Written by: Rafid Mohammad Ishrak
No matter how the mainstream media tells us about the warm attitude towards and diplomatic embrace of the Taliban by China, for China itself, the recent steps taken by the top figures of the state have not been so easy. The uneasy embrace of Taliban by the Chinese leadership can be seen easily if we look at the incidents unraveling since the last few years and China’s official stance during the previous rule of Taliban in Afghanistan.
When the Taliban were last in power between 1996-2001, China had already severed relations with Afghanistan, having pulled out its diplomats in 1993 following the outbreak of civil war. But now, after the recent visit by Taliban’s apex authority figures in Tianjin on July 28, 2021 with the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, it is clear that China has come a long way, refraining from any contacts with the militant group to meeting with their leaders in Chinese territory in an official capacity. What is there for China? Why did China change its official policy towards the Taliban? Why is Afghanistan important to China anyway? All these questions are going to be answered in this piece.
China’s Position in the Current Situation
To understand China’s perspective, we need to put ourselves in their position. China is a massive country spanning from hot, humid Guangdong in the south to Manchurian and inner Mongolian steppes in the north, from Shanghai in the east to Kashgar in the west. It has the world’s largest population, more than 56 ethnic groups and is growing faster than the rest of the world in terms of economy, finance, technology, education and industry. The last thing China wants for itself is instability. Most of its nervousness is caused by Uighurs in it’s western province advocating for greater autonomy in public and private lives and in some cases, outright independence. The group that is responsible for China’s insecurity in it’s western province of Xinjiang is Turkistan Islamic Party and the struggle aptly named East Turkestan Independence Movement.
Now, if we look closely, we can see that Afghanistan sits relatively closer to Urumqi, Xinjiang than Beijing. Afghanistan has acted as a hub or safe haven for the rebel groups of Xinjiang. The recent “vocational education” programs and eradication of extremist elements from Xinjiang has given China a negative spotlight recently. However, China has no other option but to crush the anti-establishment groups because if they gain a strong foothold in the western neighboring countries along the borders of China, the groups will be able to bend China to its knees and gain moderate concessions for themselves.
That is why China heavily invested in the economic and security apparatus in it’s western provinces and Turkic speaking regions. China needs to pacify it’s western borders, and for this, Afghanistan needs to have a stable state of affairs. The more stable Afghanistan becomes free of NATO’s influence, the better it is for China. Yes, The Taliban is an extremist organization that wreaks havoc in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, but China needs to focus on state security more than anything else. That is why China is ready to establish an official diplomatic channel with anyone who controls the majority of the territory of Afghanistan, even if the group has an ideology completely opposite China’s and has achieved it’s control over the country through armed means.
Threats to China
As I have made it clear in the previous point, China’s paramount concern regarding Afghanistan is it’s own security. Afghanistan is a whirlpool of tribal conflict and religious extremist violence, literally no regime has been able to control all of Afghan territory and unite the nation under one single motto or ideology. I am not going to turn this article into a cliché by calling Afghanistan the “Graveyard of Empires.” It is not, but it is a loss project for large scale nation building.
From the recent Taliban victory, It may seem that the civil war in Afghanistan is over, but this is not the case. Taliban is an extremist militant group that is manned predominantly by Pashtun Tribesmen. There are other ethnic groups in Afghanistan such as Tajiks, Hazara Shias, Uzbeks, Turkmans and many more. Endless disputes over authority, religious freedom and interpretation, political power distribution are some of the main points of disputes that persisted and will persist post 15th August 2021.
Stability won’t be the reality in Afghanistan for at least 5-10 years even if the Taliban holds the power consistently. In neighboring Pakistan, three high-profile attacks against Chinese nationals have been launched in the last few months: the April 22 bombing of a hotel in Quetta where the Chinese ambassador was staying, a bus explosion in Kohistan that killed nine Chinese engineers in mid-July, and the shooting in Karachi of a car carrying Chinese engineers on the same day the Taliban delegation met with Wang. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the Quetta attack and analysts also suspected that it is culpable in the other attacks. Pakistani and Afghan Talibans are two sides of a coin.
Economic and Financial gains are not the main incentive for China to dive into Afghanistan right now. China will focus mostly on the security of Chinese nationals, stopping the spilling of violence across the border, securing it’s economic assets in Central Asian “Stans” and Pakistan. The nation has billions of dollars worth of investment in these countries, China will try to make sure that no harm is caused to those investments before entering into Afghanistan itself.
A romance between China and the Taliban is not something to be predicted from the reality that we are facing right now. The relationship is born of necessity rather than preference. Many Chinese officials and analysts have doubts about how modernized the Afghan Taliban will ever be. Although some in China assess that the Taliban have become more pragmatic, there is no guarantee for what their policy will look like, especially regarding relations with radical Islamic organizations in the region. In addition, even if the core of the Taliban adopts a neutral, or even friendly, policy toward China, whether it could rein in all of the group’s radical factions remains a major question. Chinese officials don’t see many choices other than working with the Afghan Taliban, but the relationship will be complex, and its course will be determined by numerous factors in the months and years ahead.
In spite of the Taliban’s warm welcome for China to invest heavily in Afghanistan, China will not do the same in the foreseeable future. There has consistently been a disconnect between Chinese rhetoric regarding Afghanistan’s economic potential and the actual scale of Chinese commercial projects in the country. Afghanistan may play a crucial role in China’s belt and road initiative. Afghanistan may have the potential of being integrated in the China-Pakistan-Afghanistan regional economic ecosystem. But the reality is bleak.
For the first six months of 2021, total Chinese foreign direct investment in Afghanistan was only $2.4 million, and the value of new service contracts signed was merely $130,000. That suggests that the number of Chinese companies and workers in Afghanistan is declining significantly. For the whole of 2020, total Chinese foreign direct investment in Afghanistan was $4.4 million, less than 3 percent of that type of Chinese investment in Pakistan, which was $110 million for the same year.
China has been burned badly in its investments in Afghanistan. Its two major projects to date — the Amu Darya basin oil project by China’s largest state-owned oil company, China National Petroleum Corporation, and the Aynak copper mine by state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corporation and the Jiangxi Copper Company Limited — have both been ill fated. The challenges have included archeological excavation that halted the progress of the Aynak copper mine, security threats, and renegotiation of terms as well as the challenges of resettling local residents.
Before establishing stability and security in this region, it is highly unlikely that China will start a major project and integrate Afghanistan into China’s huge economic and financial network. India has been the clear loser in this current scenario because India has made a mistake to invest in and build projects in Afghanistan still under the threat of major insecurity and Instability.
China will be bidding it’s time to watch how the scenario unravels. How Taliban deals with Northern alliance, vowing to fiercely resist Taliban in the country centered in Panjshir, how the new Taliban government structures it’s political and government institutions, how it manages it’s financial dealings, how it will sever or robust it’s ties with Al-Qaeda and other international terrorist organizations. Only time will tell us whether China will fully embrace the Taliban or not.
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Featured Image Courtesy: CNN