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Geopolitics

China Is Now The Superpower With Biggest Stake In Afghanistan

China has big business interests in Afghanistan and security concerns on its western border; and following the U.S. pullout and Taliban takeover, Beijing will not tolerate the country becoming a source of regional unrest.

China Is Now The Superpower With Biggest Stake In Afghanistan

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with the political chief of Afghanistan's Taliban, July 2021

Jorge E. Malena

-Analysis-

BUENOS AIRES — For Beijing, the recent U.S. pullout and Taliban takeover makes Afghanistan an urgent matter. A hostile Afghanistan could not only threaten its hold on the "autonomous" western region of Xinjiang, but also the implementation of China's Belt and Road Initiative (or New Silk Road). Chinese interests in Afghanistan relate principally to security, but also the potential impact on the economy.

That is why, hours after the Taliban took over Kabul, Beijing warned the group not to become a refuge for terrorists. In the past five years, China has participated in building transport and energy infrastructures in Afghanistan, within the Belt and Road initiative.
This vast plan includes six land corridors, two of which cross Central Asia: the China-Central Asia-Western Asia corridor, and the China-Pakistan corridor. Once complete, they will allow China to boost trade with Central Asia and the Middle East, as well as expand the development of natural resources business in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan could distract China from other regions.

Afghanistan has around $1 trillion's worth of extractable rare metals in its mountains. It also has the largest unexploited reserves of copper, coal, cobalt, lithium, mercury and gold, also valued at over $1 trillion.

China is the country's largest foreign investor, and needs a stable and safe Afghanistan to make a profit here. Another concern for China, from a longer-term perspective, is that the U.S. withdrawal will benefit Washington by assuring two of its objectives. One is to distract China from other regions (especially the Asia-Pacific zone) and the other, give the United States greater time and resources to contain China.

Before the Taliban took back power, the group's spokesman declared China to be a "friendly country" that was "welcome" to help rebuild and develop Afghanistan. Referring to fears of Muslim separatism in the Xinjiang, he said the Taliban were concerned by "the oppression of Muslims, but we will not intervene in China's internal affairs."

A recent UN Security Council report noted that three militant groups — the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM, which China considers a direct threat to its security) — are present in Afghanistan. ETIM has hundreds of active members in the Afghan province of Badakhshan that borders Xinjiang; and the organization, according to the Security Council report, wants to create an independent state in Xinjiang. To that end, it facilitates the movement of fighters into China.

The Taliban could stop ETIM from operating in Xinjiang or striking at Chinese projects in Central Asia. But one cannot be certain of this, as the Taliban regime has yet to prove it will govern with moderation. Indeed, it is difficult to know whether or not the Taliban effectively control Islamist groups in Afghanistan, or are prepared to lose legitimacy as a fundamentalist group by agreeing to curb ETIM.

It is simply far too early to know how the Taliban will rule. Their early promises seem aimed at winning international recognition and assuring themselves a fairly stable transition of power. If they honor agreements made before taking power, Beijing will benefit from New Silk Road projects crossing Afghanistan and curbs on separatism in Xinjiang. The United States' withdrawal would also present it with an opportunity: to promote an alternative world order, following reduced Western military presence in Asia.

But if a radical Taliban regime fuels instability in Afghanistan and Islamic militancy in parts of Central Asia where China has interests, or inside Xinjiang, it will be testing China's stated policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of states.

*Malena heads the Department of China Studies at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina.

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