There are two good reasons why an Afghan government headed by the Taliban and close to China is also in the interest of Pakistan. Firstly, there is a financial reason, whereby Pakistan as a bankrupt country is in no position to bankroll an Afghanistan ran by the Taliban regime. Secondly, Islamabad wants to keep Afghanistan at arm’s length to ensure that the international community does not impose sanctions on itself for helping a terrorist organization, which has dramatically gained power. There is no doubt that China has the political and financial clout to invest in Afghanistan, but it would be wary of diving into a political and security mess that the international community has had long experience of.
China is aware of the unsuccessful experiences of both the US and Russia in Afghanistan. However, as a nation in search of resources, including minerals and oil, China would be keen to work to explore and extract the estimated US$ 1 trillion worth of rare earths from Afghanistan. On its part the Taliban has made all the right overtures towards China. In July 2021, its spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said the Taliban saw China as a “friend” and hoped to talk to Beijing about investing in reconstruction work “as soon as possible”. Suhail said the Taliban would guarantee the safety of Chinese investors and workers if they were to return. “We welcome them. If they have investments of course we ensure their safety, which is very important for us,” he stated in an interview. He also said the Taliban would no longer allow China’s Uyghur separatist fighters, some of whom had previously sought refuge in Afghanistan, to enter the country.
While technically Shaheen made all the right noises towards China, it is worth recalling that ETIM fighters, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda that is trying to establish a Uygur state in China-s muslim region Xinjiang, are already present in the northern Badakhshan province at the express invitation of the Taliban. China began its latest gambit in Afghanistan when State Councillor Wang Yi met Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin on July 28th and described the Taliban as a “pivotal military and political force”. China’s statements in the aftermath of the fall of Kabul, that it “respects the choice of Afghans”, show that Bejing is interested in keeping up ties with the Taliban. However, the purpose of this enterprise is a guarded secret, for the Chinese know very well the folly of getting too deeply involved.
Their experience of investing in the Aynak Copper Mine tells them to be patient. While there are opportunities for China to invest in Afghanistan, there are also concerns. The fear of Islamic terrorism, the refugee problem and the increased threat of narcotics smuggling across borders are issues that China as well as Central Asian Republics share. However, sensing that there is an opportunity in Afghanistan, China, much like Russia and Iran, has kept operational its embassy in Kabul. Despite the current focus on security, China has calculated that staying could let it play a role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
One way to assess the possible Chinese role in Afghanistan is to look at its involvement in Somalia. The East African nation is part of a bold Chinese geopolitical gambit. It is part of the larger effort to garner the spoils of Africa’s resources and make Africa debt-dependent on China. To some extent, a similar situation could be witnessed in Europe in Montenegro, where a Chinese-built highway drove Montenegro deep into debt. For now, China has engaged with Somalia using a combination of diplomacy and economics. Chinese soft power ranges from university scholarships, which allow more than 1,000 Somali students to study in China, to Covid-19 aid. Since 2008, China has also regularly sent PLA Navy warships to escort commercial vessels, mostly Chinese, to protect them against the pirates that infest the Gulf of Aden. These investments in Somalia contain an element of risk. The Jazeera Palace Hotel in Mogadishu was attacked by the al-Shabab group in July 2015, resulting in the death of a People’s Armed Police officer attached to the Chinese Embassy. What the Chinese have done in Somalia is to use the same tools used by the US and Russians globally to promote their interests by using private security contractors.
Most of these contractors are used to protect the country’s investments. The Chinese Embassy, for example, has contracted its security to local militias. Chinese private security companies working in Somalia for anti-piracy operations and VIP close protection security are eager for a bigger share of the pie and are bidding aggressively in China for contracts to provide security for diplomatic staff. This experiment with private security contractors in Somalia could well become the model for China’s entry into Afghanistan. Though Chinese security contractors may lack the equipment and capabilities – of the kind deployed by Russian private military companies operating in the African continent, they can certainly provide valuable intelligence and a presence on the ground that the People’s Liberation Army cannot. If the private security contractor approach in Somalia provides China the confidence, then it could encourage China to duplicate this approach in complex security environments, like Afghanistan. Needless to say, that remains to be seen in the near future.
However, the long-term Chinese perspective is that of wanting to invest in, extract and exploit Afghanistan’s mineral resources. That is where the private-security contract model would be very useful and provide a hands-off approach, wherein regular Chinese troops would not be directly involved. This would be better as extraction and transportation would be much cheaper than doing the same from other parts of the world. The fundamental requirement for this will require China to do a deal with the Taliban. The exact contours of this deal will depend on the political and security guarantees that China will sign with the Taliban once the new government stabilises. Only then will it be possible to get a view of the Chinese wish list and Taliban’s ask. A complex situation made more complex by the players themselves indicates that China should be prepared for a long haul in Afghanistan, if it is serious about staying the course.