By William A.
China has not been playing a proactive role in dealing with Afghanistan’s Taliban government now. Last year, China had made several efforts to persuade several countries to recognise Taliban but that failed to cut much ice with the global community. Interestingly, lack of international recognition has added to Chinese reluctance to fund Afghanistan infrastructure projects. The political instability is another reason behind Chinese companies’ reluctance to fund infrastructural projects in Afghanistan as there will be security concerns and scepticism about economic returns.
The fear of political uncertainty stems from whether Taliban can hold on to power and gain international recognition as the lawful government of Afghanistan, say experts on Sino-Afghan affairs.
China is essentially concerned about security interests in Afghanistan as it wants to prevent terrorism from destabilizing the region at any cost. China faces threats from the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a group that seeks to liberate Xinjiang Province and the Uyghur people from Chinese government control and impose an Islamic ideology. China along with Russia have strong mutual security interests in Afghanistan in preventing terrorism and violent extremism.
The withdrawal of US from Afghanistan in spring 2021 led to the collapse of the elected government under President Ashraf Ghani. The de- Americanization of security in Central/South Asia has led to new opportunities for regional powers and Afghanistan’s neighbours to have more active security strategies in the region. However, China grabbed the opportunity started engaging with the Taliban in August last year. But within a year, it realised the difficulties in engaging with Taliban and its style of functioning.
The lack of recognition by the international community has shaken its confidence in Taliban. While some experts said that this engagement should not be mistaken for support, others interpreted as an attempt to influence Taliban and take advantage of supporting them. For China and other countries bordering Afghanistan, dealing with these new leaders, the Taliban, was not a luxury, but a necessity, stated experts on China and Afghan affairs.
After keeping a close watch on the Taliban government for nearly a year, China realised the blunder it made. It also realised that the ambition to wield significant influence in Afghanistan and secure investments in that country would be a risky affair. Beijing has realised that Afghanistan would continue to remain a risky investment proposition.
Though China continues to maintain some investments in Afghanistan, but those projects have been plagued by problems and have mostly been on hold for years. The most notable of these was the Mes-e Aynak copper mine in Logar Province, a project that was plagued by violence and instability for years. While the Taliban have been keen to reengage this project, China understands that restarting this project will require security. The ability of the Taliban to provide this. Given the growth of Islamic State-Khurasan (IS-K) and growing fissures within the Taliban movement, remains questionable.
For China, the stability in north western Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region is top on priority as it shares a narrow border with Afghanistan. Foreign Minister Wang Yi had told the Taliban delegation in China last July to “draw the line” with terrorist organisations including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which he described as a “direct threat to China’s national security and territorial integrity”.
Beijing has long accused ETIM of promoting Uygur separatism in Xinjiang. Wang had pressed the issue repeatedly in diplomatic meetings and dialogues with his Taliban counterpart. But repeated bombings in Afghanistan claimed by Islamic State Khorasan, an Isis affiliate that is hostile towards the Afghan Taliban because of sectarian differences, have raised questions over whether the Taliban is capable of providing security.
China has serious concerns about the ability of the Taliban government in handling crisis after June 22 earthquake. With resources at public hospitals and clinics already stretched because of the freezing of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves, poor communications and a patchy road network meant it was difficult for aid to reach the poor, remote villages worst hit by the quake. Survivors were left to dig by hand as they searched for others stuck under rubble.
Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University stated that the internal situation in Afghanistan was very complex and not everything should or can be managed by China. He however added that there had not been a threat to China’s national security directed, condoned or allowed by the Taliban since it took power. Unlike US and Russia, China is unlikely to take risks which can be fatal for its people and economy. China had invested in few projects in Afghanistan, and with the Taliban in charge it had become even more reluctant to invest.
In absence of stability, China would not take the risk to bring a large-scale investment project to Afghanistan because the situation is not clear in the long term and the return is not clear as well. So, Conflict in Afghanistan and the activities of ETIM have discouraged Chinese firms from extending Belt and Road Initiative projects, such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Five Nations Railway Corridor, to Afghanistan feel experts.
Recent attacks on Chinese civilians in Pakistan and more resistance groups fighting the Taliban have made China apprehensive of making more investments in Afghanistan. In absence of recognition, China would prefer to maintain distance from Taliban.
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