Col (r) Ikram Ullah Khan
With the US diminishing power and influence after its chaotic exit from Afghanistan leaving a trail of thorny issues behind, China finds itself more confident and in a much better position today to play a decisive geostrategic and geoeconomic role in Afghanistan by and advance its ties with the Taliban government.
China is now in a comfortable position to fill the power vacuum in the region created by US withdrawal from Afghanistan and safeguard its myriad geostrategic interests in the region. Beijing doesn’t let any opportunity slip to capitalize on the US hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan. As an emerging world super power, it feels confident enough to supplant the US.
The Us seems to have realized it and most likely will abandon its imperialistic thinking. For China and the US, Taliban-led Afghanistan is a zero-sum game. What the US has lost in the long-drawn Afghan war equals to the strategic gains China is going to reap.
China is determined to go for a huge investment in Afghanistan in a big way despite knowing fully well that any meaningful progress in this regard may encounter formidable opposition and impediments due to chaotic security and political environment in and around Afghanistan and also due to intense opposition by the US and its allies. Besides, the Uyghur separatist movement in Xinjiang also remains a matter of core concern for China.
China’s perennial concern has been and remains, the potential for Afghanistan to serve as a sanctuary for militant groups targeting its territory and economic assets in the neighbouring countries. China is fully cognizant of the fact that it’s massive investment in Pakistan and in the region at large that has expanded over the past decade, has invited multiple threats, including the potential spillover of terrorist activities, political violence, cross-border drug trafficking and exodus of refugees from Afghanistan. The July attack on a bus carrying Chinese engineers to Dasu site in KP, attributed by Chinese officials to terrorists operating from Afghanistan, is a case in point. In this connection, Beijing is seriously engaged with Taliban government seeking guarantee from them to stem the threat of terrorism spilling over into China from Afghanistan.
China as a major world power is favourably disposed towards Taliban regime in Afghanistan at a difficult time when the Taliban are being treated as a pariah by the world community at large. This positive overture by China comes as a silver lining amidst dark clouds and a ray of hope for Taliban. The Taliban have welcomed China’s plan of massive investment in Afghanistan. They have expressed their willingness to join China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and become part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) program costing more than one trillion US dollars. Taliban regime views China its most important partner and dependable friend. China has been pleading Taliban’s case most vehemently at international fora. It has been trying to convince the international community to soften its stance on Taliban and come forward with generous financial assistance to stave off the human catastrophe in Afghanistan. It has urged the US to immediately release the 9 billion US dollar Afghan government reserves held in US banks frozen by the Biden administration following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
It may be recalled that the European Union, Britain and Germany all suspended their development aid programs immediately after the Taliban takeover. Both the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank halted funding for dozens of development projects. In such a dismal economic situation, while the West felt reluctant to extend financial assistance, China came out quickly to stake out an independent position with humanitarian gesture, calling upon the world community to provide unconditional financial assistance, unfreeze assets and pave the way for reconstruction of the war-torn Afghanistan. China, along with Pakistan, was also one of the first countries to offer foreign aid since the Taliban took over, pledging food supplies and healthcare facilities.
Afghanistan’s natural resources
Afghanistan’s abundant untapped natural resources worth over 3 trillion dollars, according to a conservative estimate, is much alluring for China to risk everything for and go for a huge investment which has remained a relatively minor player in Afghanistan’s economy to date.
Although, in May 2016, China and Afghanistan under Ashraf Ghani’s administration signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to jointly promote cooperation under the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) program, but it bit the dust before it could see the light of day as Ashraf Ghani backtracked under immense US and Indian pressure. But with Taliban in the saddle free from the US and Indian influence, there is a glimmer of hope that participation of Afghanistan in BRI under Taliban regime would be possible and China’s long-cherished dream may come true. China needs the Taliban’s full support for the successful completion of its BRI and the Taliban seem well disposed to roll out the red carpet as they have given a positive response to join the CPEC, a subsidiary project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) program.
In order to achieve its ambitious economic and strategic objectives, China is trying tooth and nail to create investment-friendly environment in and around Afghanistan which it strongly believes can only be possible through ensuring security and stability in Afghanistan which requires active support of Taliban. It’s in China’s interest to have a secure, peaceful and stable Afghanistan. China is intent on using every kind of means at its disposal to achieve the end. In this connection, it may devise a strategy to sideline India on the emerging future of Afghanistan, stemming its free access to Central Asian Republics through Afghanistan and eliminating its operations in Iran’s Chabahar port adjacent to the Afghan border. Besides, China wants other stakeholders like Iran, Russia and Pakistan to play a positive role in shaping Afghanistan’s future strategic landscape.
Chinese approach towards Taliban
China’s approach towards Taliban seems to reflect the optimistic calculation that diplomatic and economic inducements might prevail upon the Taliban to adopt policies that closely align with Chinese interests. Moreover, for China, engaging Taliban serves two purposes. Firstly, managing threats of radicalization and terrorism that may spill over into China; secondly, seizing the tremendous opportunities of economic investments in Afghanistan and beyond into Central Asian Republics. China believes that economic development is the key to stability and security. Without economic development, attainment of stability and security isn’t possible; but at the same time, without stability and security, there can’t be economic development. So it’s a catch-22 situation.
Having said all that, a million dollars question that tantalizes one’s mind is: Why China appears so sympathetic with Taliban? Is it out of sheer humanitarian spirit or is there something else behind all this apparently philanthropic generosity? The plain answer lies in the famous English proverb which goes: “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” So international politics is all about quid pro quo. All these attractive looking deals China is striking have their cost. It makes China’s policy crystal clear when we go back to the maiden press conference China’s foreign ministry’s spokesman Hua Chunying held about Taliban immediately after Taliban took over Kabul on 15 August 2021 in which he stated that China “stands ready to develop good neighbourliness and friendly cooperation with Afghanistan and play a constructive role in Afghanistan’s peace and reconstruction.”
Obviously China is anxious to fill the vacuum left by the US after its precipitous withdrawal, wants to redraw Asia’s geopolitical map and exploit the massive unexplored natural resources of Afghanistan and through Afghanistan reach the Central Asian States and benefit from their huge energy and natural resources.
The bottom line is: It will not be that easy for China to accomplish its projects smoothly given the daunting challenges ahead as mentioned earlier and also due to the security risks emanating from Islamic State of Khorasan, commonly called IS (K) notwithstanding the fact that Taliban have reiterated their firm commitment to stamp out its tentacles from Afghan soil.