Experts tell TRT World that Beijing will adopt a careful approach to economic engagement with Afghanistan.
After the Taliban takeover of Kabul on August 15, the Chinese government struck an upbeat tone. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying called the militant group “clear-headed and rational”, while the special envoy for Afghanistan described it as “friendly”.
Beijing had for years built an amicable diplomatic relationship with the movement through secret meetings, which burst out into the open in July when the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi publicly welcomed a high-level Taliban delegation to the northern city of Tianjin.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid recently referred to China as “our most important partner” which is “ready to invest and rebuild our country”, and the group has consistently refused to criticise Beijing’s alleged oppression of its ethnic Uighur population.
China is therefore well-placed to expand its influence in Afghanistan now that the US has left. Breathless western media coverage has predicted a surge of Chinese investment as Beijing seeks to capitalise on NATO’s exit.
Beijing has gloated over the American debacle in Afghanistan, which, it is claimed, offers further proof of the failure of the western democratic model and the superiority of China’s policy of ‘non-interference’.
But there is more trepidation in China than meets the eye. Behind the warm words about the Taliban, lies a cautious attitude to a group viewed by some as fundamentalist and allied with terrorist groups that threaten Chinese interests.
After the July meeting, China’s foreign ministry issued a statement insisting that the Taliban must “make a clean break” with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an ethnic Uighur militant entity, and other terrorist organisations.
The Taliban reportedly has links to ETIM, and hosted the group in the 1990s during its previous regime. The UN has estimated that there are hundreds of ETIM members in Afghanistan.
The Taliban must abandon its former tradition of “harbouring and even working with terrorist groups” so there can be a “fresh start”, said Wang Huiyao, founder and president of the Center for China and Globalization.
If the Taliban “can work with all factions” and produce a “secure and peaceful Afghanistan”, then China might recognise the Taliban regime, Wang told TRT World. No country has yet recognised the new government, but the Chinese embassy in Kabul remains open.
Lin Minwang, a professor at Fudan University, told TRT World that, “although it is not absolutely certain that the Taliban will cut off ties with terrorist organisations, the Taliban will take China’s core interests into its consideration.”
In a recent interview, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said that the new regime would take measures to prevent ETIM from training, fundraising or recruiting fighters on Afghan territory.
But, when asked if the Taliban would extradite ETIM members to China, Shaheen “did not answer directly”. In the 1990s, the Taliban constrained ETIM at Beijing’s request, but did not expel it from Afghanistan.
There are also concerns in China that the Taliban retains an extremist ideology. Professor Pan Guang of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences said in an interview that, while the Taliban was different from twenty years ago, its “essence has not changed.”
Zhu Yongbiao, an Afghanistan expert at Lanzhou University, agreed that “on the surface, they will definitely make some changes” but the group’s basic concepts “have not changed much”. “At the core, their regime is still a fundamentalist regime,” according to Zhu.
The Chinese public also appears to be sceptical. A video promoting the Taliban was posted on Weibo by state media outlet People’s Daily in August, only to face criticism for ignoring the group’s supposed links to terrorism. It was eventually taken down.
China has repeatedly called for an inclusive government in Afghanistan, but the new Taliban cabinet excludes women and members of other political groups, while containing individuals sanctioned by the US and UN.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi appeared to criticise the cabinet at a recent gathering when he said that the Taliban’s “positive statements” about governance and other issues “must be implemented in specific actions”.
Alienating key factions could fuel resistance against the new regime. After the US ousted the Taliban in 2001, it refused to incorporate remnants of the group into the new political order, giving them an incentive to rebel and launch an insurgency.
Beijing does not wish to see renewed instability across the border. “If Afghanistan is still in chaos in the future, China has reason to worry that it will likely become a hotbed of terrorist forces,” said Professor Hongda Fan of Shanghai International Studies University.
The Chinese government has long been concerned that NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan would destabilise the country and exacerbate threats against China’s interests, including in Pakistan and Central Asia where it has large investments.
“After the United States pulls troops out of Afghanistan, terrorist organizations positioned on the frontiers of Afghanistan and Pakistan may quickly infiltrate into Central Asia,” said President Xi in a secret speech leaked to the New York Times.
Wang Huiyao would like to see a greater role for the UN in Afghanistan. “If necessary, a UN peacekeeping force should be sent there,” Wang said, echoing other Chinese analysts, but hoped that the Taliban would be able to maintain order.
The uncertain security situation is likely to deter major Chinese investment, despite heated predictions in western media that Beijing will eagerly incorporate Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and pounce on the country’s natural resources.
Recent terrorist attacks on Chinese workers in Pakistan, combined with the delayed progress of its economic plans there, will likely make companies even more hesitant to embroil themselves in another high-risk market.
Mei Xinyu, an economist at China’s Ministry of Commerce, urged caution in a recent article, arguing that Afghanistan’s development environment is “grim”, that the country is “insignificant” to the BRI and that “large-scale investment” should be “delayed”.
Ye Hailin, a South Asia expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, raised doubts about the Taliban’s ability to stabilise the country. If the group cannot govern, Ye warned, “the relevant countries will not be willing to regain investment”.
Scholars interviewed by TRT World agreed that China would adopt a careful approach to economic engagement. “China will go to Afghanistan to invest and carry out infrastructure projects only after the new Afghan government is stable,” said Hongda Fan.
While China will provide some humanitarian assistance, “Chinese investment will still be more cautious,” said Lin Minwang. Beijing has already offered more than $30 million of aid, including food and coronavirus vaccines.
Small- and medium-sized Chinese businesses have apparently continued to operate in Kabul after the Taliban takeover and appear eager to pursue new economic opportunities in the country.
But China’s state-owned enterprises are reportedly approaching Afghanistan with “extreme caution” according to Chinese state media. The risk of instability, combined with very limited infrastructure, are major obstacles to progress.
Chinese efforts to extract Afghanistan’s copious natural resources during the US-led war failed. In 2007 a consortium won the concession for copper extraction at Mes Aynak, but that project never got off the ground due to weak security and contractual issues.
Sanctions on the Taliban are another problem. An employee of MCC Group, one of the companies which secured the rights to Mes Aynak, said that sanctions “are something beyond our scope as an enterprise".
While China has managed to get around sanctions on Iran, to some extent, major projects have stalled and Chinese investments in the country remain lower than in the UAE. Rumours of a $400 billion China-Iran investment deal are believed to be greatly exaggerated.
A closer parallel to Afghanistan can be found in Syria, which has also been devastated by conflict and terrorism and now suffers under heavy western sanctions. China was expected to play a role in Syria’s reconstruction but its involvement has so far been minimal.
Neither the Taliban nor China’s foreign ministry responded to requests for comment.