China seeks stability in Afghanistan | News | DW | 13.09.2021

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China seeks stability in Afghanistan

Beijing seems to have adopted a wait-and-see approach toward Afghanistan. While eyeing potential resource deposits there, China has offered millions in humanitarian aid. But border security seems its utmost concern.

Wang Yi and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Wang Yi met for talks in July

The Chinese government has recently promised the new Afghan government emergency humanitarian aid and vaccines worth 200 million yuan, the equivalent of about €26 million ($30 million).

In July, Beijing's basic willingness to support a Taliban government was evident at a meeting with senior Taliban members in the eastern Chinese port city of Tianjin. Unlike the first visit by a Taliban delegation in 2015, the Chinese state media reported extensively on this meeting.

"Afghanistan belongs to the Afghan people, and its future should be in the hands of its own people," Foreign Minister Wang Yi was quoted as saying in Tianjin. "The Afghan people now have an important opportunity at national stability and development."

Watch video 02:14

Shattered Afghan economy is Taliban's biggest challenge

Taliban charm offensive

China was not intending to interfere in the domestic development of its neighboring country, a strategy in line with the pragmatism and ideological flexibility of Chinese foreign policy, said Helena Legarda of the Berlin-based Merics Institute for China Studies.

Clearly, there are ideological and political differences between Beijing and the Taliban, which means Beijing is not necessarily happy that the Taliban have emerged as victors from the crisis and now control the entire country, she added.

"But now that they are in power, China is likely to be willing to work with the Taliban," Legarda said.

A woman and three men hold placards with flags, boxes in the background

China provided assistance to Afghanistan during the coronavirus pandemic

The Taliban launched a charm offensive toward Beijing shortly after taking power.

"China is our most important partner," Taliban spokesperson Sabiullah Mujahid told Italian daily La Repubblica, adding this is an extraordinary opportunity because "China is ready to invest in and rebuild our country."

In Afghanistan, there is much to offer in terms of natural resources — oil, as well as minerals such as lithium and cobalt, which are key for digital information technology — it seems the Taliban would be happy to supply China.

However, it remains to be seen whether this can translate into concrete economic activity. In 2008, China's state-owned MCC company bought rights to a huge copper mine at Mes Aynak near Kabul, but not much has happened at the site since then.

And Reuters reported that China's state oil company CNPC is withdrawing from production at a major oil field along the Amu Darya river on the northeastern border of Afghanistan.

Firs oil refinery opening in the province of Herat in 2014

Afghanistan lacks its own highly developed oil industry

Security tops economic interests

According to China's Global Times, as soon as the security situation allows, Chinese companies will invest, with both state and private Chinese capital to flow to Afghanistan. "Many of China's neighbors have established close economic and trade ties with China, and Afghanistan will be no exception in the long run."

But at least as important to China as raw material deposits is stability in Afghanistan and security on the border with Xinjiang. As for the resources, it is not at all clear whether their exploitation would be profitable.

There is another important element, having nothing to do with minerals: Muslim Uyghurs near China's western border have faced surveillance, repression and a brutal "reeducation" campaign for nearly a decade as a result of Beijing's fear of separatist and arguably extremist ideas.

Thus, it is of utmost importance to Beijing that the Taliban not grant Uyghurs diplomatic support, nor refuge on Afghan territory.

A map indicating the location of Afghanistan

The Chinese government is also interested in Afghanistan's domestic stability. Shortly after the Taliban seized power, Beijing expressed hopes — as did Western governments — that the new Afghan government would represent broader parts of the population.

Yet the interim government presented last week includes only Taliban members — no members of ethnic groups other than Pashtuns, nor women. If this does not change, excluded groups could contribute to instability.

All the same, Beijing welcomed the presentation of the government as ending a "three weeks of anarchy."

Wait and see

The Chinese government will mainly wait and see, said Helena Legarda. Beijing is likely to keep an eye on whether the Taliban can maintain peace and stability in Afghanistan, as well as protecting China's interests in the country and the region, she believes.

"China will be engaged, but I don't expect it to be too committed to public support for the Taliban," she said, adding that support was unlikely to go beyond the humanitarian aid already offered.

Last week, Beijing joined Moscow in arguing for the release of about $10 billion in Afghan overseas currency frozen under pressure from the United States. "These assets belong to Afghanistan and should be used for Afghanistan, not as leverage for threats or restraints," said China's UN Ambassador Geng Shuang.

 Geng Shuang standing at lectern in front of a Chinese flag

China's UN Ambassador Geng Shuang: The assets belong to Afghanistan

This article has been translated from German.