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The Western withdrawal from Afghanistan and the following collapse of the government to the Taliban has left international observers to ponder who might fill the resulting vacuum. Many eyes have turned to China, which had already engaged the Taliban in political dialogue. Yet, there are major doubts both about Chinese political will to deploy resources in Afghanistan, and the extent to which local business activity could make a genuine contribution to the country’s stabilization.
The Western withdrawal from Afghanistan and the following collapse of the local government to the Taliban has left many international observers to ponder who might fill the resulting vacuum. Many eyes have turned to China, which had already engaged the Taliban in political dialogue, is open to formal recognition of the new regime, and is also one of its more plausible aid donors. Beijing has also increasingly touted an alternative to the Western program of liberal peace- and statebuilding that failed in Afghanistan, focused on developmental objectives and tying into Chinese strengths and interests especially under its global “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). However, there are major doubts both about Chinese political will to deploy these resources in Afghanistan, and the extent to which local business activity could make a genuine contribution to the country’s stabilization.
The primary Chinese interest, as recently reaffirmed in talks with the Taliban, is strategic: Afghanistan forms part of China’s rugged Western frontier, a space that has in the past been exploited by transnational insurgent groups. Some of these, like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) threaten China itself, while others like the Taliban’s offshoot in Pakistan have carried out attacks against Chinese projects there. To tackle this problem, Beijing had already pursued a (limited) partnership with the previous Afghan government, seeking to stabilize the country through integration into Chinese-backed initiatives. In June, it negotiated an extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the BRI’s “flagship”, into Afghanistan, answering long-held Afghan desires to turn the country into a regional connectivity hub. A parallel trilateral format was supposed to tie the three countries together in a security and peace dialogue.
Since 2012, Afghanistan has also been an observer to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), under which China has organized joint counterterrorism efforts with Central Asian states. In his speech at the most recent SCO summit in Dushanbe, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for it to extend the same support to Afghanistan, as well as political reconciliation and humanitarian relief efforts. While these overtures are still short on specifics and may not survive the Taliban takeover, they are evidence of much more direct Chinese engagement in foreign conflicts, a process which analysts have described as shifting away from “non-interference” towards “constructive involvement”. This approach involves a more hands-on role in the Afghan peace process through material incentives and mediation for peace talks, as well as clear political demands that the Afghan government should pursue a “moderate” Islamism and a „neutral“ foreign policy – meaning no support for groups like ETIM. The Taliban’s declaration of China as Afghanistan’s new “main partner” indicates acceptance of such a role, but, the hoped-for strengthening of partnerships in respect to major business activity and investment may take a while yet to flourish.
Chinese businesses are in no rush to commit to new large-scale developments and are clearly exercising caution. As of 2020, Chinese enterprises had contracts for projects worth 110 million USD in Afghanistan, a relatively low stake when compared to investments in other BRI states in the region, especially the more than 30 billion USD already spent on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. While in recent years China has invested in hospital construction, housing projects in Kabul, several small-scale factories and some new buildings at Kabul University, Chinese companies have shied away from engaging in major connectivity and infrastructure projects in Afghanistan like the building of roads, bridges and railways.
Afghan hopes of economic development were raised in 2008 when contracts were signed to mine one of the world’s largest untouched copper deposits, the Mes Aynak copper mine. Another major contract was signed in 2011 to develop the Faryab and Sar-i-pul oil fields. Both Chinese business projects were stalled, due to widespread conflict and insecurity. Only time can tell whether China will change its cautious approach now that the Taliban government is in power. What is certain is that Afghanistan’s substantial lithium reserves - estimated to be worth 1 trillion USD or more - will be of great interest to future investors. How sustainably and responsibly this valuable resource is extracted from the ground could have far-reaching peace and security implications for the people of Afghanistan.
China has often proven itself willing to stomach high levels of risk, especially under the BRI, and does not share Western concerns over working with governments like the Taliban, but Chinese investments are no panacea to bring peace to war-torn societies. Chinese scholars have advanced the concept of a “developmental peace” as an alternative to Western approaches that failed spectacularly in Afghanistan. This school of thought argues that the pursuit of political reform actually hinders peacebuilding by distracting from developmental objectives, which can supposedly command a broader consensus and provide immediate material incentives against renewed conflict. But it is doubtful if this will be truly attempted, and if it is, whether or not it would work better in Afghanistan, as major projects are likely to run into familiar, highly political problems like the security environment, distribution conflicts and corrupt or ineffective governance. In the short term, Beijing may extend small-scale developmental aid as “carrots” to induce Taliban cooperation on antiterrorism efforts – also a political demand – which could also be quickly withdrawn if the new Afghan government fails to live up to its commitments. Meanwhile, any Chinese businesses that remain active in Afghanistan would benefit from applying an approach that is sensitive to local conflict dynamics so as not to exacerbate an already delicate situation. In the long term, ensuring positive impacts for the safety, security, livelihoods and well-being of communities impacted by Chinese business operations could deliver better economic returns than an approach relying on costly security measures.