Foreign Affairs
China’s Diplomatic Ties with Taliban: Friendship or Geopolitical Maneuver?

As the US and NATO withdraw troops from Afghanistan, the world is focused on the evolving dynamics in the war-torn nation. China, a rising global power, is keenly interested in the region’s future and has significantly changed its engagement with Afghanistan over the years. China’s involvement in Afghanistan is not entirely new, as it has long been interested in stabilizing the country to safeguard its security interests. However, the Taliban’s return to power following the US exit has opened a new chapter in China’s engagement with the Afghan government.

The two nations share a historically peaceful relationship, with a border spanning over 90 kilometres, primarily in the Wakhan Corridor. During Afghanistan’s turbulent history, China maintained diplomatic relations with various Afghan governments, including the Taliban regime in the 1990s, but never recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

China’s interest in Afghanistan is driven by its vast mineral wealth, including rare earth minerals, lithium, and copper, which are crucial for high-tech products like smartphones and electric vehicles. China, the world’s largest consumer of these resources, sees an opportunity to secure a steady supply by investing in Afghan mining projects. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), passes through Pakistan and connects to the Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea. Stability in Afghanistan is essential for ensuring the safety and security of this corridor, which serves as a vital trade route for China.

China shares a border with Afghanistan and has been concerned about the potential spillover of instability and extremism from Afghanistan into its Xinjiang region, home to the Uighur Muslim minority. The Taliban has shown willingness to crack down on Uighur militants operating in Afghanistan, aligning with China’s counterterrorism goals.

China has been actively engaging with the Taliban diplomatically, meeting with senior Taliban leaders in Tianjin, China, signalling its willingness to recognize and engage with the new Afghan leadership. However, China’s growing ties with the Taliban have raised eyebrows among regional actors, particularly India, which views the Taliban with suspicion due to its historical ties to Pakistan. The United States and other Western nations are closely monitoring China’s actions in Afghanistan, wary of any attempt to exploit the power vacuum for its benefit.

China’s newly appointed ambassador to Afghanistan, Zhao Xing, arrived in Kabul to present his credentials to the acting prime minister of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Mohammad Hassan Akhund. The Taliban have used the ceremony to legitimize their rule and urge other countries to view it as a signal for expanding cooperation. China’s decision to appoint a new ambassador is intended to signal its growing willingness to make its support to the Taliban more explicit and distinguish itself from the reticence shown by the US and India.

After the US withdrawal, the Taliban welcomed China’s interest in investing in Afghanistan’s mineral deposits, public support for the country in international fora, calls for the release of its foreign exchange reserves, and the removal of sanctions. In January, the Taliban signed its first oil extraction deal with China’s Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co for the Amu Darya basin for 25 years, with a 20% stake in the project.

In May, China and Pakistan reaffirmed their commitment to include Afghanistan in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and signed a tender for constructing a rail line between Karachi and Mazar-e-Shif. China contributed approximately $50 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan until July while criticizing the West for pursuing its geopolitical and vested interests.

In August 2021, China’s expectations for its role in post-US Afghanistan were shattered when the Taliban failed to address Beijing’s security concerns, including the threat from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and terrorist groups like ISKP and TTP. The Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs recently announced the installation of around 62,000 surveillance cameras in the provinces, which could enhance the Taliban’s ability to monitor domestic affairs and allow China to access foreign facial recognition technology.

For Beijing, security concerns are paramount, as the success of its economic investments depends on them. Since the fall of Kabul, Beijing has reiterated its concerns about the risk of certain militants and terrorist groups to the country, urging the Taliban to act against them while cautiously investing in big-power investments.

China’s public display of support for the emirate by appointing a new ambassador strengthens its position as an influential actor in the region, vis-à-vis India and its competition with the West. Both China and the Taliban did not comment on whether the appointment was a step towards formal recognition. However, the newly appointed ambassador assured China’s support for Afghanistan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

China’s situation in Afghanistan is becoming an extension of its competition with the West and other regional powers like India. In the coming months, it is expected to intensify its public engagement with the Taliban to carve a distinct space for itself while addressing the international community’s concerns about the rights and welfare of the Afghan people.

China-Taliban Deal: A New Geopolitical Landscape Emerges

The China-Taliban deal is expected to involve economic cooperation, infrastructure development, and military support. China, known for its economic prowess, is expected to tap into Afghanistan’s vast mineral resources, such as lithium, copper, and rare earth elements. The deal also includes financing and building infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, such as roads, railways, and energy facilities. China has expressed interest in counterterrorism cooperation with the Taliban, aiming to prevent the spread of extremist ideologies and maintain stability in the country. While China has not officially recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, this agreement signals a willingness to engage with the group diplomatically, potentially providing the Taliban with international legitimacy.

The China-Taliban deal has sparked global reactions, with Western countries and human rights organizations expressing concerns about China’s alignment with the Taliban due to their history of oppressive policies and human rights violations. Regional powers like India and Russia are closely monitoring the developments, concerned about the alliance’s impact on regional stability and their interests in Afghanistan. The US government has taken a cautious stance, emphasizing the need for the Taliban to uphold human rights and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorists. The Afghan government-in-exile, led by former President Ashraf Ghani, has called on the international community to reject the deal, citing concerns over Afghanistan’s sovereignty and future.

The China-Taliban agreement signifies a significant shift in the geopolitical dynamics of the region, driven by China’s economic interests and desire for regional stability. However, the long-term consequences remain uncertain. If managed effectively, China’s investments could contribute to Afghanistan’s economic development and potentially reduce its dependence on foreign aid. China’s engagement with the Taliban may influence their international behaviour, potentially pushing them towards moderation and pragmatism. The agreement’s counterterrorism provisions raise questions about China’s commitment to global security.

China’s Complex Strategy: Unraveling the Motives Behind its Support for the Taliban

China’s unexpected alignment with the Taliban, a militant group viewed with scepticism by the international community, raises questions about its motives and the implications for regional and global security. China’s growing economic interests in Afghanistan, a crucial component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), play a significant role in its support for the Taliban. A stable Afghanistan is essential for the success of the BRI, as it would provide a gateway to Central Asia and access to valuable resources.

China has expressed concerns about the spread of extremist ideologies and terrorism from Afghanistan into its Xinjiang province, home to the Uighur Muslim minority. To mitigate these risks, China has sought to establish a working relationship with the Taliban to ensure the group does not support or harbour Uighur militants. By engaging with the Taliban, China gains regional influence and potentially prevents India from establishing a dominant role in Afghanistan. Additionally, Afghanistan is believed to have vast untapped mineral resources, including lithium, copper, and rare earth elements, which China may provide with preferential access to, further bolstering its economic ambitions.

China’s support for the Taliban can be seen as a strategic move to maintain control and influence over Afghanistan’s security situation, as the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces has left the region uncertain. This alignment with the Taliban can be seen as a hedge against potential instability, as it seeks to maintain control over developments in the country. However, China’s support comes with risks, including potential international criticism for backing a group with a history of human rights abuses and extremism, and the possibility of the Taliban fully cooperating with China’s interests due to their focus on consolidating power within Afghanistan.

China and Afghanistan Forge Closer Ties in a Shifting Geopolitical Landscape

China’s relationship with Afghanistan has evolved due to global power dynamics and the US withdrawal from the country. The relationship has been shaped by economic cooperation, with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) extending its reach to Afghanistan, viewing it as a gateway to Central Asia and the Middle East. China’s investments in infrastructure projects, such as the Wakhan Corridor and the expansion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), demonstrate its commitment to enhancing connectivity in the region.

Additionally, China has shown interest in Afghanistan’s mineral resources, including lithium, which are essential for electric vehicle batteries. China’s engagement with Afghanistan is driven by security concerns, particularly the potential spillover of instability and terrorism from Afghanistan into its Xinjiang region. China has cooperated with the Afghan government in counterterrorism efforts and supported peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 led to a power vacuum, allowing the Taliban to regain control. This presented both opportunities and challenges for China, seeking stability and economic benefits while also avoiding increased militancy and radicalization in the region. China quickly engaged with the Taliban after their takeover of Kabul, recognizing the new regime as the de facto authority. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, hosted a Taliban delegation in Tianjin in July 2021, signalling its willingness to engage with the group.

China’s approach to Afghanistan reflects its broader foreign policy strategy, characterized by pragmatism and non-interference in other nations’ internal affairs. Balancing economic interests, security concerns, and diplomatic pragmatism is a formidable challenge for China. While it sees potential for economic gain and regional influence in Afghanistan, it remains wary of being dragged into the conflict and facing international repercussions.

China’s evolving friendship with Afghanistan has significant implications for the broader region and the world, as it seeks to play a more prominent role in shaping the country’s future. This involvement could facilitate Afghanistan’s stabilization but may raise concerns about China’s influence in the region.

Is China Engaging in Business Relations with the Taliban?

China’s potential engagement with the Taliban is a significant shift in the region’s geopolitical dynamics. Historically, China has focused on economic investments and infrastructure development, but the Taliban’s rise as the dominant power has led to a reevaluation of its strategy. China’s interest in Afghanistan’s vast mineral resources, particularly rare earth minerals, is driving its potential outreach to the Taliban.

This could provide China with access to these resources, which are crucial for high-tech industries like electronics and renewable energy. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s infrastructure development project, is another reason for its potential involvement with the Taliban. Afghanistan’s strategic location makes it a crucial link in this ambitious plan, and the Taliban’s control of key transportation routes and border crossings could facilitate the flow of goods and services along the BRI.

However, the prospect of China-Taliban collaboration raises security concerns, as the Taliban’s human rights record has drawn international condemnation. China must also consider the potential for extremist groups to find safe havens in Afghanistan, which could threaten its domestic security. China’s relationship with the Taliban is a delicate balancing act, as it seeks to safeguard its economic interests and boost regional influence while also navigating international backlash and potential security risks associated with supporting a controversial regime.

Changing Dynamics

China has proactively engaged in shaping Afghanistan’s future. This includes economic interests, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to establish trade routes through Afghanistan, and security concerns, such as the potential for terrorism and instability. China has invested in infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, such as the reconstruction of the Salang Tunnel and the Mes Aynak copper mine.

It has also engaged in intelligence-sharing with regional players and supported peaceful resolutions to the Afghan conflict. China has hosted peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, demonstrating its willingness to play a constructive role in finding a political settlement. Additionally, China has provided humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, including COVID-19 vaccines and food aid.

Challenges and Dilemmas

China faces challenges in its relationship with Afghanistan, including balancing economic development, regional security, and stability with the complex political landscape. The Taliban’s return to power is a significant challenge, and while China has supported their inclusion in the Afghan political process, it remains cautious about its commitment to stability and counterterrorism efforts. China must also navigate its relations with other regional players like Pakistan, India, Iran, and Russia.

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