Beijing’s response to Taliban’s recent overtures is likely to be one of cautious optimism…
Recent developments in Afghanistan
Seeing the rapid deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan, China is evacuating its citizens from there. According to a Chinese social media report on July 2, 2021, 210 Chinese citizens departed for China through a Xiamen airline flight from Kabul to Wuhan (it is not just China, but a number of other countries including India, which have invested heavily in Afghanistan, are evacuating their diplomatic staff from Afghanistan)
The Taliban claims to have captured over 85% of the country’s territory including strategic border points with neighbouring countries. On July 14, 2021 a senior Taliban leader hinted at negotiations. Said Amir Khan Muttaqi in a tweet:
Now that the fighting from mountains and deserts has reached the doors of the cities, Mujahideen [Taliban] don’t want fighting inside the city
He said that it is important to open up channels of communication.
China-Afghanistan economic relations and BRI
Beijing has attempted to its economic involvement with Afghanistan since 2014. China’s investment in Afghanistan has been aimed at tapping the country’s rich natural resources (in 2007 Beijing secured exclusive rights to extract copper from the Mes Aynak mine in Logar). Chinese companies have also evinced interest in investing in Afghanistan’s energy sector. In 2011, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) won a $400 million bid for drilling three oil fields in the Amu Darya basin for 25 years (while these oil fields contain 87 million barrels of oil)
Beijing has also been reiterating the importance of Afghanistan in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative and there is no doubt, that Afghanistan is important in the context of connectivity with Iran and the Middle East. Afghanistan signed an MOU with China in 2016 to join the BRI and became part of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2017
In May 2021, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that extension of CPEC will boost regional connectivity, he also stated:
We notice that Afghanistan is importing and exporting goods through Gwadar and Karachi ports. High-speed highways are also being extended to Afghanistan.
The construction of a highway (which began in May 2021) through Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan’s Northeastern Badakhshan province is important not only in terms of connectivity and the objectives of the BRI, it is the first land route between Afghanistan and China, but will enable China to procure untapped raw materials from Afghanistan’s untapped mines.
The developments over the past few weeks mean that for the time being China’s first priority is security of its citizens in Afghanistan.
The instability in Afghanistan also poses a threat to Chinese workers in Pakistan. A most recent example being a bus blast on July 14, 2021 which resulted in the deaths of 9 Chinese citizens working on the Dasu dam in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPK) (28 nationals had been injured severely). While Pakistan was cautious in commenting on the nature of the blast,
In April 2021, Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility for a blast in a hotel in Quetta (capital of Balochistan) where the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan was staying.
China has been worried about Afghanistan becoming a centre for the Al-Qaida-backed Uyghur Muslim militant group the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which has waged an insurgency in China’s Xinjiang province. Ahead of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Foreign Ministers meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi asked Taliban to ‘make a break’ with all terrorist forces.
Significance of statements of Taliban Spokesman regarding China
A Taliban Spokesman recently made two significant points; First, Chinese investment in Afghanistan would be welcome and second, that the Taliban posed no security threat to China. The Spokesman also said that he looked forward to speaking with China regarding investments in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Beijing blamed Washington for the current security situation in Afghanistan and also criticized it for its withdrawal.
The statements made by the Taliban will be viewed positively by China, though given its reaction so far Beijing clearly realizes that the road ahead at least in the short run is bumpy. Yet, the reconciliatory tone vis-à-vis China, and continuous criticism of the US by China raise the point of whether China, Russia, Iran may be in a better position to reach some understanding with the Taliban. On Friday July 9, 2021 a Taliban delegation had also gone to Iran to negotiate, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had made it unequivocally clear, that a political solution was the only way to deal with the current imbroglio in Afghanistan. Many believe, that US should make some concessions to Iran on the Iran Nuclear Agreement/JCPOA but keep a strong back channel in order to deal more effectively with the situation in Afghanistan.
On the other hand as discussed earlier, there is also a Chinese apprehension that US which has been vocal on human rights violations in Xinjiang may find common cause with Taliban.
In conclusion, no one country can predict the ultimate outcomes in Afghanistan, there has to be a short term approach as well as a long term one (in the short term it is about ensuring the security of citizens and assets and in the long term it is about ensuring that there is a channel of communication open with the Taliban) . It is important for all stakeholders to think beyond camps and to avoid a zero-sum approach in dealing with the situation in Afghanistan.
While the west so far has failed in understanding Afghanistan, the Chinese belief that investment in Afghanistan will resolve all issues is also problematic and Beijing realizes this.
It is important for Washington, Beijing, Moscow and stakeholders within the region to set aside their differences and understand that this problem needs to be dealt with at various layers and there is no one dimension. While all eyes are on the role of Beijing, Washington, Moscow it is Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries who will be impacted the most by the developments in Afghanistan and may have a better understanding of how to deal with the situation.