. While Beijing has yet to give formal political recognition to the Taliban, it operates an embassy in Kabul with a designated ambassador. Moreover, China has allowed a Taliban representative to occupy the Afghan embassy in Beijing. China’s foreign minister has been to Kabul, as have various official delegations. China also hosted the Taliban foreign minister in a meeting of foreign ministers of regional countries in March 2022.
Second, in a continuation of its policy during the previous republican government of focusing on economic investment in Afghanistan, China has shown a willingness to pump money into the country’s mining and energy sectors and lend the expertise necessary to rebuild the country. For the cash-strapped Taliban, this has been a beacon of light. The Islamic Emirate has embraced the prospect of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) being extended into Afghanistan, although it is unlikely due to virulent local opposition in Balochistan. On January 5, a Chinese company signed a deal worth over $500 million with the Islamic Emirate to enable oil extraction in the Amu Darya basin in northern Afghanistan, which contains an estimated 87 million barrels worth of crude oil. The deal-signing ceremony took place in the presence of Chinese envoy to Afghanistan Wang Yu and high-ranking Taliban officials, including Abdul Ghani Baradar, the acting deputy prime minister for economic affairs. The agreement is the Islamic Emirate’s first major energy investment contract. Furthermore, China would also like to restart extraction operations at the Mes Aynak copper mine, the contract for which had been awarded in 2008.
Afghanistan, it appears, has turned into a favorable hunting ground for China, with its natural resources up for grabs. Chinese nationals are believed to be the biggest group of foreign investors in the country. Not surprisingly, Beijing has had a muted reaction to the Taliban’s obscurantist policies on the rights of women and minorities, and its early statements in favor of an inclusive government have fallen silent.
However, China’s somewhat smooth sailing in Afghanistan has been disrupted by the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISIS-K). On December 12, the group carried out a terrorist attack on a Kabul hotel usually occupied by Chinese businessmen. In September, ISIS-K, through its propaganda magazine, vowed to oppose Chinese “imperialism” in Afghanistan. ISIS-K, whose violent activities have challenged the Taliban’s claim to power over Afghanistan, clearly seeks to expand its influence in Central Asia and attract Uyghur Muslim militants. The group is believed to have expanded into all of Afghanistan’s provinces of Afghanistan, emerging as the Taliban’s principal adversary. This, in turn, poses a serious challenge to Beijing’s aims. Indeed, China now reportedly plans to arm the Taliban with surveillance drones and sophisticated weapons. Beijing has also urged the Islamic Emirate to keep Chinese investors safe.
As China gets deeply involved in an economically fragile Afghanistan, it is bound to face enormous security challenges that will limit its ambitions. China’s extractive economic model—neglecting the development of infrastructure, governance, and transportation networks—is destined to fail. As the region becomes increasingly radicalized, there will almost certainly be a ripple effect on China’s Uyghur population. ISIS-K’s growing presence in Afghanistan could make China’s interests in the region more vulnerable to attack. Nevertheless, the emerging competition among regional powers invites a new “Great Game” in Afghanistan.
Dr. Shanthie Mariet D'Souza is the Founder and President of Mantraya, a Visiting Faculty at the Naval War College in Goa, India, and a Non-resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute. She has conducted field research in Afghanistan for more than a decade. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @shanmariet.
Image: Roshan Salih/Shutterstock.com.