Thursday, March 23, 2023

Afghan – China Relations: The Mutual Distrust Continues

By SS Ahmad 

When Taliban took over control of Afghanistan in August, 2021, China wanted to fill the vacuum left by United States and expand its influence in the region to further its strategic interests. In Taliban, China was looking at a favourable dispensation which could be pupated like Pakistan by pumping in money and with promise of investments.

Though both China and Afghanistan share a physical border, historically their relationship never ticked off. During the last two decades, China’s attempt to gain foothold in Afghanistan was not fruitful mainly because of the double-minded and doubt-filled approach of China. Beijing was apprehensive of the security concerns emanating from Afghanistan. During Taliban’s first stint in power in 1990s, China worried about the possibility of Uyghur militants using camps in Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks against China. This fear aggravated further during 2010s when there were series of incidents in Xinjiang province involving attacks on Chinese people. 

China believed that Afghanistan provided a safe haven to militants who were able to operate from camps along the Afghanistan border and move into China through the narrow passes along their border. This was visible in the speeches of Xi Jinping in 2014, wherein he made a clear link between what was going on in Afghanistan and Xinjiang. China believed that no tangible actions could be taken on this front untill US remains in control of the region. This was corroborated by the U.S. decision in November 2020 to de-list the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement from its list of terrorist organizations.

With the US withdrawal and Taliban in power, China wanted to reverse this apprehension by establishing strong physical foothold into the region. China was one of the few countries which has kept their Embassy in Kabul fully functional throughout the period after the regime change. A number of Chinese businessmen reportedly stayed back to try their fortune. Subsequently, to project its prominence on this front, China has engaged with, participated in, and hosted numerous regional formats on Afghanistan. These were mainly to safeguard the security, economic and strategic interests of China in Afghanistan. Beijing has also sponsored some limited bilateral trade efforts and provided aid of some substance, and Chinese state-owned enterprises have started to talk about restarting their projects with Taliban authorities. However, China has not formally acknowledged Taliban as the rulers of Afghanistan. 

Besides these superficial efforts, China is still having second thoughts to make any tangible investment in Afghanistan. The dis-trust for China stems from the security concerns it has on Taliban. Despite all bonhomie, China views Taliban as an Islamic extremist organisation which has sympathies for the sufferings of the Uyghur Muslims. Beijing feels it would not be able to control Taliban like it controls Pakistan. China would never take the word of Taliban when they say that they would not provide support and shelter to the Uyghurs. Further China perceives Taliban as an unstable force which doesn’t have real control over the different tribal units in Afghanistan. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) having a free run in Pakistan with tacit support from local leaders in Afghanistan further worsen this security concern of China. 

Beijing doesn’t rule out the possibility of creation of new militant organisation either as a branch of Taliban or as a unit of ISIS in support of Uyghurs in the near future. The recent (Dec, 12) terror attack targeting a Chinese hotel in Kabul by ISKP militants put this possibility into a more realistic prospect. Specific targeting of Chinese citizens in Kabul by militant organisation also disrupts the existing modus operandi of China to bring Chinese workers to complete infrastructure projects under BRI as against using local talents. 

 For the perspective of Taliban, China was perceived as one of the strong means to gain international recognition and access to funds. But it has been a disappointment for Taliban on both fronts. These has been no real investment from China except unfulfilled promises or glamorous media announcements. Afghanistan has not got any benefits from China in the last two years. There was no tangible trade between both countries and whatever limited trade is more loop-sided. Afghan nationals find it very difficult to get visas into China. 

Off late, Taliban has started showing signs of understanding the real interests China which is siphoning of the resources of Afghanistan for the strategic interests of Beijing. The recent crackdown by Taliban authorities against Chinese nationals who were trying to smuggle valuable mineral resources from their country shows this changed mindset. On January, 23, 2023, five men, including two Chinese nationals, have been arrested by the Taliban in Jalalabad for their involvement in the smuggling of an estimated 1,000 metric tons of lithium-containing rocks out of Afghanistan to China via Pakistan. Col. Richard Kemp, a former commander who was deployed as part of British forces in Afghanistan, mentioned during an interview that after Taliban takeover, China and Pakistan will “enrich themselves by plundering” Afghanistan. This is becoming increasingly true.

Further, China’s repression and genocidal action on Uyghur muslims wouldn’t go well with the Islamic hardliners and it is becoming increasing difficult for Taliban to justify any actions on the sympathisers of Uyghurs within their establishment. These actions of China further create a strong element of trust deficit between Taliban and China. 

With both countries on opposite poles on religious ideology, the only area in which the two nations can seemingly establish relationship is in investment and economic affairs. But for any mutually beneficial attempts on this area, it requires real trust between both countries that they would take care of each other’s sensitive concerns. Is there a hope for development of such trust between the two countries? There appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

NoteThe contents of the article are of sole responsibility of the author. Afghan Diaspora Network will not be responsible for any inaccurate or incorrect statement in the article. 

Related Articles

Latest Articles