When the Taliban ceased power in Afghanistan on August 15, 2021, most countries closed down their diplomatic mission in Kabul and started evacuating their citizens out of Afghanistan. But there were four notable exceptions- China, Pakistan, Russia and Iran, who decided to continue. China was among the first nations to develop a diplomatic channel with the Taliban regime and declared that it was ready for a “friendly and cooperative”[i] relations with the regime - the groundwork for that prompt decision, however, was laid down much earlier. Over the years, China had maintained direct communication with the Taliban, and both sides have met on several occasions, bilaterally and internationally, underscoring China’s warming ties with the Islamist group.
Following the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, China was the first foreign country to pledge emergency humanitarian aid (worth $ 31 million) to Afghanistan.[ii] The Taliban regime, which has been facing a humanitarian catastrophe and economic meltdown, welcomed Beijing’s prompt delivery of food and medical supplies and that set the stage for deepening political and economic ties between the two sides. Prior to his visit to India in March 2022, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a surprise visit to Afghanistan and met his Afghan counterpart in Kabul.[iii] Beijing also invited the Taliban to send representative to the Third Foreign Ministers’ Meeting among the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, held in the city of Tunxi on March 31,2022 the first time a Taliban official has attended this gathering of China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.[iv] The first chapter of this dialogue was hosted in Islamabad in September 2021, immediately after the Taliban seized power from the Ashraf Ghani regime; while Iran had hosted the second meeting in late October in Tehran. It is interesting to note that China held the meeting at a time when Pakistan was going through a political turmoil that eventually led to the annihilation of the Imran Khan government.
So far, no country, including its principal backer Pakistan, has recognised the Taliban regime as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. The international community wants the Afghan Taliban to institute urgent reforms in its governing style, give representation to all Afghan ethnicities, and respect women’s rights to education and work. However, neither China nor Pakistan has let such concerns come in the way of their strong ties with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Beijing’s motives: Past and Present
Post- 9/11, when Afghanistan re-attracted the world’s attention towards itself, China preferred to be a mere spectator to the dramatic events that unfolded there and chose to maintain a low profile. Historically, China has regarded Afghanistan as a neighbour wielding little diplomatic significance; but the ‘War on Terror’ was a game changer, as it brought the US and its European allies into Afghanistan in a big way. China was not interested in playing any subordinate role under the dominance of the West and, thus although it outwardly supported US-led war efforts, it allegedly continued to maintain informal and clandestine links with the Taliban via Pakistan.[v] The objective was twofold: First, to protect Chinese economic interests in the region and second, maintain stability in Xinjiang. In other words, in the initial years of the US-led era in Afghanistan, China had limited objective in the country: although it was interested in containing the security threat that the internal conflict in Afghanistan presented, it was unwilling to participate in any military effort in the country.
In the last few years however, this has gradually changed as Beijing has moved from a periphery actor to one with strong influence in Afghanistan’s future, emerging as a critical actor. This increased involvement can be attributed to two reasons: First, with the Obama Administration’s announcement that the US would withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by 2014, Beijing was faced with a real possibility of a resurgence of instability and terrorism at its borders. Second, to realise Xi Jinping’s dream of “national rejuvenation” of the Chinese kingdom, Beijing had embarked on a grand strategy that sought to firmly establish China as a global great power. It has thus undertaken not only expanded economic engagement and developmental aid lending, but also an expansion of security interests to protect such investments.
In recent past, many analysts have stepped forward to provide predictions on how America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will impact China’s regional and global standing. Some argue that the withdrawal will free up American resources to focus on China and the Indo-Pacific. For others, the withdrawal opens a vacuum for China to exploit. In anticipation of a US withdrawal, China has followed a pragmatic strategy and has met the Taliban regularly. In order to foster favourable ties with all the key stakeholders of the Afghan politics, China not only maintained close contacts with the Ashraf Ghani government; but also courted the Afghan Taliban during the meetings in 2018[vi] and 2019[vii]- almost parallel to US negotiations for a peace deal in Doha. Notably, the nine-member Taliban delegation travelled to China to seek Beijing’s advice on Trump’s proposed deal for a peace framework—demonstrating China’s considerable influence over the Islamist group.[viii]
China’s top Priority
China’s strategy in Afghanistan is guided by its economic and security interests in Afghanistan. On the security front, Beijing faces threats from certain groups it has branded as terrorist organisations, which are believed to be operating from Afghan territory. Its primary concerns are how to curb regional instability and eliminate any potential for Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups, especially Uyghur militants in the country. China would closely observe the Taliban’s relationship with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) -- a Uyghur group that Beijing blames for unrest in its western Xinjiang Province.
China’s economic interests in Afghanistan revolve around significant investments in the mining sector — Mes Aynak copper mine and the oil extraction contract in the Northern provinces of Farvab and Sar-e-Pol. Both projects were on hold for years because of the volatile situation in the country. Reportedly, dozens of Chinese mining companies have descended on Kabul in recent weeks seeking contracts for other mines.[ix] China’s Belt and Road Initiative projects also circumvent Afghan territory, in the security realm Chinese policymakers are concerned about how the instability in post-US withdrawal Afghanistan will affect China’s economic interests in Pakistan as well as Central Asia. There are many more Chinese nationals and investments in these states than in Afghanistan itself, and attacks on Chinese workers[x] in the recent past have heightened Beijing’s concerns around possible terrorist attacks against Chinese nationals in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been pushing in favour of the Taliban-led Afghanistan joining the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure project, and reportedly, this was one of the issues discussed between Wang Yi and Mullah Baradar, when they met in Kabul on March 24, 2022[xi]; however no final decision on this issue has been taken so far.
Sino-Taliban Relations post August 2021
Post-August 2021, China’s main assistance to the Taliban came in the form of humanitarian aid and donation of COVID-19 vaccines. On the diplomatic front, China has made efforts to rally international support and aid for rebuilding Afghanistan, particularly by calling the international community to lift sanctions and unfreeze Afghan foreign assets. Correspondingly, Beijing and Pakistan have come together to urge the Western powers to engage the Taliban and to provide assistance to the country. The Taliban regime is aware that Beijing’s backing is crucial for obtaining international legitimacy and thus have tried to accommodate Chinese concerns. A recently published UN Report[xii] states, “there are no recent signs that the Taliban has taken steps to limit the activities of foreign terrorist fighters in the country,” however, there is a mention in the report that indicates otherwise and suggests that the Taliban is placing operational restrictions on a group that is of particular interest of China – like the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP). China on its part have carried on with its economic and political engagement with a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and have largely maintained silence over its detrimental domestic policies.
China reacted strongly to the humanitarian and economic crisis in Afghanistan and blamed the US for allowing the security situation to deteriorate by “hastily” withdrawing all its troops from the country and leaving behind a “mess and turmoil” for the Afghan people.[xiii] It believes that it is US’ responsibility and obligation to address the critical situation in Afghanistan. Beijing strongly slammed President Biden’s executive order to free 7 billion US dollars (out of more than 9 billion frozen Afghan assets) and split the money between humanitarian aid for Afghanistan and a fund for 9/11 victims. China Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Wang Wenbin reacted to US’ decision by stating- “Without the consent of the Afghan people, the US wilfully disposes off assets that belong to the Afghan people, even keeping them as its own. This is no different from the conduct of bandits.”[xiv]
Over the past few months, the Taliban regime has indicated its keen interest to cooperate with China and assuage its concerns, but Beijing remains cautious about its policies in Afghanistan. Beijing has economic interests in the country, with a particular eye on its vast mineral wealth, but China's main interest is that conflict doesn't spill beyond Afghanistan's borders. Although Beijing has refrained from outright recognising the Taliban government so far, China has hosted ministers of the Afghan Taliban’s caretaker government. Chinese media have jumped on the opportunity to highlight economic opportunities the new Islamic leadership presents for China, particularly for lithium mining, which now seems at the forefront of their developing relations.[xv] To test the waters, China may start with mineral extraction projects and based on the experiences of those, Beijing might decide on the other projects. The situation in the country in still volatile, China therefore will be watching to see what kind of government emerges in Afghanistan and how it manages to wield power across the country, till then it is unlikely to commit to any substantial investment or playing any greater role in Afghanistan and rather stick to a wait-and-watch policy.
*Dr. Anwesha Ghosh is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] “China ready for 'friendly relations' with Taliban, welcomes Afghan development projects. “France 24, August 16, 2021. Available at: https://www.france24.com/en/asia-pacific/20210816-china-ready-for-friendly-relations-with-taliban-welcomes-afghan-development-projects (Accessed on 9.4.2022)
[ii] “China offers $31m in emergency aid to Afghanistan”. BBC, Sep 9, 2021. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-58496867(Accessed on 9.4.2022))
[iv] “China holds multinational meetings to discuss Afghanistan.” Al Jazeera, March 30, 2022. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/30/china-holds-multinational-meetings-to-discuss-afghanistan (Accessed on 9.4.2022)
[v] Jagannath Panda, “Beijing’s Strategic Moments with Taliban: Policy, Strategy and Worldview” MP-IDSA Issue Brief, Sep 3, 2021. Available at: https://www.idsa.in/issuebrief/beijings-strategic-moments-taliban-jpanda-030921 (Accessed on 11.4.2022)
[vi] Farhan Bokhari, Kiran Stacey and Emily Feng, “China Courted Afghan Taliban in Secret Meetings Financial Times, 6 August 2018. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/66b0906a-993d-11e8-9702-5946bae86e6d (Accessed on 11.4.2022)
[vii] Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Rupam Jain, “Afghanistan’s Taliban Meets Chinese Government in Beijing”, Reuters, 22 September 2019. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-taliban-china/afghanistans-taliban-meets-chinese-government-in-beijing-idUSKBN1W70I3(Accessed on 11.4.2022)
[viii] “Wang Yi Meets with Head of Afghan Taliban Political Commissuion Mullah Baradar”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, 28 July 2021.Available at: https://www.mfa.gov.cn/(Accessed on 11.4.2022)
[ix] “China Pursues Afghanistan’s Mineral Wealth After U.S. Exit.”TheWallStreet Journal, March 13, 2022. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-pursues-afghanistans-mineral-wealth-after-u-s-exit-11647172801(Accessed on 11.4.2022)
[x] “Pakistan says attack that killed Chinese was a suicide bombing”. Reuters, Aug 13, 2021. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/pakistan-foreign-min-says-bus-attack-that-killed-9-chinese-workers-was-suicide-2021-08-12/ (Accessed on 12.4.2022)
[xi] “What extending CPEC to Afghanistan will mean for China, Pakistan, and India.” The Hindustan Times, March 29, 2022. Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/what-extending-cpec-to-afghanistan-will-mean-for-china-pakistan-and-india-101648543672456.html (Accessed on 19.4.2022)
[xii] Letter dated 3 February 2022 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council. Feb 3, 2022. Available at: https://documents-dds- ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N21/416/14/PDF/N2141614.pdf?OpenElement (Accessed on 12.4.2022)
[xiii] “China blames US for Afghan crisis.” The Hindustan Times, September 2021. Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/china-blames-us-for-afghan-crisis-101626030047818.html ACCESSED ON?
[xiv] China slams US for ‘willfully’ disposing off Afghan assets, says conduct no different from ‘bandits’. The Print, February 15, 2022. Available at: https://theprint.in/world/china-slams-us-for-willfully-disposing-off-afghan-assets-says-conduct-no-different-from-bandits/833252/ (Accessed on 12.4.2022)
[xv] “With Taliban in power China eyes highly lucrative rare-earth mines in Afghanistan.” The Freepress Journal, Aug 27, 2021. Available at: https://www.freepressjournal.in/business/with-taliban-in-power-china-eyes-highly-lucrative-rare-earth-mines-in-afghanistan (Accessed on 12.4.2022)