China rushes to fill in the vacuum in Afghanistan created by the U.S. withdrawal
The spectacular collapse of the Afghan civilian government has caught everyone by surprise. The U.S.-led Western nations’ security and political assistance quickly unravelled as the Taliban made rapid gains across the country, standing on the doors of capital Kabul in no time. As the dramatic scenes of U.S. and other Western nations’ evacuation of their officials and citizens played out on TV screens and social media, China’s propaganda machinery was quick to pounce, slamming the U.S. for its ‘messy’ handling of the Afghanistan situation. Simultaneously, Global Times ran an editorial exulting that China can engage in ‘post-war reconstruction’ and provide investment to/ help Afghanistan’s future development.
The Chinese reaction summarised Beijing’s elation at the U.S. withdrawal from its neighbourhood. Beijing has long sought to assert its dominance in Central Asia, and with Russia, it has been shaping the regional dynamics through the Shanghai Central Organization (SCO). However, for a long period, Afghanistan was missing part of the puzzle. The deployment of the U.S. troops indeed provided China with the necessary security cover and stability to expand its economic footprint. Still, it could never assert itself fully with the U.S. and other Western nations present in Afghanistan.
The West’s exit now provides the necessary backdrop for China to cast its spell on Afghanistan. Earlier on July 28, the Chinese foreign minister had hosted a nine-member Taliban delegation, led by the head of the Afghan Taliban Political Commission, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in the northern coastal city of Tianjin. Minister Yi had praised the Taliban as “an important military and political force”. Beijing’s public engagement with Biradar and co. is symptomatic of its strictly transactional approach towards Afghanistan. It caps China’s decades-long courting of the Taliban – just before the 9/11 attacks in 2001, China had signed a deal for greater economic and technical cooperation with the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
China tried to hedge its bets on all the political factions in Afghanistan: days before hosting the Taliban delegation, Chinese president Xi Jinping had phoned then Afghan president Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, offering support for peace ‘and an early, peaceful reconstruction of the country.’
China has long eyed Afghanistan’s mineral resources and potential as a cog of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to link Central with South Asia. The allure of the country’s untapped natural and mineral resources – Afghanistan is believed to have large deposits of gold, iron, copper, zinc, lithium and other rare-earth metals, valued at over $1 trillion – was one more pull factor.
Beijing began its initial economic engagement with Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. The first project it got involved in was when a Chinese company won a 30-year lease in 2008 worth $3.5 million to develop a copper mine at Mes Aynak in Logar province. The mine development project, believed to contain the world’s second-largest copper deposit, was supposed to be the gateway for the flow of Chinese investment in Afghanistan. Then in 2011, state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation won a $400 million bid to drill three oilfields in Faryab and Sar-e-Pol provinces. Subsequently, Beijing roped in Kabul for the BRI, with a senior-level Afghan delegation attending the Belt and Road Forum in 2017.
However, advancing its interests in Afghanistan would require China to have a stable security situation in Afghanistan. While the U.S. forces’ presence provided that anchor in the preceding years, Beijing will now hope that the intra-Afghan dynamics will lend stability to the country. It is also worried about the reported presence of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) terrorists, who have carried out multiple attacks in its Xinjiang province, abutting Afghanistan. Beijing is acutely concerned with the impact of Taliban resurgence over the ETIM.
China’s fraternising with the Taliban also stood in sharp contrast to the inhuman treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, where under the garb of counter-terrorism, it has incarcerated a million residents in concentration camps, engaged them in forced labour and coerced them to engage in un-Islamic practices. Beijing is therefore expected to continue with a strictly transactional approach against its rhetoric of doing ‘post-war reconstruction’ of Afghanistan.
Beijing is yet to welcome the Taliban takeover formally. Still, it has sent enough feelers to the new regime in Kabul that it will offer whatever support it can in return for greater access to Afghanistan’s mineral resources and a greater footprint for the Chinese companies. In addition, Beijing will also push for significant presence of the People’s Liberation Army troops in the Wakhan Corridor, which links Xinjiang province with Afghanistan’s Badakshan province, with Tajikistan to the north and Pakistan’s Khyber Pakthunkhwa and Kashmir to the south. Its location is crucial for the security and viability of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a crucial part of the BRI. It is also a route used by ETIM militants.
How much of this becomes a reality also depends on how much Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence – Taliban’s key benefactor – gives operational autonomy to the group. China is likely to exploit its close relations with Pakistan to have its way in Afghanistan. The exit of the U.S. has allowed China to leverage its long-standing ties with the Taliban and its relations with Pakistan to perpetuate its transactional engagement with Afghanistan.