Will China Replace the US in Afghanistan?

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosts the Fourth China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers' Dialogue on 3 June 2021. Courtesy of Yang Wenbin / Alamy Live News

Despite heightened expectations, significant Chinese assistance to Afghanistan is unlikely to materialise soon.

The Taliban’s takeover of Kabul on 15 August has strengthened speculation regarding a rising Chinese role in Afghanistan to replace the US-led coalition’s two-decade-long presence. The Taliban have recently called Beijing a ‘top ally’.

China played its part in pushing the US–Taliban negotiations that were to hasten the US’s military exit from Afghanistan by holding an important meeting of the ‘extended troika’ (the US, Russia, China and Pakistan) in July 2019.

However, with the US now gone, Chinese assistance – despite heightened expectations – is unlikely to materialise soon, or to match the level of support from the US-led coalition.

US government funding to Afghanistan alone – not counting the assistance from other coalition partners – reached nearly $144 billion between 2002 and June 2021, almost entirely in the form of grants. This was more than China’s entire foreign aid spending, including grants and loans, during roughly the same period.

The Stakes for Beijing

Beijing may provide assistance to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan on a transactional basis, depending on whether the Islamic Emirate can stabilise Afghanistan in order to make it attractive for Chinese investment – a task for which, ironically, foreign support might be crucial as the Emirate itself lacks the required capability.

Beijing’s recently accelerated ‘realism with Chinese characteristics’ and aggressively outward-looking foreign policy notwithstanding, economic give-and-take remains of paramount importance when it comes to its aid to developing countries. Given that Afghanistan has proven to be a uniquely difficult setting for any kind of foreign intervention, the country would have to offer formidable incentives for Chinese companies to risk business engagement.

China mostly implements development projects and provides interest-based loans as the cornerstones of its developmental policy, often saddling recipient countries with crippling debt obligations. This is borne out by the recent history of Chinese support to other developing countries, and will likely form the trajectory of Chinese assistance to Afghanistan too.

Economic give-and-take remains of paramount importance when it comes to China's aid to developing countries

To date, though, the pattern of Beijing’s support to the Taliban’s emirate shows that it might be limited to diplomacy and some humanitarian assistance – possibly as instruments to keep the door open for closer future ties. Recent Chinese foreign ministry messaging, buried under criticisms of the US’s irresponsible interventionism and anodyne support for Afghanistan’s independence, usually includes a reminder that Afghanistan should seek help from the ‘international community’ – a nebulous term lacking a precise meaning.

Afghanistan’s much-touted mineral wealth is thought to attract Beijing’s interest despite the security risks. But this is more wishful thinking than reality. China is unlikely to be strongly interested in Afghanistan’s mining sector, in part because its mining policy is shaped by the fact that China itself holds some of the largest reserves in the world, including an estimated 37% of the world’s commercially viable rare earth deposits. Previous Chinese investments, notably in Africa and South America, and the difficulty of accessing Afghanistan’s mines without also building the necessary roads and infrastructure, are other reasons why exploiting Afghanistan’s mineral wealth may not be viable.

Another reality is that Afghanistan’s mineral riches may not be as significant as is often imagined. Their estimated worth is around $1–3 trillion; by comparison, the Democratic Republic of Congo sits on $24 trillion worth of minerals, in which Chinese companies have already heavily invested, particularly in cobalt and copper extraction.

Another sign of China’s lack of interest in Afghanistan’s mining sector is the still uncertain fate of the copper mine in Afghanistan’s Logar province that was leased to the state-owned China Metallurgical Group in 2007. Work on the mine has never taken off, partly due to concern for an archaeological site that was discovered following preliminary excavations, but mostly because of a Chinese reluctance to proceed owing to security threats.

Risks to Chinese Interests

Moreover, it may not be entirely up to China to decide the extent of its involvement in Afghanistan. Topping the list of issues not under its control is the looming threat of US sanctions against the Taliban and, crucially, the group’s foreign backers. Closer ties with the Taliban aside, US sanctions may even affect Chinese interests in neighbouring Pakistan, which hosts the flagship China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). At an estimated $62-billion cost to China, CPEC forms the southern overland section of China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) – a global infrastructure and trade connectivity project central to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ‘major country diplomacy’.

In a rare instance of its kind, the proposed text of US Senate sanctions explicitly demands investigation into the extent of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and its role in the collapse of the Western-backed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

If previous Chinese reaction to US sanctions is any indication, they may also lead to a cautious distancing of Chinese companies from Afghanistan. Previously, far more important countries – such as energy-rich Iran – have seen their economic ties with China negatively affected by US sanctions. An impoverished Afghanistan is unlikely to be able to carve out an exception to this trend.

Total disengagement, meanwhile, carries more risks for China than measured support for the Taliban. A containment strategy against threats emanating from Afghanistan requires China to be vigilant.

Although Afghanistan is bypassed by China's Belt and Road Initiative, security problems originating from the country could spill over and threaten its long-term viability

The likely continuation of threats to China arising from Afghanistan can partly be blamed on the Taliban’s actions so far. The group has swiftly disappointed former allies, and its exclusively male, ideologically homogeneous and almost monoethnic interim cabinet frustrated hopes for a more inclusive government that could secure international recognition and gain China’s favour. Ethnic strife and instability hardly make for a hospitable investment environment.

To make matters worse, Taliban provocations could also threaten the stability of a Chinese Central Asian ally and a founding member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Tajikistan. The Islamic Emirate has deployed special forces to Takhar province on the border with Tajikistan, and has reportedly armed Tajik Islamist militants in response to what the group calls Tajikistan’s interference in Afghanistan, citing the hosting of officials of the former Islamic Republic who fled to Dushanbe after Kabul fell.

The northern section of the overland BRI connecting China to Western Asia and Eastern Europe passes through Tajikistan. Stability in the country, where Chinese state investments have been on the rise, is vital for Xi Jinping’s regional policy.

Although Afghanistan is bypassed by the BRI – despite Pakistan’s recent insistence that it be included in CPEC as a token of support for the Taliban – security problems originating from the country could spill over and threaten the BRI’s long-term viability.

But probably the most damaging thing for the Taliban’s relations with China is the group’s maintaining of close ties with the Al-Qa’ida-linked Uyghur Turkestan Islamic Movement (TIM). Al-Qa’ida in general is seeing a revival following the Taliban’s ascent to power. It was reported that TIM fighters were only recently moved from the short Sino-Afghan border to other locations, contrary to an earlier claim by the Taliban that no foreign fighters have been allowed to stay in Afghanistan.

Speculation also abounds of impending infighting between the Taliban’s traditional flank and its more extreme Haqqani partners.

A destabilised Afghanistan threatens China’s regional interests and makes it imperative to closely monitor developments in the country. Occasional diplomatic support for the Taliban in international forums – such as voting down the recent decision to appoint a Special Rapporteur for Afghanistan by the UN Human Rights Council, and demanding the unfreezing of the Afghanistan central bank’s assets currently held in the US – are meant to placate the group. Beyond that, transactional engagement focused on physical investments will require far greater stability than currently exists under the Taliban’s retrograde and draconian rule.

Kambaiz Rafi holds a PhD in political economy from UCL (University College London).

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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