What to make of the Taliban's increasing engagement with China

China's Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi during his official visit to Kabul in March 2022. Screenshot for Ariana News YouTube channel. Fair use.

From October 17–18, a Taliban delegation participated in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Forum in Beijing. This became the highest-level international event attended by the Taliban since they took power in Afghanistan in 2021. The delegation was led by the acting Minister of Commerce Haji Nooridin Azizi, who shared that the Taliban requested China allow Afghanistan to officially join the BRI.

This came on the back of major developments in the relations between the Taliban and China in 2023 and birthed speculations that Afghanistan's formal accession to the BRI may happen soon. The most hyped news was the announcement that BRI’s main project, China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), will be expanded to Afghanistan. Also, Chinese companies have signed several investment contracts and expressed interest in Afghanistan’s oil, gas, and mineral reserves.

For more on the BRI, read: China's Belt Road Initiative: Deal or steal?

These developments have created discussions about whether China is moving toward replacing the US presence in the region. The US withdrew much of its financial support to Afghanistan and placed sanctions on the country’s foreign reserves in 2021. Afghanistan’s formal accession to the BRI and increased Chinese investments are the Taliban’s best bet at reviving the national economy and facilitating development. However, China’s increased engagement with the Taliban is dictated by its security interests rather than economic ones, and the latest spurt of cooperation may remain only on paper and never materialize.

A friend instead of a foe

China’s political leadership recognized the previous Afghan government’s eventual downfall and launched its official engagement with the Taliban before the group took over Kabul in August 2021. On July 28, 2021, China’s Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi hosted the Taliban delegation in Tianjin, China, calling them “a pivotal political and military force.”

Here is a post on X (formerly Twitter) with images of the Taliban's visit to China on July 28, 2021.

After the Taliban came to power, China kept its embassy in Kabul open and handed the Taliban the Afghan embassy building in Beijing. The Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid noted: “China is the most important partner and represents a fundamental and extraordinary opportunity for us,” in September 2021.

Relations between Kabul and Beijing have been moving in a positive trajectory since then. In March 2022, Wang Yi visited Kabul, becoming the highest-profile foreign official to visit the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. In September 2023, China became the first country to appoint a new ambassador to Afghanistan, who presented official credentials to the Taliban. Although there are many diplomatic missions in Kabul, other countries have kept their previous ambassadors or appointed charge d’affaires to avoid presenting credentials.

Here is a YouTube video about Chinese investors in Afghanistan.

China and the Taliban have had a productive year for bilateral cooperation. On January 5, the Taliban’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum and the subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) called Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co signed a 25-year contract to extract oil from the northern Amu Darya basin. The agreement includes a total of USD 690 million in investment.

In April, reports emerged that a Chinese company called Gochin offered the Taliban an investment of USD 10 billion for the exploration and extraction of lithium. Afghanistan’s lithium reserves are so large that they have the potential to rival Bolivia, which currently has the largest lithium reserves in the world. Overall, the country’s vast but largely untapped mineral reserves are estimated at USD 1–3 trillion.

In May, China’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Wang Yu, declared that China was ready to expedite the preliminary work on the Mes Aynak copper mine. In 2008, a Metallurgical Corporation of China and Jiangxi Copper Consortium (MCC-JCL) consortium won a 30-year contract to extract copper at Mes Aynak with a total investment of USD 3 billion. However, due to security risks, all the work at the mine has been suspended since then.

Security over economy

The multi-billion dollar investment deals created an unprecedented buzz around the future of Chinese presence in Afghanistan. Adding to it was the May announcement that the USD 60 billion CPEC project would be extended to Afghanistan, which promises investments into major infrastructure projects. Indeed, Afghanistan’s geographic location would help China advance BRI by connecting Central and South Asia and its vast mineral reserves would help further cement China's dominance in green energy.

However, it may be too soon for the Taliban to celebrate. There is substantial evidence suggesting that China’s investment promises may turn out to be mostly talk. It is too early to say with confidence that China will follow through with its contracts.

In 2011, CNPC signed a contract with the previous Afghan government to extract oil in the same Amu Darya basin. In 2013, after one year of operation, all the work was suspended due to security problems and other complications. Similarly, the Mes Aynak copper mine never took off after the aforementioned Chinese company won the extraction right in 2008 for the same security reasons. The lithium mining project has not moved past the news about preliminary plans yet. Thus far, all these projects remain only on paper with questionable prospects of realization.

What adds more doubt is the fact that the Taliban are not displaying any signs of a strong government capable of ensuring security and stability that could guarantee Chinese investors a safe security environment. Afghanistan is home to terrorist and militant groups such as Tehreek-i Taliban Pakistan, Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), also known as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). All these terrorist organizations operate in Afghanistan and have a record of organizing attacks against Chinese nationals.

China’s engagement with the Taliban is driven by its attempt to contain the terrorism threat in Afghanistan and prevent any spillover to China. This has been made clear from the first bilateral meeting in July 2021 when the Taliban promised that it would not allow any terrorist organizations to launch attacks on China.

Beijing’s biggest problem in this regard is the ETIM/TIP, a militant group consisting mainly of ethnic Uyghurs from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region whose main goal is to establish their own state, East Turkestan. China blames the group for a series of terrorist attacks in China, including the Kunming knife attack.

Here is a YouTube video with a brief history of ETIM/TIP:

In October 2021, following Beijing’s demands to deal with the ETIM/TIP fighters, the Taliban removed them from the northern Badakhshan province close to the Chinese border to central and eastern provinces. It is certain that China’s further footprint size will be tied to the Taliban’s measures against the ETIM/TIP. Beijing is likely to push the Taliban to detain and hand over ETIM/TIP members in exchange for investments.

However, the Taliban will resist that, understanding that the presence of ETIM/TIP is one of the few leverage points they have over Beijing. Also, handing over ETIM/TIP righters to China might create a rift within the Taliban and present the group as puppets of outside powers, undermining their standing in the eyes of people in Afghanistan.

China is keen to avoid the mistakes of the Soviet Union and the US, whose approaches in Afghanistan failed miserably. Under the current circumstances, the most likely scenario is small-scale investments by Chinese companies that will allow Beijing to maintain engagement with the Taliban and mitigate security threats.

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