The speed and scope of the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan has sparked introspection in the West about what went wrong and how, after spending billions of dollars on a 20-year war effort, it could all end so ignominiously.
China, however, is looking forward. Are you ready to step into the void left by America’s hasty withdrawal to seize a golden opportunity.
While Beijing has yet to formally recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s new government, China issued a statement on Monday saying it “respects the right of the Afghan people to independently determine their own destiny” and will develop “friendly and cooperative relations with Afghanistan.”
The message here is clear: Beijing has little qualms about fostering a closer relationship with the Taliban and you are ready to assert yourself as the most influential external actor in an Afghanistan now almost abandoned by the United States.
A baby with the Taliban flag in Kabul. AFP photo
Unlike Washington, China has kept a low profile in the country since the US invasion, and does not want to be second fiddle in any power politics. Beijing saw how Washington’s foray into Afghanistan it became an expensive and messy swamp.
In the meantime, China provided Afghanistan with millions of dollars in aid for healthcare, hospitals, a solar power station and more. At the same time, Beijing fostered stronger business relationships and eventually became one of Afghanistan’s most important trading partners.
With the US withdrawal, Beijing can offer what Kabul needs most: political impartiality and economic investment.
Afghanistan, in turn, has what China values most: opportunities in building infrastructure and industry, areas in which Beijing’s capabilities are arguably unmatched, and access to a trillion dollars in deposits. untapped minerals, including critical industrial metals such as lithium, iron, copper, and cobalt.
Although critics have argued that Chinese investment it is not a strategic priority in a less secure Afghanistan, I think otherwise.
Taliban militias on patrol in Kabul. Photo EFE
Chinese companies have a reputation for investing in less stable countries if that means they can reap the rewards. That doesn’t always happen so easily, but China has patience.
Although the presence of US troops helped to some extent to prevent armed groups from using Afghanistan as a refuge, their departure also means that a 20-year war with the Taliban has ended.
Therefore, barriers to large-scale Chinese investment removed. China is, of course, a major buyer of the world’s metals and industrial minerals to finance its economic engine.
One of China’s current long-term strategic investment plans is the Belt-and-Road Initiative, an effort to finance and build infrastructure throughout the region.
And Afghanistan so far has been an attractive but missing piece of the huge puzzle. If China could extend the Belt and Road from Pakistan to Afghanistan, for example, with a highway from Peshawar to Kabul, I would open a land route shorter to access Middle Eastern markets.
A new route through Kabul it would also make India’s resistance to joining the Belt and Road less important.
Even before their takeover of Kabul, the Taliban they had promised to protect Chinese investments in Afghanistan.
Beijing is now also positioned to have a greater influence on the political landscape of the country. The history of Afghanistan tells us that one group is rarely in control of the entire country, and given the rapid takeover of power by the Taliban, it is reasonable to expect some civil conflict.
China, which is already the largest troop contributor to UN peacekeeping missions among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, has also registered a reserve peacekeeping force of 8,000 soldiers, a move that could make it one of the biggest contributors overall.
If a UN peacekeeping mission is deployed to Afghanistan, it is almost certain that Chinese peacekeepers, coming from a neighboring friendly country, they will be more welcome than those who come from afar.
Vendors in the immediate vicinity of Kabul airport. Reuters photo
Becoming an influential player in Afghanistan also means that Beijing is better positioned to avoid what it sees as anti-Chinese groups take hold in the country. One of China’s main concerns is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
According to a Chinese government report, the group had its roots in Afghanistan. According to the UN, it received support from the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the 2000s. Some academics and experts question whether the group has the ability to instigate violence, or if it even continues to exist.
However, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a July meeting with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy leader of the Taliban, that I hoped they would “achieve a clear break” with the East Turkestan group because it threatens the national security and territorial integrity of China. “
Wang also expressed his hope that the Taliban “will build a positive image and apply an inclusive policy“a sign that China wants the Taliban to deliver on their promise of” inclusive “governance.
In response, Baradar promised that the Taliban would never allow any group to use Afghan territory. to commit harmful acts for China.
The key to Afghanistan’s peace and stability, of course, also partly resides in Pakistan. Despite its proximity, the “Siamese twins”As former Afghan President Hamid Karzai described them, they do not always look in the same direction.
Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan is largely driven by the strategic objectives of securing a friendly government in Kabul and undermining India’s growing influence in Afghanistan. It is in Beijing’s interest, especially for the success of the Belt and Road, to ensure that Pakistan and Afghanistan get along.
Evacuations at Kabul airport. AP Photo
It’s no secret that China already enjoys a strong influence in Pakistan. Anticipating a more prominent role and a future need, Beijing pledged in June to continue to help develop and improve relations between the two countries.
Finally, even though the United States is leaving, there is an opportunity for Beijing and Washington to work together for a stable Afghanistan. China and the United States, despite their differences, have already enjoyed some cooperation in Afghanistan, for example, by jointly training diplomats and technicians.
Neither country wants Afghanistan slide into a civil war. They both support an Afghan-owned and run political solution. Thus, Afghanistan provides an area for the two rival giants to find common cause.
When Wang spoke with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday, he said China was ready to work with the United States pto “boost a soft landing of the Afghan problem “.
Afghanistan has long been considered a cemetery of conquerors: Alexander the Great, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and now the United States. Now China enters, armed not with bombs but with construction plans, and the opportunity to prove that the curse may be shattered.
Zhou Bo He is a Senior Researcher at the Tsinghua University Center for Strategy and International Security and a member of the China Forum. He was a high-ranking colonel in the People’s Liberation Army from 2003 to 2020.
The New York Times