For China, the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan redraws Asia’s geopolitical map and hands it an opportunity to further project Beijing’s power in the region

by John Dobson

London: The chaos surrounding American troops in Afghanistan is beyond President Xi’s wildest dreams. His propaganda machine continues to pump out images of America’s disastrous pull-out from Kabul, highlighting Washington’s failures, while at the same time pictures in the Global Times show a tranquil Chinese Embassy in Kabul quietly conducting business as normal. The editor of a nationalistic state newspaper, Hu Xijin, even alluded to a joke circulating in China that the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan was smoother than the US presidential transition. Chinese social media is also rampant with witticisms mocking America’s messy withdrawal. “If ever you feel useless”, goes a popular joke, “just remember that the United States took four presidents, thousands of lives, trillions of dollars, and twenty years, just to replace the Taliban with, err….the Taliban”.

America’s longest war has ended in catastrophic failure, further polarising domestic politics, sapping its international standing, dismaying its allies and emboldening its enemies, something inevitable after Donald Trump’s naïve cut-and-run agreement with the Taliban in February 2020. “Our Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, signed a surrender agreement with the Taliban”, said former Trump national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, last week. He continued: “This collapse goes back to the capitulation agreement of 2020. The Taliban didn’t defeat us. We defeated ourselves.” How enjoyable must this US infighting be for Beijing, adding to their conviction that US power is on the wane, in contrast to their own inexorable rise. The humbling of the United States fits nicely into the Chinese narrative of America’s decline.

For China, the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan redraws Asia’s geopolitical map and hands it an opportunity to further project Beijing’s power in the region. There are, however, risks. Having US troops bogged down in Afghanistan had geopolitical benefits for Beijing, but now the American withdrawal has changed the strategic calculus so drastically that uncomfortable new accommodations must be made. Not only has it created uncertainties and risks in the stability and balance of power in the region, but the US departure from Afghanistan will now allow Washington to focus more attention and resources on countering China in other areas. A worry for Beijing. Another legitimate worry is that Afghanistan could again be a staging ground for terrorists due to the Taliban’s historical links with extremists. Chief among China’s concerns are groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), composed of Uyghur fighters opposing Chinese repression in the north-western Xinjiang frontier.

In a meeting last month, the Taliban’s top political leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, reportedly assured China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, that Afghan territory would not be used to threaten the security of China. But Beijing remains unconvinced and Wang used that meeting and others since to stress that the Taliban must take concrete measures to make a clean break with all terrorist forces, particularly the ETIM.

China will also adopt a very different approach to that of the US in Afghanistan. Beijing is unlikely to deploy military forces, seeking instead to use diplomatic and economic inducements to coax the Taliban onto a path of peaceful reconstruction. It sees the opportunity to advance a model of foreign relations based on coldly weighed security and economic interests, rather than lofty talk of building a better Afghanistan where girls may go to school. There are no bonds of trust or affection binding China and the Taliban; instead, Beijing has pursued a few narrowly defined goals during years of intensifying contacts with Taliban delegations.

Any investment from China will, of course, depend on the Taliban creating some kind of stability and order in this fragmented country, which will be no easy task. Between 8,000 and 10,000 foreign terrorist fighters have recently flooded into Afghanistan, according to a UN report released in June. Most of these fighters are Taliban-affiliated, but there are also those who support Al-Qaeda or ISIS. The Taliban work closely with Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network, a militant group that has taken over security in the Afghan capital. Together they face a bitter rival in ISIS, an Al Qaeda offshoot that sees its rivals as not hard-line enough. Thursday’s murderous attack on American troops and Afghans fleeing the country by ISIS-K, the most extreme and violent of all jihadist groups in Afghanistan, could be a foretaste of things to come.

While there are levers that can be pulled to encourage the Taliban to choose good governance in Afghanistan, rather than exporting terror, there are many who are convinced that groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS will inevitably re-establish a safe haven in the country and use it to plot attacks on the West. Should this happen, and should the Taliban government also be unable to bring together a disparate assortment of tribes and warlords, Afghanistan will remain a failed state, living in the Dark Ages for the foreseeable future. If, however, the Taliban achieve the challenging task of uniting the country and neutralising the ultra-extremists, China is in pole position to provide the kind of assistance that could enable Afghanistan to flourish. Beijing will particularly enjoy playing up the narrative of American fecklessness and decline of Empire, painting this as evidence of why China will be a better steward for the Eurasian heartland.

Beijing’s economic interests revolve around Afghanistan’s abundance of natural resources and minerals, and its access to Central Asian markets, seeing Afghanistan as a vital link for its Belt and Road Initiative, connecting Eurasia to China. Afghanistan is believed to be sitting on one of the richest troves of minerals in the world, whose value has been estimated to be between $1-3 trillion. It has vast reserves of gold, platinum, silver, copper, iron, chromite, lithium, uranium, and aluminium. Its high-quality emeralds, rubies, sapphires, turquoise, and lapis lazuli have long charmed the gemstone market. According to the United States Geological Survey, which has conducted an extensive scientific research of minerals in Afghanistan over the past twenty years, just one location in Ghazni province showed the potential for lithium deposits as large as those in Bolivia, a country which currently has the world’s largest known lithium reserves. As nations switch to green energy, the demand for lithium and other rare earth elements, found in such abundance in Afghanistan, is soaring.

In the past, unregulated mining has generated about $1 billion per year in Afghanistan, much of which has been syphoned off by corruption, as well as the warlords and the Taliban. To attract inward investment from China, Kabul will need to devote its immediate attention to a wide range of security issues. But the transition from insurgency group to national government will be far from easy and any functional government of the nascent mineral sector is likely many years away. The International Energy Agency also estimates that it takes 16 years on average from the discovery of a deposit for a mine to start production.

China has chased commercial ventures in Afghanistan in the past, but these have proved impossible due to the security instability in the country. Back in 2007, a consortium led by China Metallurgical Group bid $3 billion, the biggest foreign investment in the history of Afghanistan at the time, to develop what is one of the world’s largest copper deposits at Mes Aynak, promising also to build a power plant, railway and other infrastructure. Years later, work has yet to start, largely because of insurgent activity in surrounding Logar province. China’s state-owned National Petroleum Corporation also suspended oil drilling in the Amu Darya basin for the same reason.

As a neighbour, there is little doubt that Xi Jinping will be enthusiastic about exploiting the US withdrawal as an opportunity to engage economically with Afghanistan, and will be licking his lips at the prospects of tapping into Afghanistan’s mineral wealth. But the question of how to safeguard the security of Chinese investments looms large. Xi will also have noted the Afghans are very good at extracting foreign money, as the last few decades have shown. But there again, the Afghans will also have noted how highly adept have been the Chinese at sweetly over-promising and floating future friendships, but often falling short on delivering.

Emperor Xi would do well to remain wary of the risks behind the allure of Afghanistan’s extensive reserves and other geo-economic benefits. The country has been dubbed the “Graveyard of Empires” for a reason and, as the Spectator put it last week: “If China becomes the latest empire with imperial ambitions to be sucked into the quagmire America has left behind, that might suit Washington just fine. It might have even been part of the plan!”