China Cautiously Weighs Opportunities in Taliban’s Afghanistan

Yun Sun

AFP photo: Aamir Qureshi

Since the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, they have repeatedly sent goodwill signals to China. The Taliban promised not to harbor terrorists that could target their neighbors, expressed support for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and said they hoped to participate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. While China is pleased with the gesture and has offered positive reviews of the Taliban this time around, major efforts to launch projects in Afghanistan remain unlikely in the near future. However, if the situation improves in the eyes of Beijing, many in China are itching to exploit what Afghanistan has to offer.

China has three criteria determining its relations with the Taliban. The first, a swift, clean and clear victory by the militants, has been met with the group taking over Panjshir. The second is the Taliban’s domestic policy and its relations with radical Islamic groups, especially Uyghurs present in Afghanistan. So far, it appears that the Taliban has committed to domestic policies more moderate than the brutal and oppressive approach seen when the group previously ruled the country. The group has also said militants cannot use Afghan territory to target foreign countries. The third criteria is how other members of the international community deal with the Taliban-led government. Beijing does not wish to be alone in its outreach, so seeing Turkey, Russia, Iran and Qatar already engaging with the group will encourage China to proceed.

China has been highly positive about the Taliban’s victory – a sharp contrast to the way Beijing shunned them when they previously took over the country in 1996. The Chinese foreign ministry believes “the situation in Afghanistan has changed fundamentally,” which means China sees the Taliban’s victory not only as indisputable, but also irreversible. The ministry also said: “The future and destiny of Afghanistan have returned to the hands of the Afghan people.” The underlying message here is that in China’s eyes, the Taliban are the true representatives of Afghans. The assessments signify Beijing’s approval of the Taliban’s legitimacy and recognition of their victory.

A key reason for China’s positive reception of the Taliban is because it is a major defeat for the US at a time of heightened global tension between the two superpowers. For China, the Taliban’s victory equates to the failures of both an American military intervention and a Western democratic experiment. To discredit the 20-year military operation, China has portrayed the Taliban as a group that has refused to be “the puppet of the US.” They are now the victorious builders of a nation state – a stark shift from the days when Beijing viewed the group as supporting terrorists and imposing draconian domestic rule. The new view that the Taliban’s capture of Kabul was a popular movement, is strikingly similar to Beijing’s own reliance on revolutionary credentials for legitimacy.

China and the Taliban are expected to begin a moderately positive relationship now that an interim government has been established. After the government was announced, Beijing pledged $31 million of aid, including much-needed Covid-19 vaccines. The new political landscape of Afghanistan gives China a much stronger position.

Beijing has significant influence over Pakistan, the Taliban’s largest patron. Among Afghanistan’s neighbors, China has been coalescing its positions with Russia, Iran, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In contrast, the influence of the West has been eviscerated by the chaotic withdrawal of US and Nato forces, the downfall of president Ashraf Ghani and the closing of Western embassies.

Meanwhile, China’s interest in Afghanistan’s economic opportunities is growing. China already had some involvement in Afghanistan’s vast mineral resources, including the Mes Aynak copper mine near Kabul and oil production in the Amu Darya basin in the north. But what’s more important is Afghanistan’s location directly in the path of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

China has also been discussing with Pakistan plans to turn Afghanistan into another wing of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. If successful, the plan would boost regional trade connectivity and help stabilize the country through economic development.

None of these plans, however, will happen until the Taliban secure the country internally. Even then, Afghanistan will remain a high-risk investment destination. Four attacks against Chinese assets and nationals in Pakistan in the past five months demonstrate the costs of close alignment with a divided and unstable nation.

China continues to hold the US responsible for the future of Afghanistan, but more in the way of seeking atonement by Washington atonement rather than a leadership responsibility. China has demanded the US engage the Taliban and lead it in a positive direction. It also wants the US to provide aid and assistance to keep the government functional and the country stable.

If anything, China views the development in Afghanistan through the lens of great power competition and sees the US withdrawal as a dual-purposed, sinister anti-China strategy. On the one hand, Chinese government analysts have claimed Washington’s rapid withdrawal was designed to create a security vacuum and cause chaos on China’s periphery. Disrupting the security of China’s western frontier, they claim, is another attempt to check Beijing’s rise. On the other hand, the withdrawal from Afghanistan will free up American resources to reallocate and focus on East Asia, the primary theater of US-China strategic competition.

In this sense, the struggle for influence in Afghanistan is far from over, and we could be witnessing the beginning of US-China rivalry in the heart of Eurasia.

Yun Sun is director of the China program and co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC.