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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Explained: Why China is looking at a larger role in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan

Following the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, China has emerged as one of the first nations to develop diplomatic channels with the Taliban. What are its economic interests in the country?

Written by Komal Gupta , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: September 2, 2021 12:27:19 pm
Taliban fighters patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 19, 2021. (AP Photo: Rahmat Gul)

This week, China established its first diplomatic contact with the Taliban in Kabul, just a week after the militant group took control of Afghanistan. “China and the Afghan Taliban have unimpeded and effective communication and consultation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin told a media briefing soon after.

Following the recent withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, China has emerged as one of the first nations to develop diplomatic channels with the Taliban, which has swept to power once again in the crisis-torn country. Interestingly, China has over the past two decades of US-led governance of Afghanistan, maintained a low profile, quietly observing as the longest war in history raged on taking its toll in terms of both resources and lives.

H.E. Wang Yu, the Chinese Ambassador to Afghanistan, highlights that China did provide the war-torn country millions of dollars in aid for building hospitals, such as Jamhuriat Hospital, a solar power station in Bamyan Province and more.

But now, as Zhou Bo, an expert on the Chinese Army’s strategic thinking on international security, wrote in his op-ed for The New York Times, “Beijing has few qualms about fostering a closer relationship with the Taliban and is ready to assert itself as the most influential outside player in an Afghanistan all but abandoned by the United States.”

In this July 28, 2021, file photo, Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, left, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose during a meeting in Tianjin, China. (Li Ran/Xinhua via AP, File)

What is China’s economic interest in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is sitting on mineral deposits estimated to be worth up to $3 trillion, Reuters reported quoting a former mines minister of the country.

The country is probably home to what may be the world’s largest reserves of lithium – the key ingredient of the large-capacity lithium-ion batteries that are widely used in electric vehicles and the renewable energy industry. And since China dominates Lithium-Ion Battery Production worldwide, it may seek long-term a contract with the Taliban to develop Afghanistan’s massive untapped lithium reserves in return for mining rights and ownership arrangements.

Afghanistan is also rich in several other resources such as gold, oil, bauxite, rare earths, chromium, copper, natural gas, uranium, coal, iron ore, lead, zinc, gemstones, talc, sulphur, travertine, gypsum and marble.

Returning to power in Afghanistan after 20 years, the Taliban has recaptured these massive mineral deposits. “With the U.S. withdrawal, Beijing can offer what Kabul needs most: political impartiality and economic investment,” Zhou Bo wrote. “Afghanistan in turn has what China most prizes: opportunities in infrastructure and industry building — areas in which China’s capabilities are arguably unmatched — and access to $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits.”

China’s Belt and Road Initiative: China’s strategic Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) could get more reach if it able to extend the initiative from Pakistan to Afghanistan, with a Peshawar-to-Kabul motorway. The road, which is already being discussed, would create a much shorter land route for faster and convenient access to markets in the Middle East for Chinese goods. A new route through Kabul would also render India’s reluctance to join BRI less consequential.

What are Beijing’s security concerns about a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan?

The Turkistan Islamic Movement (TIM), also known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), is an Uyghur Islamic extremist organisation founded in Western China with the aim to establish an independent state called East Turkestan in the place of Xinjiang. Since 2002, the ETIM has been listed as a terrorist organisation by the UN Security Council Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee. However, the United States removed it from its list of Terrorist Organizations in 2020.

The US, the United Kingdom and the UN have accused China of widespread human rights abuses against the local Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang, including forced labour and large-scale detentions. Beijing has denied these claims.

According to the UN security council, the ETIM had roots in Afghanistan as it received support from the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the 2000s. Some experts doubt the capacity of the group to instigate violence, or even its present-day existence.

Still China is worried that Afghanistan could become a potential haven for the Uyghur extremist group, which could retaliate against the “widespread repression of Uyghurs.”

China’s foreign minister Wang Yi, in a July meeting with the deputy leader of the Taliban Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said he hoped the Taliban would “make a clean break with all terrorist organisations including the ETIM resolutely and effectively”. He stressed that ETIM “poses a direct threat to China’s national security and territorial integrity”.

Wang added that he hoped the Taliban would “hold high the banner of peace talks, set the goal of peace, build a positive image and pursue an inclusive policy”, clearly indicating that China wants stability in Afghanistan, ensuring that terrorist insurgencies don’t spill over into the Xinjiang province.

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