Afghanistan’s natural resources, not the betterment of its people, is driving China’s incessant push towards Kabul
Although Beijing has not officially recognized the Taliban regime that holds power in Kabul, it has taken the unusual position of nevertheless maintaining an Ambassador and an Embassy in Afghanistan.
Not just that, China this past week also formally posted a new envoy to Afghanistan, thereby becoming the first country to do so.
No country has officially recognized the Taliban regime since the collapse of the previous United States (US)-backed Ashraf Ghani-led government in 2021, even if several countries have engaged with it at different levels.
At the investiture ceremony, while both the Taliban and China spoke glowingly of their expanding relationship, the fact of the matter is that despite seeking to show support for the Taliban amid Afghanistan’s ongoing crisis, China has made it abundantly clear that it is not yet brave enough to establish formal ties with the Taliban regime, nor, indeed, to formally recognize it.
Beijing seems to believes that the many preoccupations of the West, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine being prime among them, affords it an unbridled opportunity to have a free reign over Afghanistan’s mineral and other wealth, without any real need to reciprocate the Taliban’s generosity through recognition of the regime or establishing formal relations with it, something the Talban regime deeply craves for.
China was among the first countries to welcome the Taliban’s return to power after the chaotic withdrawal of US troops two years ago, and is one of only a handful to host a Taliban Charge d’Affaires.
Over the years, China had maintained direct communication with the Taliban, and both sides had met on several occasions, bilaterally and internationally, underscoring Beijing’s warming ties with the Taliban.
In July 2021, a month before the Taliban takeover, China held a high-profile meeting with a delegation of nine Taliban representatives in Tianjin, led by the head of the Afghan Taliban Political Commission. During the meeting, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi recognized the Taliban as “a critical military and political force in the country, [which] is expected to play an important role in the peace, reconciliation and reconstruction process of Afghanistan”. As Dr. Anwesha Ghosh put it, “While some speculated that this openness indicated Chinese intentions to expand its sphere of interest in the region, it was more likely reflective of the Chinese government’s hedging strategy—its primary interests in Afghanistan being contingent on constructive if not cooperative relations with whichever faction took the reins in Kabul”.
It, therefore, came as no surprise that China’s new Ambassador to Afghanistan, Zhao Sheng, was welcomed at Kabul’s Presidential Palace on 13 September in an elaborate ceremony that was attended by the Taliban’s Acting Prime Minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund and Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi.
Zhao Sheng’s car, escorted by a police convoy, rolled into the tree-lined driveway of the Presidential Palace in Kabul, where he was greeted by uniformed soldiers as he met top-ranking Taliban officials.
The Ambassador, dressed in a grey suit, was accompanied by a team of four officials as he met the Taliban ministers to hand over his credentials.
Four members from the Taliban’s ministry were also present. The new Chinese envoy presented his credentials to the acting Prime Minister, which the latter accepted.
A Taliban Foreign Ministry spokesman told Reuters that the new Chinese envoy was the first Ambassador from any country to take up the post since August 2021. Over a hundred nations have withheld official recognition of Afghanistan’s regime under the Taliban, deadlocking assets abroad.
China’s previous Ambassador to Afghanistan, Wang Yu, had taken up the role in 2019 and completed his tenure last month.
There are other diplomats in Kabul with the title of Ambassador, but all of them took up their posts before the Taliban takeover.
Other countries and bodies, such as Pakistan and the European Union (EU), have since sent senior diplomats to lead diplomatic missions using the title Charge d'Affaires, which does not require presenting Ambassadorial credentials to the host nation.
Taliban spokesperson in Doha, Suhail Shaheen, told Al Jazeera that the Chinese move will further enhance relations between the two countries and pave the way for cooperation in various fields. He elaborated, “Other governments appointed Charge d’Affaires after the expiry of the terms of their ambassadors. However, China decided to nominate a new Ambassador”.
After the credential presentation ceremony, the Taliban’s Foreign Minister Muttaqi described it as a “significant step with a significant message”.
The deputy spokesperson of the Taliban’s Foreign Ministry, sharing photos of the meeting, informed that “Muttaqi assured the new Chinese Ambassador of all kinds of cooperation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Foreign Minister considered the bilateral relations between Afghanistan and China to be special”.
Zabiulah Mujahid, the chief Taliban spokesperson, described it is a tradition for new Ambassadors to present their credentials to the head of the country, adding that “It also signals to other countries to come forward and interact with the Islamic Emirate. We should establish good relations as a result of good interactions and, with good relations, we can solve all the problems that are in front of us or coming in the future”.
Officials in China did not initially issue a formal statement confirming the presence of its diplomatic mission on Afghan soil, but a statement from the Chinese Embassy in Kabul urged the international community to maintain a dialogue and encourage the country to put in place an inclusive political framework, adopt moderate policies, combat terrorism and develop friendly external relations.
In a clear reference to the US and its allies, it asserted that certain countries needed to “draw lessons” from what happened in Afghanistan, “abandon double standards on combating terrorism, return the country’s overseas assets, and lift sanctions”.
Zhang Jun, China’s top envoy to the United Nations (UN), also took a thinly veiled jab at the US on 14 September over the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
He alleged at a UN Security Council debate that “A few countries, under the pretext of democracy and human rights, have all too easily cut or even suspended humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and other countries. Such actions will only victimise innocent civilians, worsen the socio-economic crisis, and contravene the spirit of humanitarianism”.
At the ceremony, Zhao Sheng conveyed the Chinese Foreign Minister’s best wishes to Foreign Minister Muttaqi and expressed his pride in commencing his role as China’s Ambassador in Afghanistan. He was quoted as saying – “China respects Afghanistan’s national sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity, and will never interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.
In the last two years, Afghanistan has made significant economic progress, the security has improved and there has been a good fight against crimes”.
In his first message posted on the Chinese embassy’s website on 15 September, Zhao said: “Practical cooperation in the field will promote the sustained, healthy and stable development of China-Afghanistan relations, continue the traditional friendship between the two peoples, and enable China’s development results to better benefit Afghanistan”.
Reacting to the overall impression of the recent development being a sign of Beijing taking a step towards officially recognizing the Taliban, China’s Foreign Ministry described Zhao’s arrival in Kabul as “the normal rotation of China’s Ambassador to Afghanistan”, adding that it was “intended to continue advancing dialogue and cooperation between China and Afghanistan”. It claimed that “China’s policy towards Afghanistan is clear and consistent”.
As the former diplomat Shi Jiangtao noted in his 16 September article in the South China Morning Post, although the Taliban has failed to ensure the internal security and stability it had promised, and Chinese targets have been hit by a number of terrorist attacks in the country, Beijing has nevertheless pledged greater financial and economic involvement in sanctions-hit Afghanistan. Ambassador Zhao made China’s real intentions even clearer when he stressed that Beijing was committed to “deepening the cooperation between both sides under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)”, President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign investment and infrastructure project, into Afghanistan.
Earlier this year, a three-way agreement was reached to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the centerpiece of the BRI initiative, to Afghanistan.
Last month both the Afghan media and Bloomberg reported that the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei was working with the Taliban to install advanced surveillance systems in all provinces of Afghanistan.
Chinese analysts view the appointment of a new Ambassador to Afghanistan as a positive, and some even see this blossoming into a panacea for all of Afghanistan’s problems.
Yan Wei, deputy director at the Institute of Middle Eastern studies at Northwest University in Xian, for example, described the new Ambassador’s appointment as a “positive signal” that underlined China’s support for the Taliban amid the country’s ongoing humanitarian crisis.
He added, “China believes that, under the current circumstances, it is necessary to maintain constructive contact and dialogue with the Taliban regime to better encourage and guide it in addressing the concerns of the international community, and that isolation and blockade are not conducive to solving the problems”.
While claiming that China did have concerns about the Taliban’s links with extremism and terrorism and its repressive policies towards Afghan women and girls, he opined that the appointment of the new envoy was “a showcase of China’s active diplomacy in promoting regional stability and alleviating Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis and economic difficulties without interfering in its internal affairs”.
Leaving the most pertinent for the end, Yan underlined that “The naming of a new envoy would be conducive to serving Chinese enterprises and conducting exchanges”.
BBC News cited experts as saying that Zhao's appointment was part of China’s moves to cement its influence in a region that is very important for the BRI initiative.
Beijing has previously said it wants to invest in Afghanistan’s natural resources that are estimated to be worth $1 trillion. These include extensive copper, lithium and gold deposits. In January this year, the
Taliban signed a contract with a Chinese firm in the first major energy extraction agreement with a foreign firm since they seized power. BBC quoted Farwa Aamer, Director of South Asia Initiatives at the Asia Society Policy Institute, as saying that “By being the first to name an Ambassador post-takeover, China aims to position itself as an influential actor in the region – a possible diplomatic flexing of muscles, especially when many Western countries are still hesitant to engage with the Taliban”.
Dr. Anwesha Ghosh believes that rather than vague and greatly reduced security threats ostensibly posed by Afghanistan-based terrorist groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) to China, it was the exploitative economics that China has already proliferated across much of the region that was the crux behind Beijing’s increasing proximity with the Taliban.
She wrote, “China’s economic interests are diverse, ranging from infrastructure projects to mining and energy development.
China has expressed its interest in investing in Afghanistan's abundant natural resources, which are estimated to have a total value of approximately $1 trillion – these resources encompass substantial deposits of copper, lithium, and gold.
In April 2022, the Taliban approved a $216 million Chinese investment project for an industrial park outside Kabul, which is expected to host 150 factories. Reportedly, last month Chinese telecom giant Huawei has got approvals from the top levels of the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan to install CCTV cameras across provinces raising concerns that Beijing is advancing towards profiling Afghans to increase its influence in the country.
Earlier this year, China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan reached an agreement to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, supported by Beijing, into Afghanistan. Notably, Afghanistan occupies a central position within a region that holds significant importance for Beijing's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. Zhao’s appointment in a way signaled China’s willingness to forge closer ties with the Taliban regime”.
A common mistake that some such as Yan Wei of the Northwest University in Xian make is to assume that China’s growing proximity with the Taliban is a “positive signal” that will help ameliorate the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, when, in reality, all it is aimed at doing is line Beijing’s already bulging pockets even more with money that has the blood of Afghans, just as it had the blood of Sri Lankans a while ago, splattered all over it.