On September 13, China’s newly appointed ambassador to Afghanistan, Zhao Xing, arrived at the presidential palace in Kabul to present his credentials to the acting prime minister of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Mohammad Hassan Akhund. Uniformed Taliban members welcomed him to the palace in a grand theatrical ceremony.
While the Chinese foreign ministry deemed the appointment a ‘normal rotation’, the Taliban have sought to leverage the public nature of the ceremony to legitimise their rule, urging other countries to view it as a signal for expanding cooperation. Even though more than two dozen countries have functional embassies in Afghanistan, none have formally recognised the emirate. They have either appointed republic-era ambassadors or placed chargé d’affaires at the helm. China’s decision to appoint a new ambassador is intended to signal its growing willingness to make its support to the Taliban more explicit, short of de jure recognition and to distinguish itself from the reticence shown by the US and India.
After the US withdrawal, the Taliban welcomed China’s interest in investing in Afghanistan’s mineral deposits, its public support for the country in international fora with calls for the release of its foreign exchange reserves, and the removal of sanctions and the absence of any serious insistence on upholding human rights or walking the talk on its commitments to the international community.
In January the Taliban signed its first oil extraction deal with China’s Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co for the Amu Darya basin for 25 years. The company is expected to invest $541 million in three years, with the Taliban having a 20% stake in the project. In April, the Afghan ministry of mines also mentioned another Chinese company, Gochin, looking to invest $10 billion in the country’s lithium reserves. Recently, the ministry held a public ceremony for signing mining contracts worth $6.5 billion with Chinese and other companies.
In May China and Pakistan reaffirmed their commitment to include Afghanistan in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The two sides also signed a tender for constructing a rail line between Karachi and Mazar-e- Sharif. Till July, China contributed approximately $50 million in humanitarian aid to the country, way behind the US and other Western countries. Irrespective of its meagre contribution, Beijing has consistently highlighted its efforts to help Afghanistan while criticising the West for pursuing its geopolitical and vested interests.
Back in August 2021, there were expectations about the growing role that China can play in post-US Afghanistan. Two years later, while China has increased its rhetoric against the West and there have been some commitments on the economic front, the Taliban have failed to address Beijing’s security concerns, particularly the threat from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (or the Turkish Islamic Movement) and its ability to destabilise its western Xinjiang region. It is also concerned about the increasing threat of terrorist groups like ISKP and TTP The attacks on a hotel in Kabul targe ting Chinese delegates in December 2022, the deliberate targeting of Chine se workers by TTP in Pakistan and the possible collaboration between the two groups have raised Beijing’s concerns.
Last month, the Afghan ministry of interior affairs posted about their meeting with executives from China’s Huawei Technologies. While the post was later deleted, the ministry announced that it was in the process of installing around 62,000 surveillance cameras in the provinces. Even though there is no explicit mention of Huawei, the possibility of the company providing the cameras can’t be ruled out. If set up, the cameras will enhance the Taliban’s capability to keep a check on the domestic situation while also allowing China to access foreign facial recognition technology to counter its own security.
For Beijing, its security concerns take precedence, with the success of its economic investments contingent on them. Since the fall of Kabul, it has reiterated its concerns about the risk that certain militants and terrorist groups pose to the country, urging the Taliban to act against them while treading cautiously on big-power economic investments.
In such a situation, this public display of support for the emirate by appointing a new ambassador helps bolster its position as an influential actor in the region, vis-à-vis India and its overarching competition with the West. Both China and the Taliban failed to comment on whether the appointment was a step towards formal recognition. Notwithstanding this, the newly appointed ambassador assured China’s support for Afghanistan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
For China, the situation in Afghanistan is fast becoming an ex- tension of its competition with the West and other regional powers like India. In the coming months, it can be expected to intensify its public engagement with the Taliban to carve a distinct space for itself while striving to sideline the international community’s concerns about the rights and welfare of the Afghan people.
About the authors:
- Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations with King’s India Institute at King’s College London. He is also Director (Honorary) of Delhi School of Transnational Affairs at Delhi University.
- Shivam Shekhawat is a Research Assistant with ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme. Her research focuses primarily on India’s neighbourhood- particularly tracking the political and economic developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan and studying the structural impediments to the growth of a secure democracy in the region as also the politics of aid and assistance.