Updated: Feb 21
Image Courtesy: FT
The Taliban have returned to power in Kabul. The developments in Afghanistan had held the breath of analysts all over the world in the past two months. The lightning speed with which the Taliban coursed through the provinces and the crippling blow it delivered to the semblance of counter action by Afghan forces is for all the world to see. Like an old man whose crutches were taken away in the middle of a hobble, the government fell and its top leaders have deserted the country. General Dostum and such like warlords now face the wrath of Taliban and there is little left for imagination as to the fate of groups that have stood with US-NATO Allies in their war initially on Al Qaeda and then with the Taliban. The feverish pace with which the US-NATO allies are evacuating their Afghan sympathizers and supporters indicates the fate that otherwise awaits them, more pronounced with the Taliban announcing amnesty! It may be ironical that Taliban may actually use the famous George Bush dialogue – Either you are with us or you are against us – in so far as the remnants of anti-Taliban forces remaining in the country!
From the time the US went ahead to negotiate a safe withdrawal of its troops through the Doha Talks, a number of other countries, most notably Pakistan and China, have openly courted Taliban. As for Pakistan, it is confident that TTP and its religious card will help in becoming the trump card in playing with Taliban. Pakistan would also attempt, if it has not already and substantially done so, to convince China that its flagship CPEC and the connectivity to Central Asian energy sources can only be guaranteed by Pakistan, not to mention the likely domino effect of an enthusiastic Taliban stepping into East Turkestan.
For China, achieving the BRI is not just a dream. President Xi has often spoken about it as the means to restore China to its ancient and domineering glory of the past. That being so, it is necessary to take a fair guess as to what are China’s options in so far as Taliban-ruled Afghanistan would be.
Taliban leadership seems to have hinted fairly and clearly as to what those options are. The Talib spokesman spelt it out in unambiguous terms – Taliban will pursue a policy of non-interference in return for non-interference into Afghanistan[i]. In the light of this clear statement what are the options before China and what are the consequences?
CPEC: China’s investments are around USD 40 billion and the total outlay is at 60 billion, the largest in its overseas undertakings. Already at least two directed attacks have taken place on Chinese in Pakistan in which over a dozen Chinese personnel have died. TTP claimed responsibility for one and the other remains un-named[ii]. Waziristan and Baluchistan are already boiling pots and the Chinese dream (and investments) of reaching out to blue sea is getting interspersed with nightmares on account of Pakistan’s internal security issues[iii].
Of the 3000 km long Kashghar-Gwadar CPEC corridor, nearly half of it runs through (680 km from Chinese border to Havelian Dry Port and some 480 km in KKH II phase) Gilgit-Baltistan and Baluchistan. This corridor is TTP territory and is porous across the Durand Line. The choking of this corridor will spell doom to China’s aspirations of cutting its logistics cost by 50 percent through Gwadar[iv]. Whatever Pakistan may gain out of CPEC, China appears to have more to lose.
Mining in Afghanistan: China announced USD 4.4 billion investment in Aynak Copper Mines projects in 2007. On the ground however, it has hardly expended any, much to the displeasure of the Afghan government. The primary reason appears to be the internal dynamics of Afghanistan. If China had gone ahead with full investment, the Karzai-Ghani governments would have annually earned around USD 2 billion, a sum that could easily bolster their efforts against Taliban. China perhaps sat on the wall before ensuring that a powerful group that would be more amenable is actually in control[v].
Oil: Three blocks in Sar-e Pul were contracted by China in a JV with Afghan companies in 2011. Like in Aynak, this project has also dragged along.
BRI: Afghan government was encouraged to join BRI with a hint of over USD 1 billion in revenues. The cash-strapped government however saw just an order for 1200 tons of pine nuts valued at USD 400 million[vi].
Uyghur Issue: China offered to conduct a joint exercise in Badakshan and even raise a Brigade in the area together with Afghanistan. In return, the Afghan government was asked to round up Uyghurs slipping into Badakshan from neighboring Xinjiang. The Afghan government of course obliged. However, now with Talibs in power, this could become a reverse flow, what with a reported 20000 jihadists from all over the Muslim world fighting along the Taliban.
Camaraderie: China sent its highest Diplomat to meet the top leader of Taliban, though at that time Taliban was only sweeping the rural country side and attempting to take a couple of Provincial Towns. It is quite unusual that a sovereign representative meets with a declared terrorist outfit and issues a joint statement in which he squarely notes, ‘The Taliban are a pivotal military and political force in Afghanistan and are expected to play an important role in the in process of peace, reconciliation and reconstruction’ and then went on to add, ‘China hopes the Taliban will “deal resolutely” with the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a group China claims is leading a push for independence in Xinjiang’. It may also be of interest to note that these statements were made when delegation led by Mullah Baradar, Taliban Religious Council Members and its Propaganda Outfit met Wang Yi, Chinese Foreign Minister in Tianjin in China on July 21, 2021. [vii]
These factors point to the following suppositions that China may opt for in so far as Taliban controlled Afghanistan is concerned. These are:
China will recognize the Taliban Regime as the legit government of Afghanistan, sooner such a government is announced by Taliban. It may be relevant to mention that China did not recognize Taliban Regime when it seized power in 1996. The geopolitical contestations in Indo-Pacific Region were also quite different and in any case, Chinese BRI dream was yet to be spelt out.
Chinese recognition will render credibility to Taliban, a recognition that it badly needs. It may also be a case were such a recognition to a proclaimed terrorist organization may invite ISIS and Al Qaeda to rear their heads in other places. A lot then would depend on how China uses Taliban to keep its security interests protected.
China will revive its economic agenda like that of resurrecting its Aynak Project and Oil projects providing a huge economic fillip to Taliban which in any case it needs. It will also offer the BRI dream with additional concessions that Taliban would be hard put to resist. The infamous Cheque Book Diplomacy will work its part.
By doing so, China will hedge Pakistan out of its desire to use Afghanistan as a bargaining chip, directly or indirectly.
Taliban may find it convenient to underplay the Islamic card in so far as Xinjiang is concerned so as to gain an ally with veto powers in UNSC. It will help Taliban to negotiate international political pressure in its own terms. The economic gains are obvious to the eye.
Instead of exercising these options which apparently portend well for China, should it choose a boots-on-ground approach? It does not appear to be a choice due to the following factors:
Unlike America, China has neither fostered nor fought Taliban nor any other groups in the name of ‘war on terror’. It has had no externally aided attacks on its soil to serve as motivation enough, except when Britain, France, Germany as well as America joined together against Imperial China during the Opium Wars, not to mention Japanese invasion of China prior to World War II.
As for Islamic terror is concerned, China controls Xinjiang with an iron fist. Despite the hullabaloo over Human Rights situation there, international will to intervene inside China is hardly credible.
Should Taliban undertake to fight the cause of East Turkestan, it has to contend with Russia and the surrounding Central Asian Republics that already have a framework through SCO with China on fighting terror. Russia in any case would not be enamored with a Taliban that transgresses too close to its borders. Such an undertaking by Taliban will also isolate it, making it easy for international community to come down heavily upon it.
The cost of boots-on-ground in Afghanistan will derail BRI. With a lucrative collaborative opportunity at hand to further its BRI dream, China to take up a contradictory approach will be detrimental to its own interests.
In any case, Confucian wisdom dictates that an enemy’s enemy should be made a friend.
China has spread its ambitious project too far wide at this juncture to risk losing its sheen by embroiling itself into the internal issues of a country that is touted as the graveyard of empires. Confucian wisdom would rather dictate that the cards should be played in a different manner. By doing so, it would also convert Afghanistan as a land bridge to energy sources in Central Asia. As for Taliban, the Chinese Cheque book will be too important a factor to ignore. Additionally, with a friendly Taliban in power, China may pay more attention to Taiwan.
As for as common Afghan citizens are concerned, they do not appear to have much choice about living with the devil. But for China, the deep sea will become easier to access by courting that devil. For once, Hobson’s choice is set to work in favor of China both ways.
(Dr R Srinivasan is an independent researcher and the Managing Editor of Electronic Journal of Social and Strategic Studies (www.ejsss.net.in) He can be contacted at email@example.com. The views expressed are personal.)
[i] Mohammad Naeem, the spokesman for the Taliban’s political office said the Taliban would adopt a policy of non-interference in others’ affairs in return for non-interference in Afghanistan. Reuters (August 16, 2021). Taliban declare ‘war is over’ as president and diplomats flee Kabul, India Today (online). Retrieved from: https://www.indiatoday.in/world/story/taliban-declares-war-is-over-as-president-diplomats-flee-kabul-1841232-2021-08-16
[ii] Xin, Liu and Han, Zhang (July 16, 2021). China, Pakistan confirm terrorist attack; who is the most likely perpetrator? Global Times (online). Retrieved from: https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202107/1228870.shtml
[iii] Rifaat, Hamzah and Maini, Tridivesh Singh (2016). The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, A Visiting Fellows Working Paper (Winter 2016), The Stimson Center: Washington DC. Retrieved from: https://www.stimson.org/wp-content/files/file-attachments/The%20China-Pakistan%20Economic%20Corridor%20-%20Final.pdf
[iv] Khalid Mehmood Alam, Xuemei Li, Saranjam Baig, “Impact of Transport Cost and Travel Time on Trade under China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)”, Journal of Advanced Transportation, vol. 2019, Article ID 7178507, 16 pages, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1155/2019/7178507
[v] Huasheng, Zhao (March 2012). China and Afghanistan: China’s Interests, Stances and Perspectives, CSIS (online). Retrieved from: https://www.csis.org/files/publication/120322_Zhao_ChinaAfghan_web.pdf
[vi] Kartha, Tara (July 21, 2021). China in Afghanistan: Balancing Taliban, Uighurs, & Ghost Investments, The Quint. Retrieved from: https://www.thequint.com/voices/opinion/china-in-afghanistan-balancing-taliban-uighurs-ghost-investments#read-more
[vii] AP (July 29, 2021). China’s top envoy, Taliban meet, Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Retrieved from: https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2021/jul/29/chinas-top-envoy-taliban-meet/