04 August 2021

Foreign Policy: “China and the Taliban begin their Romance”

Amid all of this regional angst, China is quietly attempting to secure its interests in post-U.S. Afghanistan. Beijing has reportedly been actively engaging with Kabul on construction of the Peshawar-Kabul motorway, which would connect Pakistan to Afghanistan and make Kabul a participant in China’s massive infrastructure and investment plan, the Belt and Road Initiative. Up until now, Kabul has resisted participation in the initiative to avoid getting on the wrong side of Washington. Beijing is also building a major road through the Wakhan Corridor—a slim strip of mountainous territory connecting China’s westernmost province of Xinjiang to Afghanistan—and onward to Pakistan and Central Asia, complementing its existing road network through the region. Once completed, these new thoroughfares should enable Beijing to pursue its goals of increased trade with the region and natural resource extraction in Afghanistan. According to a 2014 report, Afghanistan may possess nearly a trillion dollars’ worth of extractable rare-earth metals locked within its mountains.

Going forward, assuming the Taliban retake Afghanistan, the nature of China-Taliban ties will be geostrategically significant. A sustained positive relationship may further enable Beijing to make broad economic and security inroads into Afghanistan and Central Asia. Beijing already has strong bilateral and multilateral relations throughout the region (not least via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization), but an improved relationship with Afghanistan will pay even larger dividends. If the Taliban stay true to their word—a big if—then Beijing is set to benefit from Belt and Road projects transiting Afghanistan as well as what China frames as counterterrorism cooperation against Uyghur extremists in Xinjiang.

Beijing’s growing clout in the region, spurred on by closer ties to the Taliban, could also raise suspicions in Moscow that China is eclipsing Russia as the dominant power in Central Asia—potentially adding a rare friction point to their relationship. Although India also appears to be engaged in back-channel negotiations with the Taliban, an official Chinese recognition of the Taliban is unlikely to sit well in New Delhi because of China’s ties to Pakistan, furthering India’s already strained relationship with China over territorial disputes in the Himalayas.

Derek Grossman

With the imminent withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, the power vacuum left behind is set to swiftly be filled by Taliban guns, with Chinese money following close behind. I heard the issue being discussed in a recent episode of the Deep State Radio podcast, with a general consensus that China is unlikely to succeed where both the US and Russia have repeatedly failed.

But I think this conclusion is a bit hasty and shallow: unlike Russia and the US, who invaded and tried to hold the country, China has a narrower set of objectives. On one side: to expand its economic influence throughout Asia, preferably by making other countries dependent on Chinese investments, and thus more malleable for Chinese interests. In Afghanistan, China already has several business concerns, from large infrastructure projects to resource extraction, such as the Aynak copper mine, and officials have previously discussed extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor into Afghanistan. On the other side, China is naturally concerned about growing terrorist activity in the region, neighboring its Xinjiang province – making early reconciliatory gestures towards the Taliban could set up at least mutual non-aggression: we don’t interfere with your internal affairs if you don’t interfere into ours.

The US went into Afghanistan two decades ago with a hazy notion of disbanding terrorist activity and stayed pursuing a range of ideals from building a democratic government from scratch and advancing human rights, none of which were successfully achieved. China has no such far-reaching plans, and so it may find it easier to achieve its more concrete national security and economic goals.

An important question for the US and political commentators to ask would then be: what if China manages to become a long-term partner for Afghanistan and other countries in the region? Chinese leadership has been underestimated before – perhaps this narrower approach, focused on economic initiatives, would be easier to accept than a full American intervention, with the intent of promoting democratic institutions and Western-style rule of law. The model could then become attractive for other neglected regions, from Africa to Latin America, slowly eroding US’ global reach.

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, left, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for a photo during their meeting in Tianjin, China
In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, left, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for a photo during their meeting in Tianjin, China, Wednesday, July 28, 2021. Wang met with a delegation of high-level Taliban officials as ties between them warm ahead of the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan. (Li Ran/Xinhua via AP)

Then again, the Communist Party is prone to arrogance and bouts of control, attitudes that would not fare well among proud people who stood up against several global powers over the years. As soon as their different ideologies and interests clash, this romance between the Chinese and the Taliban could crash as fast as it started.

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