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China's deepening influence in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan

China's deepening influence in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan
6 min read
17 May, 2023
Analysis: Beijing is hoping to unlock the huge economic and infrastructure opportunities that Afghanistan has to offer.

Having mediated successfully between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March, China is now setting its sights on more global trouble spots.

In a significant development, Beijing has been making focused efforts to help Afghanistan emerge from its international isolation by overseeing its foreign relations as a guarantor.

Having arrived in Islamabad last week to hold talks, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang participated in a China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue with Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Acting Foreign Minister of the Afghan interim government Amir Khan Muttaqi.

Afghanistan’s security situation remains erratic, with a spillover of militants across its borders. Over the past year, there have been frequent disagreements between Kabul and Islamabad over attacks carried out by the Tehreek e Taliban (TTP) in Pakistan.

In 2022 alone, 150 attacks were launched by the banned outfit in Pakistan, if not contained effectively, these terror elements could eventually spread across a much larger region.

Since 2019, Beijing has been involved in the Afghan peace process, but in the role of a facilitator in multilateral talks with the US, Russia, and Pakistan. Now, China has emerged as the main mediator and is brokering a sustainable trilateral security arrangement between Kabul and Islamabad.

Apparently, Beijing will be working on a counter-terrorism mechanism with both countries to achieve sustainable security. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan have shown a willingness to implement the Global Security Initiative (GSI) and Global Development Initiative on the basis of dialogue.

With strategic communication and policy coordination under this trilateral mechanism, China hopes to bring peace to this region. And as the Chinese FM Qin elaborated, there should be no “double standards” in fighting terrorism.

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Hoping that both Kabul and Islamabad would also strengthen security measures for Chinese personnel, institutions, and project groups working in their countries, the Chinese FM then dwelt over key regional matters like the unresolved Kashmir dispute and new geopolitical alliances in the neighbourhood.

Zubair Faisal Abbasi, a development policy and management specialist in Islamabad, told The New Arab that China’s interest in Afghanistan is two-fold.

“First, it is embedded in China, being a regional superpower, which seeks a certain kind of role in peace and security. The second is in expanding its economic power to play a role in natural resource exploration and infrastructure building,” he said.  

“Thus, Afghanistan offers [both] these opportunities for the Chinese to stabilise it in collaboration with regional countries such as Pakistan and Iran.”

Rocks containing chromite deposits are collected together in the Mughulkhil mine in Logar Province, Afghanistan. Foreign powers are scrambling for a share of Afghanistan's mineral wealth. [Getty]

China and Afghanistan

The Chinese embassy was one of the few foreign missions that did not close down during the chaotic takeover of Kabul by the Taliban and lent its support to the reconstruction and economic development of Afghanistan after the departure of US troops.

Ever since they seized power, the Taliban government in Kabul has faced scathing criticism from the international community for its oppression of women, denying them opportunities to work and continue their education. Even though the Taliban regime has not been recognised by any country yet, China is keen to engage with them to find a long-term solution.

Releasing an 11-point paper last month to state its stance on the Afghan issue, Beijing has expressed firm support for the reconstruction of the war-torn country. According to Geng Shuang, China's Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, China wishes to dispel the concerns of the international community and hopes to convince the Taliban to “exercise moderate governance” and build an “inclusive government”.

However, it is unclear how China will be able to convince the Taliban to incorporate other political factions, provide a more conducive domestic environment where women can enjoy greater rights, or create a more tolerant approach towards different ethnicities.

“China keeps reminding the Taliban it wants to see a more modern government in Afghanistan, then the mega-investments could follow,” Torek Farhadi, a financial analyst based in Geneva, told The New Arab.

“The Taliban are not capable of delivering an inclusive government as they don’t trust non-Taliban outside their own group to govern. Also, the Taliban cannot modernise their government as the concept goes against Taliban-ism. So, China will wait, it knows Afghanistan is not going anywhere but its regime must evolve.”

Regardless, solving the Afghanistan conundrum has become essential for China to assert its global standing, as it is strategically located within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) region and Beijing cannot let the centrally located, land-locked, mountainous country become an endless conflict zone.

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Economic opportunities for China in Afghanistan

China has made heavy investments in Pakistan and has similar plans for Afghanistan, but due to the security situation there, Beijing has been missing out on some major economic benefits.

First, if these efforts with the Taliban regime in Kabul succeed, China can not only extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan, but it can also firmly establish its foot-hold in a high-value geo-strategic region.

“China has long shown patience with regards to Afghanistan, and since America has left, it will use this opportunity for a gradual linkage through Afghanistan with the land railways to Iran and the Middle East,” Farhadi said.

“China would [also] want to add Afghanistan to the CPEC (China–Pakistan Economic Corridor) and it has designs to link it to the Central Asian Silk Road [as well]. Then, it is interested in Afghanistan’s lithium, copper and rare earths, but it would feel more secure about large investments in the country if the Taliban didn’t govern alone.”

The Chinese embassy was one of the few foreign missions that did not close down during the chaotic takeover of Kabul by the Taliban. [Getty]

While in Islamabad, the Chinese FM also held the fourth round of the China-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue with Bhutto -Zardari. Releasing a joint statement afterwards, both sides agreed to advance the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and fully restore institutional consultations at all levels in the post-pandemic era.

“The latest trilateral meeting between China, Pakistan and Afghanistan will not make any difference unless and until the Taliban make headway with regards to women’s education, the harbouring of terrorist groups like the TTP, Al Qaeda remnants etc,” Zeeshan Shah, an analyst at FINRA in Washington, told The New Arab.

“The security situation in Pakistan prevents China from building upon the CPEC, such as locating export-related industries in the export processing zones under CPEC.”

Second, China has seen projects like the Mes Aynak copper mines and the Amu Darya oil basin stagnate due to instability in Afghanistan, and over the past decade, it has had to hold back from many larger investments there for this reason.

Then, there is the country’s massive mineral wealth. “According to various geological estimates conducted while the Americans were present in the country, Afghanistan has potential deposits of minerals estimated in the trillion-dollar range,” Shah said.

“There has been constant speculation that China would swoop in after the departure of the Americans and get exclusive contracts to extract the mineral wealth.”

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Shah observed that unstable conditions have also prevented China from participating in various important connectivity projects like the TAPI natural gas pipeline projects, the construction of CASA-1000 (Central Asia-South Asia power project), which was abandoned by the World Bank, the building of a railway from Uzbekistan to Pakistan, and extending the CPEC into Afghanistan.

If Beijing manages to stabilise Afghanistan it could be a game-changer, similar to the Tehran-Riyadh rapprochement, with the potential to uplift the region economically.

Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia. 

Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi