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A Year After Taliban Takeover, What Are China's Plans For Afghanistan?

Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Kabul in March.

As Taliban forces swept into Kabul last year and ousted the Western-backed Afghan government, commentators and analysts quickly turned their attention to Beijing's tenuous relationship with the group and the possibility of China exploiting the country's massive mineral wealth.

But after a year of Taliban rule, how close have the new Afghan government and China become?

Beijing had started courting the Taliban prior to the United States' chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and continued that outreach over the past year: pushing for deeper cooperation on security, targeting Uyghur militants based in the country, reviving cross-border trade links, and increasing economic aid to its neighbor amid a deepening humanitarian crisis.

The true extent of China's interest in Afghanistan and its relationship with the Taliban, however, is much less clear. While Chinese traders have increased their presence, large mining projects backed by Chinese companies have failed to get off the ground, and policymakers in Beijing continue to worry about instability spreading from Afghanistan into South and Central Asia.

To find out more about what a year of China's dealings with the Taliban have taught us, RFE/RL spoke with Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute and the author of Sinostan: China's Inadvertent Empire.

RFE/RL: As the Taliban came to power a year ago, there were many predictions about how China would look to capitalize on the vacuum left behind in Afghanistan to exploit the country's mineral and resource wealth. How do those forecasts look today?

Raffaello Pantucci: The Chinese chomping at the bit to fill the space that was left by the United States and take advantage of exploiting Afghanistan's natural resources is something that we really haven't seen happen.

We've seen some movement from Chinese actors to explore exploiting some of these resources, but the big state-owned enterprises that were previously engaging in Afghanistan or were talked about [by analysts] to get involved seem to still be [keeping a distance]. We have seen an increase in Chinese traders and businessmen showing up in Afghanistan, and some of them have been doing what you might call artisanal mining -- or exploring opportunities with local partners. But this is pretty low-level and limited stuff.

Officials from the Taliban's Foreign Ministry host a visiting delegation of Chinese diplomats in Kabul in March.
Officials from the Taliban's Foreign Ministry host a visiting delegation of Chinese diplomats in Kabul in March.

So I don't think you can say any of the predictions that said that we're going to suddenly see loads of [Chinese investment] through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) focused on mining opportunities have come to pass.

RFE/RL: What, in your mind, is the main reason that this hasn't happened?

Pantucci: I think the main reason that this hasn't come to pass is that Afghanistan is still a very difficult environment to operate in.

The reality is that the security [situation] is better [and] violence is down around the country. So there's a lot more scope [for Chinese companies and businessmen] to get around and explore, which helps explain the surge of lower-level Chinese traders showing up. But for the big projects to come to pass, an awful lot of work still needs to be done, and that work involves building stuff that isn't there, [such as] building the mine but also all the roads and infrastructure you need to start such a project and keep it going.

There's a total lack of all of this in Afghanistan, and the need for it all to get built from scratch, alongside the relative instability that you still have with the government, makes it difficult. [The Taliban] doesn't have the technocratic capability to manage large projects, let alone have the wherewithal to provide assurances to companies to operate across the country.

RFE/RL: With all that in mind, what can we say then about China's interests in Afghanistan, and what can we reasonably say are its plans for the future in the country?

Pantucci: China's major concerns with Afghanistan are still the same ones from before the Taliban came to power.

There are still worries about Uyghur militants in the country or groups using Afghanistan as a base to cause trouble for China. These are still concerns that the Chinese continue to raise, although it's noticeable that it seems to have dropped down the list of concerns compared to a year ago and likely isn't animating every single conversation between [Beijing and the Taliban].

Installations used by Chinese excavators and engineers at a copper mine in Mes Aynak in Afghanistan's Logar Province.
Installations used by Chinese excavators and engineers at a copper mine in Mes Aynak in Afghanistan's Logar Province.

I think another issue, which has become the biggest one nowadays, is the risk of instability from Afghanistan spreading north into Central Asia and south into Pakistan. If we look at the past year, we can certainly say that in Afghanistan violence is down, [but] in Pakistan it's gone up and it's gone up with [attacks] by groups that do have links to Afghanistan.

China is very heavily invested in and has lots of personnel in Pakistan, and there are growing worries [in Beijing] about its future. Looking north to Central Asia, it's also been a very unstable year since the Taliban took over, and while those links to Afghanistan there are limited and quite different [than with Pakistan], it's part of a wider Chinese fear for regional instability that can get stirred further by Afghanistan.

There is an economic interest in Afghanistan [from China], but it doesn't necessarily score as high as with some of the other countries in the [region] and it's [not] the principal animating reason for China wanting to engage [with the Taliban].

RFE/RL: All of this cooperation -- potential or real -- that we've discussed for Afghanistan and China hinges on the relationship between Beijing and the Taliban. That relationship is storied and at times has been confrontational. After a year of engagement between China and the Taliban, what have we learned about its dynamic?

Pantucci: I think it's very interesting to observe the Chinese and the Taliban over the past year because what's clear is that the Chinese have leaned into their relationship with the Taliban despite the risks.

They already had an existing relationship before the fall of Kabul, with [Chinese Foreign Minister] Wang Yi welcoming a [Taliban delegation] to Tianjin, China [in July 2021]. Since then, it's been a continuation of that by the Chinese to work with the Taliban and court them. But what's not clear -- and is very difficult to ascertain from the outside -- is the degree to which this relationship has delivered for either side.

From the Taliban side, there's probably a level of unmet expectations about some of the economic promises they were hoping would come to fruition [and] other opportunities that might come from Beijing. But China is still the main regional external actor, so they will continue to engage.

Investigators examine the scene where gunmen opened fire on two Chinese workers in Karachi in July 2021.
Investigators examine the scene where gunmen opened fire on two Chinese workers in Karachi in July 2021.

From the Chinese side, I think there's some concern about the fact that the Taliban has not created a more inclusive government because [Beijing] hoped that would help bring stability to the country. [China] also hoped that the Taliban would do more about Uyghur militants. The Taliban has done something on this [moving some militants from border regions] but they haven't done that much overall and there are questions about how willing they will be.

I think China's concerns all remain in place, but the problem the Chinese have is that they don't really have any other option except to engage with this government. It puts them in a bit of a bind in terms of having to continue to engage with [the Taliban] even though there's clearly no great amity or trust between the two sides.

RFE/RL: China is the main regional actor, but we've also seen the Chinese try to be a conduit for other governments to mobilize and engage with Afghanistan more. Can China do that in a meaningful way?

Pantucci: The Chinese are the main big, regional power that could play a role in Afghanistan, but there are lots of other regional players that are trying to play a role -- some of them with China and some of them not.

India has been developing a very interesting relationship with the Taliban over the past year, and one suspects that it's probably a bit of the Taliban trying to play politics against Pakistan and possibly even China. But I think the Central Asians have certainly been doing a lot [and] there's been a very pragmatic view and approach from those governments toward the Taliban. Likewise, the Pakistanis have a long-standing but very complicated relationship and the Iranians similarly have an intertwined and complicated dynamic with Afghanistan, and they're trying to figure out how to navigate things going forward.

It's interesting that China has tried to join in for marshaling some of these forces…[but] I don't know that there's a clear roadmap of how to do that. China is clearly trying to engage with lots of other [countries], but it's finding it very difficult to do so because no one necessarily sees that they have an answer to the problems [facing] Afghanistan.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is a correspondent in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom and the author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.