Taliban and China: The Shape of Things to Come

Harshita Singh
19th September 2021

Picture Courtesy: Reuters

While Afghanistan has been called the graveyard of empires, it is more pertinent to note the grave decisions that have created the condition that haunts the Afghans today irrespective of the invasions that failed. The reasons for the fall of Kabul will be assessed and reassessed for a long time, considering the immense significance of the development that stands to hamper the lives of millions and the geopolitical ramifications that will echo in the region and beyond. In the vicinity lies, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and this article explores the rationale and actions adopted by China and that which it will continue to adopt in Afghanistan.

The relationship between Afghanistan and China has not evolved to its current disposition in the past few years but instead seeds of engagements can be traced as early as 7th century CE when Chinese monk Xuan Zang visited the then-Buddhist valley of Bamiyan, where stood the infamous statues, which were eventually destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. The theme that needs active consideration at this juncture is the type of recognition that China accorded to Taliban and how far is it willing to go to further its endeavours in Afghanistan.

China’s Trajectory in Afghanistan

China has been experimenting with the idea of working with the Taliban for sometime now. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and his delegation’s recent meeting with the Foreign Minister Wang Yi in July, 2021 while the US was at the endgame of withdrawal from Afghanistan, further reverberated the balance that Beijing  has been able to sustain to foster its interest. It can be argued that whilst focusing on the larger picture in promulgating its interests in Afghanistan, China circumvents the dislike it holds for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which according to the PRC poses a direct threat to China’s national security and territorial integrity. While it engages with the Taliban, it would not allow for any gateway for the Islamist extremism that it suggests to be fighting against in Xinjiang region. The Xinjian region’s geographical location places it at a close distance with Central Asian republics, which is witness to the ripple effect of actions that take place in Afghanistan. To maintain its tightknit control and regime in Xinjiang region, China needs to ensure that the balance does not shift against their bets as any sort of disturbance in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, which share borders with western boundary of China might add to the woes of China.

One strategy that the PRC seems to be wedded to is the idea of supporting regimes without questioning the fundamentals until and unless its own interest is benefiting. This strategy is probable in Afghanistan as well while China engages with the Taliban. China has been guarding off against any external power moves and focusing excessively on its national security, the changes that have been made to the leadership of the Western theatre command in the past nine months for instance is evident of that. The bonhomie that pervades the relationship between Taliban and PRC is not limited to tactical assumptions and patronage but there is a sense of cohesion when it comes to their outlook. The Chinese embassy is still up and running in Afghanistan and their trust level seems to be enhancing as Taliban which due to its own actions is on the bad end of several major powers does not want to lose on its powerful consort like the PRC apart from Pakistan. After Taliban’s installation in power, China announced an aid of $31 million in form of food, medicine, and COVID-19 vaccines to Afghanistan unlike other countries and international organisations, which suspended their aid programme. China stands ready to maintain communication with the new Afghan government, which it welcomed as an ‘end to anarchy and China’s Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Wang Wenbin reiterated its consistent position on the Afghan issue.

Belt and Road Initiative

The major area of China’s interest is based around the Belt and Road initiative, which aims to benefit and flourish only if its immense investments that are progressing regularly shape up properly in the region entailing Afghanistan and Pakistan. But this does not mean that it is willing to ignore the threat that it perceives to be emanating from the ETIM and this concern was put forth by Foreign Minister Wang Yi when he met the Taliban delegation. The latter assured by stating that the Afghan territory will not be used in acts detrimental to China, which only time will tell. As China aims to make the most of its Belt and Road Initiative, the interest shown by the Taliban adds to the prospect of China’s initiative. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said the group supports China’s Belt and Road initiative. There are “rich copper mines in the country, which, thanks to the Chinese, can be put back into operation and modernised. In addition, China is our pass to markets all over the world,” said Mujahid. This emerging relation’s transactional nature seems to be driven by the realisation of exploiting and utilising the economic means in the best manner possible and both entities seem to be on board with that.

Afghanistan possesses unparalleled reserves of copper, iron, lithium and rare earth metals that remain untapped in several regions. The Taliban has been trying to brush away China’s apprehensions about its investments in the region. If the Taliban decides to provide further leeway to the Chinese to explore and exploit the rich copper mines that Afghanistan has to offer, the scope of Belt and Road Initiative stands to expand and benefit further.

Extended Multilateral Engagements on Afghanistan

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member nations will help Afghanistan build a peaceful and prosperous state, according to a statement released by the SCO Secretariat last month. In its latest summit conducted under the Presidency of Tajikistan, China’s President Xi Jinping while emphasising on the need to stay true to Shanghai spirit called on SCO members “to step up coordination, make full use of platforms such as the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group and facilitate a smooth transition in Afghanistan”.

On the sidelines of the SCO summit, an informal meeting took place between the four neighbours of Afghanistan namely China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan. Wherein Foreign Minister of China Wang Yi stated, “It is necessary for us four countries to strengthen communication and coordination, make unanimous voices, exert positive influence, and play a constructive role in the smooth transition of the situation in Afghanistan”. The coming together of these four powers reflects on the geopolitical consequences that the Taliban takeover has started showing, while this quad engages and works on their efforts to realise peace and reconstruction of Afghanistan. Pakistan for a long time exercised its duplicitous element, extracting financial aid from the United States and nurturing Taliban assets and interests.

Now, Pakistan has a free hand to exercise its vested interests, which will cause pandemonium for countries like India. The nexus existing between Pakistan and China stands to supplement Pakistan’s strategic depth in Afghanistan and assertion of Chinese influence in Afghanistan. On the other hand, a growing synergy between Russia and China on the Afghan issue also draws them closer to cooperate on political issues and counterterrorism efforts irrespective of the wariness they have shown towards each other in the past. This cooperation roots from their intentions to exercise greater influence in Asia. India like many other powers is caught up in a geopolitical imbroglio wherein safeguarding one’s interests is onerous and it necessitates Indian security establishments to constantly be on the qui vive.  While the world wrangles with the prospects and challenges coming across from Afghanistan, the constructive role the major powers and neighbouring states of Afghanistan hold to play in bringing about a well-defined and balanced approach is going to be decisive in shaping the future of  regional as well as global security environment.

 

*The Author is a Research Intern at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies

 

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