China-Afghan Relations: The Economic and Geopolitical Dimensions

On Sept. 12, 2023 Afghanistan welcomed China’s new ambassador to Afghanistan Zhao Sheng. China is one amongst a handful of nations to have kept working missions in Kabul ever since the Taliban captured power in Afghanistan – in August 2021. Diplomats currently stationed in Kabul with the designation of Ambassador were appointed before August 2021, while other countries have appointed individuals as charge d’affaires – after the terms of their ambassadors expired . With the appointment of Zhao Sheng, China has become the first country to appoint an ambassador to Afghanistan after the takeover by the Taliban.

The Chinese Ambassador received a warm welcome at the Presidential Palace, in Kabul, where the acting Prime Minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund as well as Foreign Minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi were present. In a statement, China said that the appointment of Zhao Zhing was a clear reiteration of the point that Beijing wanted to strengthen ties with Afghanistan. Foreign Minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi said that the nomination of Zhao Sheng was a “significant step with a significant change”. The Taliban government also said that this was a clear indicator that other countries wanted to strengthen ties with the Taliban. 

It would be pertinent to point out, that while several countries have managed to forge a working relationship with the Taliban dispensation, a formal diplomatic recognition remains elusive. China too has not clarified whether the appointment of an ambassador is a step towards formal recognition of the Taliban. 

For China, it is important to keep a working relationship with Afghanistan from both a security and economic perspective. First in May 2023, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan agreed to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan. The proposal for extending CPEC to Afghanistan was first mooted in 2017. Next month, the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) will be held in Beijing, and the discussion regarding the extension of CPEC is likely to be one of the important highlights of this Summit. 

Second, Afghanistan is rich in natural resources – especially Afghanistan’s lithium deposits which are estimated to be a staggering $1 trillion. The Pentagon, in an internal report in 2010,  had dubbed Afghanistan as the ‘Saudi Arabia of lithium’. Earlier this year, a Chinese company, Gochin, expressed interest in investing in Afghanistan’s lithium deposits. A representative from the company had expressed interest in investing $10 billion in the country’s lithium sector.

In January 2023, a Chinese company, CAPEIC signed a 25 year contract with the Taliban government for extracting oil from Amu Darya and to develop an oil reserve in the country’s northern part. 

Third, there is an important security component to the relationship. In December 2022 five Chinese nationals were grievously injured in an attack on Kabul Longan Hotel. In January 2023, a suicide attack outside the Afghan Foreign Ministry in Kabul resulted in 20 casualties, this blast was targeted at a Chinese delegation which was meeting the Taliban. China cannot afford to make any big-ticket investments unless Chinese nationals are secure, but at the same time it believes that engagement with Taliban dispensation is essential. 

Fourth, like in other parts of the world China wants to distinguish its approach from the West. While several countries have been critical of Taliban’s policies, especially treatment of women — and made it a pre-condition for progress in the economic and diplomatic sphere. Beijing has flagged these issues and underscored the fact that any substantial progress in bilateral ties was only possible if the Taliban addressed them. At the same time, China has been urging Western countries to unfreeze Afghanistan’s assets. In a statement issued on September 13, 2023, the Chinese embassy in a statement said that the international community needed to engage with the Taliban for introducing a representative and inclusive political framework, moderate policies and countering terrorism. The statement also called for removal of sanctions against Afghanistan and return of overseas assets of the country.

Here it would be important to point out that Afghanistan’s ties with China do not mean that the latter will dictate its foreign policy. The Taliban is likely to give precedence to its own interests. While there is talk of extending CPEC till Afghanistan, there have been differences between Kabul and Islamabad, after the latter has held groups operating from Afghan soil responsible for terror attacks in Pakistan. In the most recent instance, Pakistan held the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP or ISIS-K) responsible for a suicide bombing in Bajaur in July 2023. Pakistan army chief, Syed Asif Munir said that the involvement of Afghan nationals in these attacks would have an adverse impact on “regional security and stability”.

Taliban Spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid while responding to Pakistan’s accusations said: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan once again emphasises that it is not in favour of any attack on Pakistan and we will not allow anyone to use the soil of Afghanistan against Pakistan. However, it is not our responsibility to prevent and control attacks inside the territory of Pakistan.”

China will continue to engage with Kabul but will continue to nudge the Taliban government to modernize the country. Despite all the commitments, China will be cautious in terms of economic investments, unless the security of its nationals stationed in Afghanistan is ensured. Beijing would also want the Taliban dispensation to take the appropriate steps, especially on social issues to send out the right message to the global community.

[Photo by Owennson, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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