When the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, China welcomed the move. China was one of the few countries to establish friendly relations with the Taliban government. There have been several levels of cooperation between the two countries. Third foreign ministers meeting on Afghan issue between neighboring countriesAnd the first meeting of the Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue of ‘Afghanistan plus Afghanistan’s Neighboring Countries’ was held in March in Tunxi, Anhui Province. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who presided over the meeting, called for diplomatic recognition of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. He said that the interim Afghan government has made efforts to stabilize the situation and the country has achieved some results. He further said that no country should become a failed country and should not be left out of the global community.
However, China’s words and actions differ greatly with regard to its policies in Afghanistan. China’s security and economic concerns in Afghanistan are adding to China’s difficulties. It may seem that there are many layers to the smooth relationship between the two countries.
security and economic concerns
China’s primary concern has been that Uighur groups such as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) and other terrorist groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) may find support in Afghanistan. China’s concern was justified as the TIP emerged as a more powerful force than its predecessors during the Syrian Civil War. It also had a presence in Afghanistan. The withdrawal of jihadists from northern Syria put China at risk.
Although TIP’s presence in Afghanistan is less significant than in Syria, members of the organization were fighting in support of the Taliban. Uighur militants have enjoyed refuge in Taliban-controlled areas for many years.
Terrorist attacks in Xinjiang and Pakistan have made China a target of militant groups. A suicide attack took place in Kunduz on October 9, 2021, following the Taliban’s capture. The twist was that the suicide bomber was a Uyghur. Islamic State-Khorasan has claimed responsibility for the attack. The Chinese government expressed surprise and dismay at the incident. The highly symbolic character of the most recent attack has raised fears in China that the Taliban are not keeping their vows, particularly by preventing those fighting for Uighur interests from taking refuge in Afghanistan. Apart from this, there have been repeated attacks on Chinese citizens in Pakistan. The latest attack occurred on April 26, when three Chinese teachers were murdered near a Confucian institute.
Since the last time the Taliban were in power, China has worried that Afghanistan could become a haven for extremist groups threatening China. Due to strict border restrictions in China, there is no possibility of terrorist groups from Afghanistan or other countries spreading directly into the Xinjiang region of China. However, there is an atmosphere of fear and anxiety in China. Incidents like the terrorist attack in Kunduz last year may have added to this sense of unease.
The security situation has also hindered China’s economic goals in Afghanistan. China signaled a willingness to expand its multi-billion dollar BRI in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s August takeover, saying the Taliban felt the initiative would spur growth and prosperity in the war-torn nation and the surrounding region. “China is also ready to promote the expansion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of the Belt and Road Initiative,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during a meeting with Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaki in March 2022. There is a central component (BRI) for Afghanistan, making Afghanistan the center of regional connectivity.”
Afghanistan is home to copper deposits, iron ore and rare earth minerals, which are reputed for their use in electronic products such as lithium, crude oil and natural gas. Last November, five Chinese companies with special visas visited Afghanistan to conduct on-site inspections of potential lithium projects. However, these projects, which looked promising, have proved difficult for China to achieve so far.
In 2008, a group of Chinese firms signed a 30-year lease on Mess Aynak, the largest copper project in Afghanistan. Even after 13 years, till date no construction has started on the mining project. This results in security concerns, government corruption and structural limitations. China has taken a wait-and-see approach when it comes to investing in Afghanistan.
assurance through meetings
There has been cooperation between the two countries even before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. In a high-profile meeting with Taliban leaders in Tianjin, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Beijing was expected to “play an important role in peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan”. In addition, he expressed his desire that the Taliban should crack down on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which he described as a “direct threat to China’s national security”. In addition, the Taliban delegation guaranteed China that the organization would not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for planning against any other nation.
difference between words and actions
According to Xinhua News, China had announced a contribution of 3 million doses of vaccinations and other medical supplies since the Taliban takeover. China also provided $31 million in emergency aid, including food, winter supplies, vaccinations and medicines, to Afghanistan to meet its current challenges. However, apart from medical and food supplies, there has not been much positive reinforcement in Afghanistan from the Chinese side.
No concrete steps have been taken by China to recognize the Taliban government. Although Wang Yi mentioned this during the meeting in March, China is unlikely to move forward as it will be the only country to do so.
The Chinese media is divided over China’s entanglement with the Taliban. There is an expectation among social media users that the war-torn country will benefit from China if it is part of BRI and other Chinese investments in the country. However, some netizens criticized the Taliban for educating men and women into separate classes. He said that the nation would go back to the dark era of secularism. Some tried to defend the Taliban’s actions by saying that there is no difference in the quality of education and this separation is the need of the hour to maintain the safety of women. Other netizens expressed concern over the future repercussions of terrorist activities in Afghanistan. Fearing for the lives of Chinese after several bombings in Pakistan, netizens also considered Afghanistan and Pakistan to be unsafe for Chinese citizens.
Another reason is Pakistan. China has become dependent on Pakistan over the years, starting with Pakistan’s assistance in countering security concerns related to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Uighur groups. Furthermore, Pakistan has always had a high stake in the politics of Afghanistan. After the takeover of the Taliban, China’s dependence on Pakistan has only increased. China has to pass through Pakistan to join the mediation process in Afghanistan. Although this may not be bad for China, reliance on another country could be uncomfortable for the aspiring superpower.
Finally, with China’s zero-Covid strategy and rising COVID-19 cases, there is a question about Xi Jinping’s handling of the situation and his leadership in general. While China wants to expand its influence across the world, with zero-Covid policies, China can shut itself off from the outside world.
Axiom Samal is a researcher in the China study. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.
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