China and the Taliban are flirting. But how serious is this relationship?
Historically, China and Afghanistan have had concord and discord. The two countries established diplomatic relations on January 20, 1955, and their bilateral ties developed fluidly.
In 1993, after the Taliban took over, closed the Chinese embassy, and relations entered a phase of stagnation. After the collapse of the Taliban on February 6, 2002, the Chinese embassy reopened, marking a new stage in bilateral ties, and developed a relatively successful approach to Central Asia and Afghanistan based on three core interests: security, development, and access to the region's energy resources.
After two decades of diplomatic presence, the Chinese embassy in Kabul continued after the Taliban took over on August 15, 2021.
China shares with Afghanistan 92.45 kilometres of borders. The two countries meet at the Wakhan Corridor, located between the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush. The environment is forbidding, the mountain roads are perilous, and the passage is arduous. Similarly, Afghanistan presents several security challenges to China.
"Afghanistan has always been an essential platform for geopolitical and geo-economic competition between the Great Powers, including China, in the past decades"
First, over the past 35 years, Afghanistan has been mired in a succession of wars and conflicts. China's main concern was the close connections between the Taliban and terrorists and extremists in the past two decades, including Eastern Turkistan, Alqeda, and Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP). On 2001, September 11, among the detainees at Guantánamo Bay, 22 were, in fact, Uyghurs. It was also anxious lest the chaos and instability in Afghanistan spread over the border and undermine Xinjiang's stability.
China is worried that the situation in Afghanistan could threaten the stability of Xinjiang and that Taliban-controlled areas could become an external stronghold for separatist forces. It officially engaged with the Taliban in 2019 and unofficially for several years with the consultation of its close ally Pakistan. On July 28, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi accommodated Taliban delegates for talks in Beijing, the most visible sign of warming Chinese-Taliban relations.
Afghanistan has always been an essential platform for geopolitical and geo-economic competition between the Great Powers, including China, in the past decades.
Afghanistan has a prime location connecting South, Central, West, and East Asia. Beijing hopes to establish the Wakhan Corridor (via Afghanistan), linking China to Central Asia, Europe, and the Gulf Waters. This would enable Beijing to control trade and energy routes and data transfer passing through Afghanistan.
China has been improving economic and political connectivity with Afghanistan via the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in the past two decades.
In 2007, Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper Corporation (JCCL) decided to make the most significant foreign investment of $US 4.4 billion in Afghanistan. They won a tender to develop what geologists believe is the world's second-largest undeveloped copper deposit at Mes Aynak in Logar Province, 35 kilometres southeast of Kabul.
The Chinese consortium also pledged to build more infrastructure than the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada bidders, which will benefit the broader economy. Expressly, MCC agreed to develop a 400-megawatt thermal power plant and a coal mine to feed it, the water supply, minerals required to provide inputs to copper production, and a railway to connect the mine to Pakistan and Tajikistan via Kabul, which is conditioned upon the feasibility, which could yield some $US 400 million in revenue per year, equivalent to the total government revenues in 2007 and provide more than five thousand jobs.
However, the development project has been halted due to delays in controlling the copper price, involvement in court cases in Papua New Guinea, and security concerns.
UN experts have warned that Al Qaeda’s past ties to the recently empowered Taliban have the potential of making Afghanistan a haven for extremistshttps://t.co/s8JhN1PPiY— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) February 8, 2022
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been defined as China's most ambitious push for a dominant role in international geopolitics and trade. The BRI based on the historical Silk Road, an ancient network that linked Asia, the Middle East, Europe, was launched in 2013 by China's President Xi Jinping in Kazakhstan.
A colossal project, with the overarching goal of the BRI, is to promote interconnectivity and partnership among countries on the maritime silk road. It builds upon the ancient silk road, focusing on countries in Asia, Eastern Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.
As per the Council on Foreign Relations estimates, there are about 139 countries that have signed up to the BRI. It also estimates the GDP of 139, including China, at 40 per cent of global GDP and comprising 63 per cent of the world's population living with those countries with an estimation of $US 1.2 to $US 1.3 trillion dollars by 2027.
A new study by AidData's has criticised BRI shed light on China's muscular and exploitative overseas lending was worth $US 843 billion, including $US 385 billion lending practices, hidden debt, and debt-trap diplomacy. The study found that these agreements leverage China considerably by incorporating provisions beyond standard international lending contracts.
Secrecy Lack of transparency, corruption and centralised institutions in these underdeveloped countries is the major challenges confronting Chinese loans and facing debt distress and deposit sovereignty of these vulnerable countries worldwide.
China's debt-trap diplomacy has not been limited to Pakistan, saddled with substantial Chinese debt. Pakistan has given China exclusive rights, associated with a tax holiday, to run Gwadar Port for the following four decades. China will appropriate 91 per cent of the port's revenues.
Undoubtedly, with China's growing ambition to expand across Central Asia through the BRI, and given the close ties between the Taliban regime and Pakistan, China hopes that it will be able to extend CPEC to Afghanistan, from which it can obtain considerable mineral resources.
A report published by Afghanistan's Ministry of Mines and Petroleum showed that Afghans were sitting on at least $US 1 trillion of untapped mineral resources 2,698kg of gold deposits mine, 183 million tonnes of aluminium, 4 million tonnes of rare earth minerals, including lithium and uranium, vast deposits of copper, 2.2 billion tonnes of iron ore, 1.3 billion tonnes of marble, coal, gemstones, gas, and oil. Undiscovered petroleum resources in northern Afghanistan range from 3.6 to 36.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, while estimates of oil range from 0.4 to 3.6 billion barrels.
"For China, a stable and cooperative administration in Afghanistan would pave the way for expanding its BRI into Afghanistan and through Central Asia"
For China, a stable and cooperative administration in Afghanistan would pave the way for expanding its BRI into Afghanistan and through Central Asia. If China onboarded Pakistan to support the Taliban and deal with terrorist groups to stable China and CPEC, it would be an ideal situation for China. If Pakistan cooperates, it would benefit China's further development of the CPEC and support the Taliban in promoting China's strategic and geopolitical interest against India.
On December 30, 2021, Mullah Baradar, the Taliban's first deputy prime with the Chinese ambassador, stated, "Thanks to China for its humanitarian assistance, concrete measures should take to rebuild Afghanistan's economy."
Meanwhile, the Taliban would aspire to use China's 'veto' power to rescue it internationally to seek international recognition, considering China a paramount authority of investment and economic support.
"China is our most important partner and represents a fundamental and extraordinary opportunity for us," the Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said stated on September 3rd.
The question is: can the Taliban control the sorority of Afghanistan and avoid the country being another victim of China's debt trap without institutions and technocrats and experts to negotiate with China?
Mujtaba Haris is an Afghan researcher, journalist, and youth advocate. He spent 15 years working in major cities — Kabul, Herat, and Mazar-e Sharif — and rural areas — Logar province. He is an MBA graduate from Cumbria University, UK. He is a Global Peace award winner.
Follow him on Twitter: @mujtaba_haris
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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of their employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.