CHINA AND TALIBAN-CONTROLLED AFGHANISTAN: A NEW GREAT GAME?
By Bilveer Singh
What is often ignored is that China and Afghanistan share a land border albeit a short one. The 76-kilometer border brings together China, Afghanistan and Tajikistan in what is known as the Wakhan Corridor. The border is in northeast Afghanistan, and the nature reserve of Tajik Autonomous County and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China. The China-Afghan-Tajik border region was part of the historical Silk Road even though the China-Afghan border was established in 1895 following the Russo-Anglo agreement as part of the Great Game in the region. The final China-Afghan border delineation was made in 1963. Historically, Chinese dynasties had established control over different parts of Afghanistan in order to safeguard the Silk Road. This geographical contiguity alone, in part, accounts for China’s immense interest in Afghanistan. This is not to mention that Afghanistan is one of the largest state bordering China in Central Asia.
Historically, the Chinese are very cognisant of the ‘Great Game’ that was played out between the British and Russian empires in the 19th and early 20th centuries for dominance in Afghanistan, with China itself being a victim of these great powers in the nineteenth century. While Russia feared that the British had plans to dominate Central Asia, the British, likewise believed that the Russians were thinking of invading British India. This resulted in a century of distrust and fear of war between the two European powers. This conflict and competition had immense impact on both the European powers as well as the adjoining territories of British India and Persia, just as the contemporary crisis in Afghanistan has direct implications for China, India, Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian states.
While China has eschewed any desire to partake in the Great Game in Central Asia today, especially following the precipitous US military drawdown from Afghanistan, by publicly espousing that it respects the territorial sovereignty of Afghanistan, it has also signaled its abiding interests that demands an active role in the region. While China has repeatedly referred to Afghanistan as the ‘Graveyard of Empires’ and denied any intentions of sending military forces to Afghanistan to fill the vacuum left by the departure of the United States, how exactly a powerful China would adjust to a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan poses serious dilemmas that will be analysed below. Thus far, adopting a military option in China-Afghanistan relations has been ruled out with Chinese leaders reiterating, “China knows no foreign county can dominate Afghanistan”. Still, China keystone interest in Afghanistan has always been security and this remains uppermost today with the country under the Taliban.
CHINA AND TALIBAN FROM THE 1990S TO THE US’S DECISION TO WITHDRAW FROM AFGHANISTAN
The US invaded Afghanistan following the twin attacks by New York and Washington, D.C. by Al Qaida on 11 September 2001 (911 attacks). As the then Mullah Omar Taliban-led Afghanistan, who was related to Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, the US accused Afghanistan of providing sanctuaries to terrorists such as Al Qaida and as part of George Bush’s ‘Global War on Terror’, the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan and deposed the Taliban by force in November 2001. This led to the beginning of what was to be a 20-years military campaign with great cost of lives on both sides and without the US being able to achieve its strategic goal of destroying Al Qaida or the Taliban.
While China had minimal ties with the Taliban when it was in control of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, following the US invasion of Afghanistan, Beijing has maintained low-level relations with the Taliban, including hosting various visit by Taliban leaders to China. China has also used its close ties with Pakistan to establish contacts with the Taliban since 2001. In 2015, China hosted talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang. In 2016, the Taliban senior political chief in Qatar, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, led a delegation to Beijing. In 2018 and 2019, Chinese officials had met Taliban envoys but not at a high level. In June 2019, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s second-in-command and the political chief of the Taliban, visited Beijing. On 28 July 2021, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi hosted Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Tianjin. China. The leaders of the Taliban’s Religious Council and Publicity Committee were also part of the Baradar’s delegation. While Wang criticized the US for its ‘hasty withdrawal’ from Afghanistan, he also recognized Taliban as a ‘pivotal military and political force’ that was ‘expected to play an important role in the country’s peace, reconciliation, and reconstruction process’. Taliban’s spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen have also stated that “we have been to China many times and we have good relations with them. China is a friendly country that we welcome for reconstruction and developing Afghanistan”.
In many ways, it was Donald Trump who made the first move to end the US military presence in Afghanistan. This was following the Doha agreement in February 2020, signed by Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s Special Representative on Afghanistan and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Taliban’s co-founder. The Doha agreement committed the US and allied forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 2021. In April 2021, President Joe Biden announced that the US would be totally withdrawing from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 911 attacks, leading to the quick takeover of the country by Taliban by mid-August 2021.
HOW CHINA SEES THE TALIBAN RE-TAKEOVER OF AFGHANISTAN?
Now that the Taliban have seized power in Afghanistan, China is likely to recognize and legitimize the new leadership within the coming weeks or months. Prior to the fall of Kabul, Beijing’s official position was to support reconciliation between the warring sides—even as it officially engaged with the Taliban since 2019 and unofficially for several years before that. On July 28, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi welcomed Taliban representatives for consultations in Beijing, the most visible sign of warming Chinese-Taliban relations yet. Just before the Taliban took control, there were already reports Beijing was planning to recognize a Taliban regime.
China’s recognition of the Taliban is almost inevitable as the former leader’s retake following the American exit after 20 years of mismanaged occupation. While China was never a supporter of the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan since 2001, the manner the US decided to leave in August 2021 created problems for China. As the US undertook a chaotic military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the twin key concerns for China have been to prevent the Afghan instability from spillover into China, especially in the Xinjiang region and to ensure that China’s investments in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are not hurt. In this regard, it also welcomed the Taliban as the most important political and military force that was in a position to bring some stability to the country even though this was driven more by political necessity than choice. As such, China’s spokesperson, Hua Chunying stated, China’s “respects the wishes and choices of the Afghan people” and hoped that the Taliban’s declarations that it would establish “an open, inclusive Islamic government and ensure the safety of Afghan citizens and foreign mission” would be carried out.
China’s positive outlook towards the Taliban, as least to date, is due not just because of these past relations since 2001 but also the belief that the Taliban may be in a position to bring stability to the country, rein in the terrorist groups that have been operating in the country and where the ensuing stability could provide the basis for Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development. This in turn could safeguard China’s past investments in Afghanistan but also act as a boost to China’s strategic political and economic plans that are enshrined in the BRI. Compared to the earlier Taliban that ruled Afghanistan, the new Taliban is seen as much more moderate and pragmatic in orientation and with whom China could do business politically and economically.
WHAT CHINA HOPES TO ACHIEVE IN TALIBAN-CONTROLLED AFGHANISTAN TODAY?
POWER VACUUM IN AFGHANISTAN AND TALIBAN’S ROLE
Beijing’s key concern is to ensure that Afghanistan does not return to the instability and infighting among the warlords as happened in the early 1990s among the various Mujahidin groups, that eventually culminated in the Taliban’s takeover of the country. China hopes to ensure that the mayhem experienced by Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal would not be repeated as the stability in the war-torn country is critical for China.
TALIBAN AND THE GREAT POWERS
The US’s dramatic collapse in Afghanistan represented a devastating military, political, diplomatic and strategic defeat for the US, especially in Asia. While helicopters airlifted American diplomats from the Kabul embassy and American officials, including Secretary of State, Antony Blinken rejected comparisons to similar scenes during the 1975 fall of Saigon, clearly, the US has suffered a serious hit at its credibility in the region and marked another military defeat following its over-extended military commitment abroad.
The US’s defeat and withdrawal from Afghanistan has opened the strategic space for great powers such as Russia and China as well as regional states such as Iran and Pakistan to assert their influence. India, a strategic rival of China and Pakistan, and which rode on the coattails of American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, has emerged as key loser in Afghanistan. The key question would now be how both Russia and China as well as Iran and Pakistan would work with the key great powers in ensuring stability in Afghanistan while safeguarding their respective enduring interests. Yet, what is unmistakable is that in the emerging Sino-US rivalry, the Chinese are doing well in Asia as a whole, including in Central and Southeast Asia, and with the US’s defeat in Afghanistan, China’s influence is expected to rise in the region.
HOPE FOR A TALIBAN’S QUICK CONTROL OF AFGHANISTAN
Following the lighting Taliban takeover of the country except for some pockets, especially in the Panjshir Valley in north-central Afghanistan, about 150 kilometers from Kabul, China hopes that a modicum of stability would return to the country under the Taliban.
TALIBAN’S ABILITY TO DENY SANCTUARIES TO TERRORIST GROUPS
What China fears is the return of the old Taliban that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and where one of its hallmarks was its policy to give sanctuaries to terrorist groups such as the Al Qaida. Today, the repeated demand that Chinese officials have exhorted from the ‘new’ Taliban is that Afghanistan does not give sanctuaries to terrorist groups as this would undermine and destabilize the region, including Central Asia and China. For its part, the Taliban has promised that it “will not allow any forces to use Afghanistan’s soil to harm China”, which Chinese leaders have welcomed. Yet, Chinese analysts have remained cautious as the Taliban had deep-rooted and complex relations with various extremist groups in the past and that it was too early to ignore this despite the Taliban’s disavowal of wanting to maintain ties with extremist groups that could harm other countries, especially its neighbors. In particular, China have concerns with the long Taliban’s ties with Al Qaeda, ISIS-Khorasan, Pakistan’s Taliban branch known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
China’s concerns with terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan is understandable as Chinese targets have been attacked in the past, especially those associated with CPEC. For instance, in 2021 alone, there have been three attacks on Chinese targets in Pakistan; a car bombing of a hotel where the Chinese ambassador was due to stay, a bus explosion that killed nine Chinese nationals and a non-fatal shooting that injured two Chinese engineers. Following the ISIS-Khorasan suicide bombing in Kabul Airport on 26 August 2021 that killed 13 American soldiers and more than 150 Afghans, the opportunity to collaborate between Taliban and China and probably other powers such as the US, Russia and Iran have increased, in turn, that would strengthened the Taliban’s goal of ending the presence of terrorist groups in the country in line with China’s interests.
TALIBAN’S ABILITY TO STALL ETIM AND PRO-UIGHURS SEPARATIST MOVEMENT
Of particular concern is China’s worry with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, that had been classified as a terrorist organisation by the West, including the US and the United Nations. However, in November 2020, the US delisted ETIM as a terrorist, which China objected vehemently, viewing it as part of Washington’s move to hurt China’s position in Xinjiang. The US has accused China of human rights abuses included forced labour and large-scale detentions that amounts to genocide against the Uighurs. China has accused ETIM of fomenting unrest and insurgency in Xinjiang with the aim of promoting independence in the strategically important territory of China. Hence, China would like to ensure that the Taliban does not support or provide sanctuaries to ETIM as it could create serious security problems for China in Xinjiang. While China has desisted deploying troops in Afghanistan, it has two military bases in Tajikistan, including one near the Wakhan Corridor. The base is supposedly for the purpose of counter-terrorism efforts in the region.
Thus far, Taliban leaders have been receptive and sensitive to China’s interests and concerns. During his July 2021 visit to China, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar stated that his country would “never allow any force to engage in acts detriment to China”. Similarly, the Taliban spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen promised that the Taliban would refrain from interference in China’s internal affairs, a clear reference to Xinjiang.
TALIBAN’S RECEPTIVITY TO CHINA’S ECONOMIC ACTIVITIES IN AFGHANISTAN
China has clear economic goals in Afghanistan, both direct and indirect. Afghanistan is a resource-rich landlocked state with resources worth trillions of dollars. It is reputed to be rich in rare earth metals including lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, aluminium, gold, silver, zinc, mercury, lithium, copper, and petroleum. Hence, some have argued that China has clear commercial motivations in cozying up with the Taliban as it gains control of the country following the US withdrawal.
China is also keen to integrate Afghanistan into its globally oriented economic plans under the auspices of the BRI. The Chinese have responded positively as the Taliban has also openly expressed its desire to attract Chinese economic investments. According to a Chinese spokesperson Hua Chunying, the Taliban has “on multiple occasions” expressed the desire that “it looks forward to China’s participation in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development”. As such, Hua argued that “we are ready to continue to develop good-neighbourliness and friendly cooperation with Afghanistan and play a constructive role in Afghanistan’s peace and reconstruction”. Against the backdrop of the US sudden military drawdown and China’s growing ties with the Taliban and where some analysts talked of China filling the military vacuum in Afghanistan, Chinese analysts have dismissed this as ‘totally groundless’ but emphasized that China was willing to “contribute to post-war reconstruction and development, pushing forward projects under the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative”. An important part of China’s BRI is to establish networks with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, in the hope of developing the region as a whole.
Yet, China’s past economic activities in Afghanistan have not borne fruits. In 2008, the Chinese Metallurgical Group Corporation and the Jiangxi Copper Company Limited consortium won a 30-year lease to extract the second largest copper deposit in the world, valued at US$50 billion in the Aynak copper mine. In 2011, the China National Petroleum Corporation won a US$ 400 million bid to drill three oil fields for 25 years in the Amu Darya basin, believed to contain about 90 million barrels of oil. However, due to the security situation in Afghanistan since the US’s invasion of the country, very will progress has been made in these projects, something the Chinese could be reversed following the Taliban’s recapture of the country.
TALIBAN’S INTERNATIONAL IMAGE
China also hopes that the Taliban’s responsible takeover of the country and its eschewing of its past policies, including discrimination and persecution of women, would assist in its being accepted and recognized internationally.
Just as in the past, China has always been concerned with developments in Afghanistan. While China opposed the US invasion of Afghanistan, the manner it has withdrawn has raised new dilemmas for China’s interests, especially security ones. While as a strategic rival, the US’s actions would signal continuing American weaknesses and decline, yet the big question as to who would fill the security and strategic void and whether the Taliban would be able to hold the country remains unanswered. The apparent US defeat in Afghanistan would in a zero-sum game enhance China’s status, and yet, there are clear security threats that can emerge from Afghanistan, especially to China’s position in Xinjiang and with regard to its policies towards the Uighurs. Hence, despite the American military defeat and withdrawal, China would continue to walk a tightrope in Afghanistan due mainly to the fast evolving and uncertain security situation in the country. For those expecting a Pax Sinica in Afghanistan and elsewhere would be disappointed as this is something not in China’s interest nor play of its playbook as Beijing understands the Afghan psychology better than any other great powers.
Bilveer Singh, PhD is the Deputy Head, Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore; Adjunct Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies; and President, Political Science Association, Singapore.
The views expressed are strictly personal and not of any institution, the author may be affiliated with.
The Chinese description of a ‘Century of Humiliation’ followed the manifold political, economic and territorial concessions that were extracted by the Western great powers and later Japan, following the outbreak of the Opium War in 1839 to 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was born.
Sean Mantesso, “As the US Withdraws, China pins Regional Stability Hopes on the Afghan Taliban,” ABC News, August 9, 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-08-09/china-afghanistan-war-united-states-withdrawal/100355708.
In November 2000, China’s ambassador to Pakistan, Lu Shulin, met the then Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, becoming the first representative from the non-Muslim world to do so. Vinay Kaura, “What Does China’s Growing Engagement in Afghanistan Mean for the US?” Mei@75, August 7 2020. https://www.mei.edu/publications/what-does-chinas-growing-engagement-afghanistan-mean-us.
Yogesh Gupta, “China’s Taliban Outreach Worries Kabul,” The Tribune (India), May 22, 2021.
Sarah Zheng and Kinling Lo, “Risks and Opportunities for China in Taliban’s Return to Power in Afghanistan,” South China Morning Post, August 16, 2021.
Riyaz ul Khaliq, “Taliban Welcome Friendly China’s Investments in Afghanistan,” Anadolu Agency, July 12, 2021, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/taliban-welcome-friendly-china-s-investments-in-afghanistan/2302492.
Zheng and Lo, “Risks and Opportunities.”
“U.S. Embassy Staff in Afghanistan Are Evacuated to Kabul's Airport,” NPR, August 16, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/08/16/1028027315/u-s-embassy-staff-in-afghanistan-are-evacuated-to-kabuls-airport.
Zheng and Lo, “Risks and Opportunities.”
Lucas Niewenhuis, “Not the Outcome China Wanted; Why a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan makes Beijing anxious,” Supchina, August 16, 2021, https://supchina.com/2021/08/16/not-the-outcome-china-wanted-why-a-taliban-controlled-afghanistan-makes-beijing-anxious/.
Nitin Pai, “Make China Accountable for the Taliban’s Actions,” Mint, August 16, 2021, https://www.livemint.com/opinion/columns/make-china-accountable-for-the-taliban-s-actions-11629097812929.html.
Henry Storey, “China’s Afghan Conundrum,” The Interpreter (Australia), July 30, 2021.
According to Ahmad Shah Katawazai, a former diplomat in Afghan embassy in Washington, Afghanistan has resources to the value of US$3 trillion. See Tan Weizhen, “China May Align Itself with Taliban and Try to Exploit Afghanistan’s Rare Earth Metals, Analyst Warns,” CNBC, August 17, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/08/17/taliban-in-afghanistan-china-may-exploit-rare-earth-metals-analyst-says.html.
Globally, China dominates the rare earths market with about 35 percent of the world’s reserves being in China. China is believed to have some 44 million metric tons of reserves, compared say to the US which has about 1.4 million tons. As rare earths are used extensively in electronics, satellites and aircraft, China has immense influence in world trade in this area and its access to these metals in Afghanistan will only enhance its power, both economic, military and political. See Weizhen, “China May Align Itself with Taliban.”
Weizhen, “China May Align Itself with Taliban.”
Yun Sun, “A Reluctant Embrace: China’s New Relationship with the Taliban,” War on Rocks, August 10, 2021, https://warontherocks.com/2021/08/a-reluctant-embrace-chinas-new-relationship-with-the-taliban/.