Can China Fill the Major Power Vacuum in Afghanistan?

The toppling of the Afghan government left the country’s formal economy in the hands of the Taliban. Nonetheless, they are not as ill-trained for the task as it is widely perceived. The Afghan Taliban operated as a shadow administration in many regions of Afghanistan during their two decades-long insurgency.

Recently the United States (US) blocked access to central bank reserves and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) refused to disburse funds to the new Afghan administration. The Taliban’s control of key transit routes provides the group with much relief. The Taliban have diversified their sources of income to include levies on the trade of goods and fuel across the country, taking ransom, and protection money. Nonetheless, their sustainability of such revenue resources might not aid them in creating a viable and efficient economic or political system.

In such a case, China can leverage its position to fill the security vacuum left by the US and its allies. China has declared its willingness to collaborate with the Taliban government. In the wake of the US withdrawal, such a proactive stance of China can present a bright future for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on which the Afghan Taliban do not have a clear stance yet. But to ensure legitimacy and flow of foreign investment to run the “New-Afghanistan,” the Taliban requires the support of a regional player. Perhaps, Afghanistan can benefit from the project as well. Nonetheless, there lies skepticism over whether the Taliban will welcome the “soft BRI” and its ideals.

China has an eye on Afghanistan as a potential economic partner. Afghanistan can prove a lucrative corridor for the BRI infrastructure as well as a source of minerals. However, Afghanistan’s lack of security has proved a problem for the Chinese investment. However, the absence of security in Afghanistan has proven to be a major barrier to the Chinese investment.

China will not fill the vacuum in the security sphere as the associated costs are too high. Seemingly, China’s relationship with the Taliban will be approached pragmatically and will keep a safe distance from the country’s political affairs.

The general sentiment of China towards the Taliban takeover was not reactionary as it saw the decision as the “will and choice of the Afghan people”. Whereas the position of the Taliban in assuaging the concerns of China is setting correctly. In July, Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesperson stated, “we care about the oppression of Muslims, be it in Palestine, in Myanmar, or in China, and we care about the oppression of non-Muslims anywhere in the world. But what we are not going to do is interfere in China’s internal affairs.”

Notably, in their first press conference, the Taliban assured the world that the territory of Afghanistan will not be used against any actor. This demonstrates the Taliban’s need to influence through its soft-power tactics and build its credibility in the international system. These statements depict the prevalent sentiment on both sides. For Afghanistan, it is important to welcome infrastructure and investment projects. However, the situation on ground is highly precarious with varying groups aiming to gain legitimacy in the political apparatus.

Unsurprisingly, China and the Taliban have had a working connection for at least ten years. For example, in 2016, the terrorist group offered Beijing to mine in Afghanistan’s $3 billion Mes Aynak copper mine, assuring Chinese authorities that it was dedicated to preserve “national projects in the greater benefit of Islam and the country.” It appears that the engagement between the two actors will be mutually beneficial as for China, it is pivotal to have peace in Afghanistan to safeguard its interests, while the Taliban need to secure investment in the country.

Arguably, China has a vested interest in securing peace in Afghanistan. As previously said, if stability is achieved, China can use the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to expand the BRI to Afghanistan. On the other hand, chaos in Afghanistan may spawn religious extremism and terrorism, which is counterproductive to China’s aim to pacify the Xinjiang area, and the CPEC has already been attacked by terrorist organisations, both inside and outside Pakistan.

Clearly, the Taliban has emphasised their desire for China to take a larger role in the development of the Afghan economy. Given the history of Afghanistan and the regional realities, China will not fill the vacuum in the security sphere as the associated costs are too high. Seemingly, China’s relationship with the Taliban will be approached pragmatically and will keep a safe distance from the country’s political affairs. Lastly, China will not repeat the mistake of entering an imperial swamp, the outcome of which has now become a universal reality.

Saman Rizwan

Saman Rizwan is a former Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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