Ruchi Kumar is an Indian journalist based in Mumbai who covers South Asia.
On Sept. 13, for the first time since taking over Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban welcomed a new ambassador to the country when Chinese envoy Zhao Sheng presented his credentials to Mohammad Hasan Akhund, Afghanistan’s Prime Minister.
Few countries have resumed even measured diplomatic relations with the Taliban-led Afghanistan. Beijing, for its part, still recognizes Ashraf Ghani’s government in Afghanistan, and the appointment does not represent the establishment of formal ties or even recognition of the Taliban government; a spokesperson from China’s Foreign Ministry has also said this was simply part of the “normal rotation” of ambassadors. But other countries have sent charges d’affaires when ambassadors’ tenures have ended in Kabul, avoiding the presentation of credentials. So the pomp around the appointment of Mr. Zhao – and a visit to Beijing by an economic delegation from Afghanistan shortly afterward – is noteworthy.
At first glance, it might seem that China is simply consolidating its access to Afghanistan’s natural resources and market, a fairly common move for a globally competitive industrial nation. Afghanistan is home to valuable rare-earth minerals that could have a total value exceeding US$1-trillion, including what may be the biggest lithium deposit in the world, and in early September, the Taliban announced that it had signed seven mining contracts totalling US$6.5-billion with international companies from China, the U.K. and Iran, among others. And Chinese firms and businesses have already been making large investments in the country, despite few returns, surmounting the challenges associated with operating under the Taliban amid increasing security threats from other active insurgent groups.
The Taliban have also claimed that they are in talks with Huawei, the Chinese telecom, to potentially install camera systems for mass surveillance of Afghan cities. And earlier in the year, Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co. signed a 25-year, multimillion-dollar contract to extract oil from the northern part of Afghanistan.
However, there may be deeper strategic rationale behind Beijing’s increased engagement with the Taliban.
China has shown interest in filling the vacuum left behind by the withdrawal of the U.S.-led Western bloc from Afghanistan. The increasing economic co-operation, alongside the latest ambassadorial appointment, is indicative of Beijing’s intentions to strengthen its regional influence, already having invested heavily in neighbouring Pakistan – another Taliban ally. In fact, China strengthened its power in the region by bringing the Taliban into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a US$60-billion Belt and Road Initiative.
The Taliban, on the other hand, has been isolated in the international arena owing in large part to the group’s history of human-rights violations, and it is desperate to seek any validation of its political power. While many counties and international agencies are engaging with the Taliban, including the U.S., none have offered them the legitimacy they seek. Some have even imposed sanctions on the group, blocking significant development aid and crippling the Taliban’s ability to govern. Cash-strapped and alone, the Islamist militant group seems only too glad to ignore Chinese atrocities against indigenous Uyghur Muslims in exchange for the financial and political support it desperately needs.
China, for its part, appears content to look away from the Taliban’s alleged human-rights violations. In his inaugural statement to the Taliban, Mr. Zhao emphasized that China has no intentions to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, and “fully respects Afghanistan’s independence, territorial integrity and decision-making.” Ironically, though, some of the groups that threaten China’s interests in Afghanistan – including the Islamic State and the Uyghur insurgents of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement – maintain strong ties with the Taliban, despite Beijing’s attempts to have the group sever ties with them.
But Beijing’s Afghan policy isn’t altruistic. China is eager not only to exploit the mineral-rich landscape of the region, but also establish its dominance in the geopolitical pecking order by creating a dependency of politically weak and volatile countries toward itself.
However, this unlikely political courtship could have far-reaching consequences for Afghanistan as well as for regional stability. China’s seeming neocolonial ambitions solidify the Taliban’s control of the country, allowing Afghanistan to remain a fertile ground for many terrorist groups that continue to operate there.
It might be years before Afghans experience any real benefits from China’s investments in their country. But in the meantime, these diplomatic manoeuvres provide the Taliban regime with some protection from international pressures, allowing it to continue undermining the rights of vulnerable groups, while giving China a stronger hold on regional resources and political power. The budding intimacy between Beijing and the Taliban has proven to be a mutually and politically rewarding power move for both, at least so far.