China’s decisive moves on Afghanistan
Afghan interim government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced this month that China had accepted its ambassador in Beijing, and described the move as an ‘important chapter’ in growing relations between the two countries. The Director General of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing, Hong Lei, accepted the credentials of Ambassador-designate Asadullah Bilal Karimi. While many countries have allowed the Afghan interim government nominated heads of missions for the functioning of Afghan embassies and consulates, China became the first country to formally accept a Taliban ambassador since their takeover on August 15, 2021.
The Chinese decision should not be seen in isolation but as part of a calculated and gradual approach for strengthening relations with Afghanistan and particularly for increasing its economic footprint-- aimed at the expansion of regional economic integration and connectivity, including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This is evident from China’s focused efforts in the past two years to consistently craft stable relations with Afghan leaders and institutions and avoiding any abrupt or reactionary approach to the difficult and sensitive counter-terrorism issues such as for dealing with groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
It is important to note that following the US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, the developments are seemingly taking a different course than what Afghanistan witnessed in the 1990s after Soviet withdrawal. From 1996 to 2001, the Afghan government was only recognized by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and was not recognized by any major global actor like the US, China or Russia. The decision for US and NATO intervention in Afghanistan to remove the Taliban regime following 9/11 was unanimous and unchallenged at the UN. But the Western powers’ strategy of exclusion of the Taliban from Afghan political and governance scenes backfired, causing huge suffering not only to Afghanistan but also to its neighboring countries.
Taliban’s rigidity on political inclusivity and human rights particularly girls’ education and women’s access to work remain strong impediments to the mainstreaming of Afghanistan’s relations with the world and will have to be addressed.
However, an objective evaluation of the progress made since the 2021 Taliban takeover indicates that the Taliban have realized the importance of stable relations with other powers and countries in addition to consolidation of domestic control. The Afghan interim government, despite the challenge of being isolated from international political/legal frameworks, has been engaged with key international and regional interlocutors and is gradually making inroads. However, Taliban’s rigidity on political inclusivity and human rights particularly girls’ education and women’s access to work remain strong impediments to the mainstreaming of Afghanistan’s relations with the world and will have to be addressed prudently.
China has moved forward cautiously in this evolving post-US equation in Afghanistan and maintained its embassy in Kabul during the transition when all western countries abandoned theirs. On September 15, China’s new Ambassador Zhao Xing presented credentials to the Afghan Interim Prime Minister Mullah Muhammad Hassan Akhund. While attending the BRI forum meeting in China in October 2023, Interim Afghan Commerce Minister Nooruddin Azizi reiterated Afghan interest in actively joining BRI and the extension of CPEC to Afghanistan. Azizi assured that as a result of the Taliban administration’s efforts, security all over Afghanistan had greatly improved and mines across Afghanistan of precious minerals and rare earth metals such as lithium were open for investors. Azizi said Afghan technical teams would interact with their Chinese counterparts for discussions about the way forward.
These Chinese measures indicate a policy of engagement with the Taliban government. Several Chinese companies including the state-owned Metallurgical Corporat ion of China (MCC) Ltd. are operating in Afghanistan. For more than a decade, China has mining rights in Mes Aynak copper mine in Logar. In January 2023, China’s regional Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Company signed a contract for extraction of oil from Amu Darya oil field pledging investment of $540 million. Several iron ore projects may also attract the interest of Chinese companies in the coming years.
In order to make full use of regional economic potential, China will be needing trans-Afghan trade, transit and transportation corridors linking mines in Afghanistan and Central Asian countries to South Asian ports of Karachi, Port Qasim and Gwadar. These corridors in the north will require linkages with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to facilitate transportation between China and Eurasia. China already has a comprehensive cooperation agreement with Iran signed in March 2021 laying down a blueprint for $400 billion investments in areas such as oil, gas, petro-chemicals, renewable energy, transit, trade, railways and tourism.
China’s increasing diplomatic engagement in the Middle East signifies its deep interest in promoting wider inter-regional connectivity in the coming years. As the West’s support for Israel’s ferocious attacks in Gaza may, at least for the time being, impede the way forward on plans for the Middle East’s connectivity on the western side, the field is open for Arab countries’ investments and participation in increased economic integration and regional connectivity involving Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, China and Central/West Asia.
While one of the main concerns of the US is not leaving open ground for China in Afghanistan, at the same time the US is also not in favor of isolating the Taliban which could ignite fresh instability in Afghanistan and the region. That is why it has maintained quiet but close engagement with the Taliban mostly in Doha and allows the continuous injection of humanitarian funds into the Afghan economy. This also has an effect on the Taliban to maintain a balancing act between the US and China.
In this situation, Pakistan needs to explore ways to have a stable engagement with Afghanistan, which strives for Afghan support in eliminating cross-border TTP threats and looks at the bigger picture for deepening economic cooperation, trade and transit. Pakistan’s facilitative role on these matters is crucial for reinvigorating CPEC and its vital role in promoting wider regional economic integration and connectivity.
– Mansoor Ahmad Khan is Pakistan's former ambassador to Afghanistan. Former ambassador of Pakistan to Austria & PR to UN Vienna. Ex Chairman UN CND. Twitter @ambmansoorkhan