While calling for economic cooperation with the regime and expressing support for its counter-terrorism activities, China’s policy paper on Afghanistan appealed to the Taliban government to “adopt moderate and prudent domestic and foreign policies.”
China released an important policy paper on April 12, 2023 on Afghanistan titled, “China’s Position on Afghan Issue”, as the new Chinese Foreign Minister began his first trip to Central Asia. On the heels of this policy paper, China also convened a successful meeting of the Foreign Ministers of China, Pakistan, Russia and Iran to discuss strategies to resolve the Afghanistan qunandrum, and restore peace and stability to this important nation of the region.
The Afghan policy paper essentially contains 11 aspects which include: adhering to the basic policy of ‘Three Respects’ and ‘Three Nevers’, supporting moderate and prudent governance, peaceful reconstruction, resolute and forceful counter-terrorism in Afghanistan, greater bilateral and multilateral counter-terrorism cooperation, urging the U.S. to live up to its commitments and responsibilities to Afghanistan, strengthening international and regional coordination on the Afghan issue, facilitating solution to Afghanistan’s humanitarian and refugee issues and supporting Afghanistan’s fight against narcotics, etc. While calling for economic cooperation with the regime and expressing support for its counter-terrorism activities, the paper appealed to the Taliban government to “adopt moderate and prudent domestic and foreign policies.”
While the Taliban have expressed willingness to join the BRI and Beijing has highlighted Afghanistan’s significance for the global infrastructure plan also dubbed as the “New Silk Road”, the two sides have yet to sign any contracts.
China’s historical relationship with Afghanistan can be divided into three specific periods. The first being the estrangement period during the Cold War era, starting from 1945 to 1991, rising concern about Uighur terrorism emanating from Afghanistan between 1991 and 2000, evolving into activism in Afghan affairs, following the U.S. invasion and the ensuing period from 2001 to 2020. However, since the departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in August 2021, after a 20-year intervention, has left China as the biggest regional player capable of playing a critical role in the future Afghan affairs.
Looking ahead from a new historical starting point, China has decided to increase trade and investment in Afghanistan in line with the principle of mutual benefit and enhance the level of practical cooperation for mutually beneficial development of bilateral relations. China has also announced that it would actively promote the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to connect with the development strategy of Afghanistan and help the country achieve peace, stability and development. While the Taliban have expressed willingness to join the BRI and Beijing has highlighted Afghanistan’s significance for the global infrastructure plan also dubbed as the “New Silk Road”, the two sides have yet to sign any contracts.
President Xi (in a speech regarding Afghanistan) said that China treats Afghanistan with sincerity, both countries are linked by mountains and water, and their destinies were connected. The thousands of years of traditional friendly exchanges between the Chinese and Afghan people continue to this day. As Afghan people always say, China is the only major country that has never harmed Afghanistan. As a good neighbor, a good brother and a good partner, China has always cherished the traditional friendship between us and is committed to providing assistance to the Afghan people within our capacity. China has always respected Afghanistan's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, the independent choices made by the Afghan people, and the religious beliefs and ethnic customs. China has never interfered in Afghanistan's internal affairs, has never sought any private interests in Afghanistan, and has never sought the so-called sphere of influence.
A Chinese scholar once said, “Considered negatively, Afghanistan is a like a lock that can cut off Central, South, and West Asia from each other. Considered positively, it is the key that can open the door to collaboration between these areas.”
A Chinese scholar once said, “Considered negatively, Afghanistan is a like a lock that can cut off Central, South, and West Asia from each other. Considered positively, it is the key that can open the door to collaboration between these areas.” In this respect, it is essential to comprehensibly understand the geopolitical dynamics of the China-India-Pakistan triangle with reference to each other and to Afghanistan.
There are several factors that have affected and will continue to affect Chinese policy in the future. These factors involve security and stability in Xinjiang and China’s western border region, Afghanistan’s place in China’s overarching international strategy, great power politics involving the United States, and the economic value of Afghanistan. In view of these factors, Beijing has now enacted a new engagement policy towards Afghanistan, which essentially involves pragmatically and cautiously accepting the Taliban as the dominant force in Afghan affairs; preventing the reemergence of Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorists; facilitating an inclusive politics in the country; and demonstrating a greater degree of humanitarian concern.
China’s policy has therefore, become more active and constructive, although it is still hemmed in by major constraints. It is one of the few countries that is committed to expanding its dealings with the Taliban government in Afghanistan, where it hopes to expand its use of the vast natural resources while also improving its own geopolitical security.
Greater presence in Afghanistan provides China with an opportunity to strengthen its regional power and influence. In doing so, it can contribute to the stability of Afghanistan. In turn, such a role will improve China’s image as a responsible rising power.
In 2021, China hosted a Taliban delegation, showing its willingness to recognise the Taliban government as the U.S. signaled its planned withdrawal. In early January 2023, a Chinese firm agreed to sign a 25-year contract for oil extraction in Afghanistan. There is also the possibility that a Chinese state-owned company will be contracted to operate a copper mine in the country. China is now willing to increase its commercial presence in the country. Although traditionally, its Afghan policy has not been a diplomatic priority, it now sees opportunities. Greater active engagement with Afghanistan will enable China to benefit in several ways:
▪ Afghanistan is one of the world’s most resource-rich countries. Some estimates set the value of Afghanistan’s untapped mineral deposits, such as copper, iron and lithium, at USD 900 billion. In terms of crude oil, it has 1.6 billion barrels. As for natural gas, Afghanistan possesses 16 trillion cubic feet, and has access to 500 million barrels of natural gas liquids.
▪ China’s domestic energy supply is limited both by geology and energy density, and its dependence on other countries leads to energy security concerns.
▪ Access to Afghanistan’s natural resources not only provides economic incentives for China to increase its commercial presence in the country, but it also has the potential to help ease its growing demand for energy. This certainly has the potential to become a fundamental strategic element for its long-term energy requirements.
▪ Trade frictions with the U.S. and other countries have increased the pressure to open other markets for Chinese goods. Although the Afghan consumer market is small, it is an untapped market for Chinese goods, particularly those produced in China’s western regions.
▪ An additional gain for China is geopolitical. After decades of U.S. and Western presence in Afghanistan, China seems ready to fill the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of western countries.
▪ Greater presence in Afghanistan provides China with an opportunity to strengthen its regional power and influence. In doing so, it can contribute to the stability of Afghanistan. In turn, such a role will improve China’s image as a responsible rising power.
▪ A change in strategy by China to increase the economic stability of Afghanistan can contribute to the reduction of China’s own security vulnerabilities.
It is understood that for China, the main goal is to have a stable Afghan government that will consolidate its position not only domestically but also internationally. It’s in the Chinese interest to have a neighbour that is not sanctioned or being perceived as a pariah state. It’s also very crucial for the Taliban to cut off ties with transnational terrorist groups, specifically the Uyghur groups that are considered the greatest threat to Beijing. Furthermore, it can be already observed that the security issues in the country and the region will be the main condition to further the perspective of economic cooperation. Right now, Beijing will surely play a more important role for Afghanistan, with the sight of possibly far larger investments in Afghanistan’s economy.
The paper especially highlighted the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uygur separatist group that Beijing partly blames for ethnic tensions in its far-western Xinjiang region, which has a narrow border with Afghanistan. China hopes that Afghanistan will fulfil its commitment in earnest and take more effective measures to crack down on all terrorist forces including ETIM with greater determination.” No country should practice “double standards” on counter-terrorism, or “advance their geopolitical agenda by supporting or conniving at terrorism”, the paper said in a clear reference to the United States, which removed ETIM from its list of terror groups in 2020.
“It is a shared view of regional countries that the military interference and ‘democratic transformation’ by external forces in Afghanistan over the past 20-odd years have inflicted enormous losses and pain on Afghanistan,” the paper said.
The Turkestan Islamic Party, founded by exiled Uygur Islamic militants, has rebuilt its main base in northern Afghanistan, according to a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) report in July. Moreover, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or the Pakistani Taliban, which has long sought to overthrow the Government of Pakistan, has a growing anti-China agenda and has strengthened its presence in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. The militant group was behind several deadly terrorist attacks in Pakistan, some reportedly targeting Chinese investment and personnel.
Counter-terrorism will be a major concern for China for quite some time to come, and the Taliban’s compliance with its commitments has been less than ideal. Therefore, counter-terrorism will be a key factor for China to recognize the Taliban’s international status and further economic cooperation.
The writer has served as an Ambassador to China, the European Union, Belgium, Luxembourd and Ireland. She has also authored and edited several books including Magnificent Pakistan, Pakistan-China All Weather Friendship, and Lost Cities of Indus.
E-mail: [email protected]
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