Since the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, China realized that confrontation with the Taliban could pose a major economic and security threat. For this reason, Beijing has decided to pursue a path towards rapprochement with the Taliban, which it treats as the de-facto authority in Kabul. In doing so, China aims to avoid these potential threats and preserve its wide-ranging interests. Beijing held several talks with Taliban leaders in recent months to obtain assurances regarding Chinese economic and security interests in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia, and in China itself. China’s goal here is also indirectly tied to its international rivalry with the US. The main advantages that China stands to gain from avoiding damaging its relationship with the Taliban are as follows:
1. Expanding investments within Afghanistan: Economic investment in Afghanistan is a new step for China. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Beijing has developed trade relations with Afghanistan and become Afghanistan’s largest trading partner. When the Taliban once again took control of the country on 15 August 2022, Beijing’s major investments in Afghanistan were centered in the mining industry due to the country’s huge mineral reserves. The total value of mineral resources in Afghanistan is estimated to be around $1 trillion and has not yet been made full use of due to decades of political and security upheaval.
After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August 2021, China was concerned about protecting its economic interests in Afghanistan as well as strengthening and diversifying its investments in mining, infrastructure, transportation, agriculture, energy, and other sectors in the country. China has continued its efforts to develop this economic partnership and to make huge investments in Afghanistan through rapprochement with the Taliban. The Taliban has been very open to this opportunity and sees Beijing as the only potential savior for the country’s deteriorating economy. China’s interest in pursuing further extensive investments in Afghanistan could make it the main economic player with regard to various resources in the country, which also means that it will greatly strengthen its political influence in Kabul.
The Taliban welcomes Chinese investment due to the lack of other potential investors, particularly from among the major powers. Many countries do not recognize the Taliban as the legitimate ruler of the country, including China itself, and the Taliban has been subject to foreign sanctions that have affected many aspects of its economy and trade. The Taliban is also afraid that if the economy continues to deteriorate, Afghanistan could fall into civil war, since many groups within Afghan society oppose the Taliban. The Chinese have experience with pursuing investment and trade in Afghanistan across changing leadership.
The strategic importance of Chinese investment in Afghanistan is tied to a single resource: lithium. This is a very valuable mineral resource for Afghanistan because lithium is one of the most sought-after resources for producing electric cars. China plans to extract huge quantities of lithium in Afghanistan in the near future to avoid importing it from more distant locations, since Beijing can transport it from Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan to China by land.
Protecting Chinese Interests
2. Protecting Chinese economic interests in Pakistan and Central Asia: The Chinese rapprochement with the Taliban will have many positive economic benefits within Afghanistan but will also protect Chinese investments in Pakistan and Central Asia. The Chinese government is concerned that terrorist groups in Afghanistan could strike its economic interests in the region, especially in Pakistan. China has extensive trade relations with Pakistan and billions of dollars of investments.
Many of these terrorist groups, especially those with a more regional presence, see China as a hostile force. These groups include the Turkistan Islamic Party, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Union, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, ISIS, and al-Qaeda. Some of these groups function on a regional basis, while terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda could join forces with other organizations against China. Some of these groups see China as a colonizing force, as is the case with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, whose leader Abu Dhar al-Burmi characterized China as the next "enemy no.1" in 2013. Other groups have accused China of conspiring against Muslims which could mean they might be looking for opportunities to strike Chinese targets in the future.
3. Providing security for the Belt and Road Initiative: China is primarily trying to ensure that that the security situation in Afghanistan does not descend into chaos beyond the Taliban’s control. Chaos or civil war would damage Afghanistan’s stability and security and Chinese economic interests in the country, but it would also threaten the completion of the major strategic Belt and Road Initiative that China is pursuing. It announced the project in 2013 and it is set to be completed in 2049.
This initiative, which extends from China to West Asia and Afghanistan, aims to connect old trade routes between Asia, Africa, and Europe. Central Asia is a key part of the Belt and Road project, which is supposed to reach 68 countries. Preserving the security and stability of the region is crucial to continuing the project and extending it to the rest of the world. China is particularly concerned about maintaining security in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Iran. If the security situation in Afghanistan descended into chaos or civil war, this would have negative repercussions for regional security in Central Asia and beyond. This region is threatened by terrorist activity that could jeopardize the Belt and Road Initiative and prevent Beijing from continuing the project. One factor driving China’s rapprochement with the Taliban is this effort to preserve the security of the region and ensure the viability of the Belt and Road Initiative.
4. Protecting security interests within China: China is also concerned about the possibility of opposition groups launching terrorist attacks at home from Afghanistan. This is a key driver for Beijing’s rapprochement with the Taliban and its need to maintain security in that country. In addition to the aforementioned groups that are hostile to China, there are other extremist organizations run by Uyghur residents of China which pose a serious security threat for Beijing. The Uyghurs have used Afghanistan as a nearby safe refuge for years; they were later linked to al-Qaeda and similar groups. Many Uyghurs became involved in violent operations in Syria in recent years. These groups also have ethnic and historical ties to the residents of northeastern Afghanistan and to tribes in Pakistan and Tajikistan.
Given their hostility towards the Chinese government, Beijing is afraid that Uyghur groups might use Afghanistan as a base from which to launch attacks on China in coordination with other domestic opposition. China aims to use rapprochement with the Taliban to avoid such attacks, especially from Uyghurs who also pose other challenges for the Chinese government through their cooperation with opposition groups in the Xinjiang region. The geographic border between China and Afghanistan plays a role in exacerbating these fears because China shares a 76-kilometer border with Afghanistan in remote areas including the Wakhan corridor. The Chinese government quickly strengthened cooperation with its security agencies after the Taliban took control of Kabul last year in order to secure the border with Afghanistan. These efforts had several purposes, including preventing use of the Wakhan corridor by Uyghur or other groups to launch attacks against China.
In conclusion, through strengthening its investments as much as possible in Afghanistan, China could find itself occupying an unchallenged political and economic role in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. However, in light of the US-China rivalry at the international level, China’s control in this sphere could prompt the US to strengthen its economic presence within Afghanistan in order to benefit economically and invest in resources, especially in the mining sector. Washington was in Afghanistan for two decades and spent trillions of dollars (averaging $300 million per day) and might not be happy to see Afghanistan’s economy fall into China’s hands. China’s current trajectory could therefore spur the US to think more about investing in Afghanistan in the future.