From Historical Bonds to Modern Alliances: Decoding China’s Relations with Afghanistan

Throughout history, Afghanistan and China have maintained a friendly relationship, with their ties dating back to the Han dynasty. Their trade relations, initially established through the Silk Road, have endured. Additionally, these neighboring nations share a contiguous international border and maintain diplomatic embassies.

Afghanistan, often referred to as the “graveyard of empires,” has been subjected to numerous invasions throughout its history. However, these invasions have typically ended in failure, leading to the withdrawal of the invading forces after protracted conflicts. Yet, in the 20th century, two major powers, the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States, launched invasions of Afghanistan. These interventions, marked by significant loss of lives, political instability, and heightened geopolitical tensions, ultimately failed to dislodge the Taliban Mujahideen from power.

This article is divided into three parts: the first section elucidates China’s stance during the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, the subsequent section provides a concise analysis of China’s involvement during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and finally, it delves into China’s current position regarding the Taliban government and explores the reasons behind its burgeoning relationship with Afghanistan.

China’s stance on Afghanistan during Soviet Invasion

On Dec. 27, 1979, Soviet troops entered Afghanistan, prompting China to condemn the invasion and cut diplomatic ties. The Chinese embassy in Afghanistan was downgraded to a representative office, focusing solely on consular and visa matters. During the Afghan King’s rule, China and Afghanistan had neutral relations. Nevertheless, when pro-Soviet Afghan Communists came to power in 1978, relations quickly soured. The Afghan communists, aligned with the Soviet Union, accused China of aiding Afghan anti-communist militants and supported China’s adversary, Vietnam. In response, China backed the Afghan mujahideen and increased its military presence near Afghanistan in Xinjiang, acquiring military equipment from the United States to defend against potential Soviet threats . But China distanced itself from the Taliban in the 1990s, cutting diplomatic ties and not recognizing their government.

China’s Engagement During the US Invasion of Afghanistan

Following the collapse of the Taliban government in 2001, China and Afghanistan significantly improved and reestablished their relations, despite the ongoing U.S. occupation of Afghanistan under the pretext of the war on terror. China extended financial and material assistance to Afghanistan and played a significant peacekeeping role by facilitating diplomatic negotiations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), for instance, is proposed as a promising avenue to integrate Afghanistan into the broader Belt and Road Initiative, according to some analysts.

Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and China

Following the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in 2021, the Chinese government signaled its willingness to work with a new Taliban-led government. In 2022, Afghanistan was struck by a devastating earthquake, and China actively contributed to the humanitarian response by providing $7.5 million worth of aid for the affected population. During that period, the Taliban expressed their gratitude towards Chinese officials for their assistance in a press conference.

In September 2023, China, becoming the first country to appoint a new ambassador after the 2021 Taliban victory, appointed Zhao Xing as its Ambassador in Afghanistan, a move that took place without recognizing the Taliban government. Though Beijing did not say anything whether it is a step of formal recognition, they are interested in establishing closer relation with Afghanistan. Currently, diplomats holding the designation of Ambassador in Kabul were appointed before August 2021, while other countries have chosen individuals as charge d’affaires after the terms of their ambassadors expired.

The Chinese Ambassador received a cordial reception at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, where he was greeted by the acting Prime Minister, Mohammad Hassan Akhund, and the Foreign Minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi. China, in an official statement, emphasized that Zhao Xing’s appointment underscores its commitment to enhancing its relationship with Afghanistan.

Zhao Xing stated in his ‘X’ account that China is keen on fostering robust and intimate political and economic ties with Afghanistan, recognizing it as mutually beneficial for both nations and their people. He expressed China’s aspirations for enhanced relations with Afghanistan and outlined concrete plans for cooperation. However, it is imperative for China to engage with Afghanistan, considering both security and economic factors, as this engagement plays a significant role in expanding its influence within the region. For instance, Beijing’s increasing influence in the conflict-ridden nation is primarily motivated by its intention to counteract militant groups that pose threats to its own interests, including Uyghur factions and the Pakistani Taliban.

Zhao Xing also stated that “the current Afghan government has successfully eliminated the threat of ISIS, which threatened China and other countries in the region, which are now confident. The current Afghan government is a responsible system, which has the ability to eliminate regional threats, and on this basis, China wants close political and economic relations with Afghanistan.” 

Furthermore, the ambassador held a meeting with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Afghan government’s Minister of Interior. During the meeting, the ambassador conveyed China’s commitment to non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and its respect for Afghan values. He also emphasized that Afghanistan has shown significant progress over the past two years and has the potential for further development, pledging China’s genuine cooperation in this regard. Mr. Haqqani expressed appreciation for China’s sincerity toward Afghanistan and affirmed their commitment to cooperation in various aspects.

On Sept. 21, Ambassador Zhao Xing made a courtesy visit to H.E. Abdul Salam Hanafi, Acting Deputy Prime Minister of Afghanistan. During the meeting, they discussed ways to strengthen bilateral relations and broaden practical cooperation between the two nations. The ambassador mentioned in his ‘X’ account, Afghanistan doesn’t serve as the epicenter of terrorism; in fact, the Taliban successfully eradicated significant threats such as ISIS, a feat NATO could not accomplish. Certain countries, both regionally and globally, are disseminating inaccurate information about Afghanistan’s security and regional peril for their own ulterior motives. Afghanistan requires support rather than undue pressure. The Taliban’s efforts in combating terrorist organizations like ISIS hold great significance, contributing to Afghanistan’s stability.

Moreover, the motivation behind forming an alliance with Afghanistan extends beyond security concerns; it is also rooted in economic interests. According to a study conducted by U.S. military officials and geologists, it has been determined that the mineral deposits in Afghanistan hold an estimated value of nearly $1 trillion. The deposits consist of substantial reserves of iron, copper, gold, cobalt, and lithium, which have the potential to transform the economically disadvantaged nation into one of the world’s prominent mineral hubs. In this context, there is a mutual benefit, as the Taliban government requires cash to efficiently run the state, while China has a need for the valuable minerals found in Afghanistan. The substantial lithium deposit is a crucial component of the energy transition, fueling various devices, from laptops to electric cars. Recently, the Taliban has entered into mining agreements exceeding $6.5 billion in value with both domestic and international firms from countries such as China, Iran, Turkey, and Britain.

Beijing’s recent agreement with the Taliban is also remarkable, amounting to $10 billion in exchange for access to lithium deposits. This collaboration is set to generate 120,000 direct employment opportunities, accompanied by various infrastructure development and restoration initiatives. In May 2023, China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan reached an agreement to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) under the flagship Belt and Road initiative project (BRI) into Afghanistan. The idea of expanding CPEC into Afghanistan was initially proposed in 2017.

This will be also a win for Afghanistan as it shares a 92-kilometre-long border with China through the narrow Wakhan corridor, extending from Badakhshan to Xinjiang. While the corridor has three passes, their precarious geographical location deems any direct induction of Afghanistan into the BRI improbable in the short to medium term. The development of the existing Karakoram highway, which passes through the Khunjerab pass linking Peshawar with Kabul, is considered a feasible route to connect Kabul with the CPEC and ultimately with China. The cash-strapped Taliban, facing a shortage of funds and seeking to bolster its influence, welcomes any injection of investment into infrastructure and the revitalization of the Afghan economy. The group has shown openness to the concept of reestablishing the historical Silk Road trade routes via the Wakhan corridor, with the aim of enhancing trade ties with China. The Taliban has responded positively to China’s offer of “long-term political support,” anticipating an increase in Beijing’s investment in Afghanistan.

The bilateral relationship between China and Afghanistan is firmly rooted in the principles of mutual benefit, a fundamental aspect of international relations. Spanning from their historical interactions to the contemporary era, this relationship has evolved and assumed multifaceted dimensions. China’s interests in Afghanistan are underpinned by several key factors. Firstly, there is a paramount concern for regional security. Given the historical context of Afghanistan’s instability and its potential spillover effects, China seeks to play a role in stabilizing the region. Secondly, China recognizes the significant economic opportunities that lie in Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth, estimated at nearly $1 trillion, encompassing invaluable resources such as iron, copper, gold, cobalt, and lithium. These resources have the potential to not only transform Afghanistan’s economic landscape but also position it as a prominent global mineral center. Thirdly, China’s engagement with Afghanistan aligns with its broader strategic goals, including connectivity and economic integration in the region. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) serves as a testament to these ambitions, and the extension of CPEC into Afghanistan represents an important step towards fostering economic connectivity.

Furthermore, by enhancing its presence in Afghanistan, China seeks to counterbalance regional developments, particularly the India-U.S.-led International Corridor (IMEC), which poses a competitive challenge to China’s strategic interests. On the other hand, Afghanistan, grappling with the aftermath of decades of conflict, stands in dire need of international recognition, support, financial assistance, and humanitarian aid to ensure its very survival. The nation’s abundant mineral resources, including those crucial for the clean energy transition like lithium, necessitate the support of countries like China for extraction and economic development.

In essence, the relationship between China and Afghanistan epitomizes the intricate interplay of security concerns, economic imperatives, and regional influence dynamics. Both nations recognize that forging a symbiotic partnership is not only a matter of mutual benefit but also holds implications for regional stability and the geopolitical landscape.

[Photo by Owennson, via Wikimedia Commons]

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

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