By Cherry Hitkari*
The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan marks the commencement of a new chapter in Asian geopolitics. China, as an aspiring superpower and Kabul’s largest neighbour, sees both opportunities to be seized and risks to be staved off on the Afghan turf.
An Arm of Friendship
China is among the first few countries to negotiate with the Taliban, reflected in the Tianjin Meet where China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi affirmed Beijing’s belief in the “Afghan led and Afghan owned” principle. At the meet, Wang assured the Taliban of non-interference in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs and respect for its territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence. Post the Taliban takeover in Kabul, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Hua Chunying expressed Beijing’s expectations from the Taliban. These were as follows: a moderate religious policy, an inclusive political structure, harmonious relations with neighbouring countries, reconstruction, and above all, “a clean break from all kinds of international terrorist forces.”
Although it did not formally recognise the Taliban regime during 1996-2001, Beijing has never been averse to cooperation with the Taliban. With far greater economic and political clout today than two decades ago, China is seeking a greater role in the region.
Range of Opportunities
Washington’s irresponsible withdrawal from Afghanistan has tarnished its image as a global leader, casting doubts among its allies who, wary of American commitments, are now seeking to balance ties with China. Moreover, US failure in installing Western-style liberal democracy in Afghanistan has aided China in justifying its own authoritarian system at home.
With an economy today that is 17 times of what it was in 1996, China is eyeing a greater economic role in Afghanistan, which possesses rich reserves of rare earth materials and precious metals. Some experts believe it could potentially be the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” essential for manufacturing large capacity lithium ion batteries used in electrical vehicles.
Over the past two decades, Chinese companies have bagged contracts for copper mining, drilling oil fields, and infrastructural development in Afghanistan. China has also stepped up aid to Afghanistan, increasing its aid injections from just US$ 240 million between 2002-2013 to US$ 80 million in 2014. In 2016, China signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Afghan government to include Kabul in the US$ 62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). However, the extent of its economic role was constrained by Washington’s close affinity with the ousted Afghan government. With a friendly Taliban regime now in power, China is seeking to significantly expand its economic activity in the region.
Meanwhile, common concerns over economic stakes in Afghanistan and the fear of extremism spilling over their own territories may push Central Asian countries closer to China, if it exercises some influence over the Taliban. The Taliban’s raising of the Kashmir issue while refusing to make any comment whatsoever on Xinjiang could potentially result in a China-Pakistan-Taliban nexus, giving Beijing geopolitical leverage against regional rivals like India.
Not a Cakewalk
Notwithstanding the opportunities, the new Taliban regime could prove disastrous for China’s volatile Xinjiang. The 12th Report of the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team in June 2021 confirmed the presence of several hundred militants of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in Badakhshan and those of foreign extremist groups such as al Qaeda. Though the Taliban has promised to treat China as a “friend,” its commitments to not let terrorism take root in Afghanistan remain doubtful.
Even if the Taliban stays faithful to Beijing, its ability to curb cross-border militancy remains vague. Pakistan’s priorities in the region will continue to shape Afghanistan’s security landscape. The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), which claims to be the Taliban’s sworn enemy, also threatens to cause instability.
As a militant organisation, the Taliban lacks the organisational ability to administer the country. Moreover, with the US freezing US$ 9.5 billion worth of Afghanistan’s central assets and donors such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) suspending grants, running the country would be extremely challenging for the Taliban. After all, 75 per cent of public spending comes from international aid. Under such conditions, there is a high probability of infighting among the country’s internal factions. Indeed, this is already taking shape, in the form of independent militias within the Taliban.
Most of China’s investments in Afghanistan have been virtually paralysed and will remain so till stability is achieved. With China repatriating most of its citizens from Afghanistan, it remains unclear how long Chinese leaders may take before reconsidering engagements involving Chinese citizens in Afghanistan.
Such conditions do not just elevate security concerns but also threaten to distract China from its own economic development. Even though China has indicated its aversion to a military presence, it will not be free from shouldering responsibility for the security situation in Afghanistan, as it did in the past 20 years of the American presence.
What’s Next for China-Afghanistan Relations?
The US exit lands Beijing in a very delicate situation. From the American debacle, China has learnt that boots on the ground in Afghanistan will only empty its purse and fan hostility. At most, it would defer participating militarily, while externally pressurising the Taliban and other parties to maintain stability. Whether the Taliban’s takeover turns out to be more of a gain or a headache remains to be seen.
*Cherry Hitkari is a postgraduate scholar with the East Asian Studies Department at Delhi University.