Communist China has made no great secret of its lust for Afghanistan’s natural resources, or its belief that the Taliban conquest will bring a gruesome stability to that fractious and tribal nation.
If the budding partnership between Beijing and the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” holds up, it could have long-term ramifications for China’s colonialist Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China is eager to exploit up to $3 trillion in rare-earth minerals in Afghanistan, improving its chokehold on the world market and feeding much-needed minerals into China’s hungry industrial machine. China also has a $4.2 billion copper mine in Afghanistan, plus projects under development by the China National Petroleum Corporation.
Chinese state media are eagerly boasting of courteous treatment from the Taliban for “private” Chinese businesses and clearly signaling to Taliban leadership that gigantic state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are ready to move in once Beijing is convinced Afghanistan is under control and stable enough for massive investments.
“We are ready to exchange views with China on how to forge ahead in terms of boosting our mutual relations, establishing peace in the region, and its assistance in the reconstruction of Afghanistan,” a Taliban spokesman declared on Monday.
The benefits China can bring to the Taliban are clear, beginning with great-power diplomatic protection that will make any replay of the post-9/11 invasion by U.S. and NATO forces impossible. China shields its client states from action by international organizations, from the United Nations to human rights groups. This frees up the most vicious of China’s partner regimes to do whatever it takes to maintain power and suppress uprisings.
China is also very good at helping its client states evade Western sanctions, a diplomatic tool Beijing constantly seeks to attack and weaken. Sometimes these sanctions-evading schemes get a little messy and there are loose ends to clean up, but one cannot fault the Chinese Communist Party for lack of trying.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is China’s grand scheme for purchasing political influence across the Third World. It frequently devolves into a nasty form of colonialism called “debt-trap diplomacy,” in which developing nations – or, more to the point, their ambitious and corrupt political elites – take out loans from Chinese banks for dubious “infrastructure” projects that can never generate enough revenue to pay off the loan. China then graciously accepts control of vital national assets from its debtors in lieu of loan payments.
Some of China’s Belt and Road clients have lately been having deep second thoughts about participating in the enterprise, due to concerns about growing Chinese Communist influence over their internal politics, or because they noticed BRI tends to benefit China much more than its junior partners.
Pakistan appeared to be having such second thoughts about BRI but, in early August, the head of its stalled BRI projects was replaced with someone much friendlier to Beijing, so the highly touted $50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is expected to get back on track.
The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan was one reason CPEC stalled out, so if the Taliban can deliver the “stability” Beijing desires, the regional progress of Belt and Road will benefit.
Some observers doubt China wants much more from Afghanistan for BRI than eliminating the security obstacle posed by the Taliban’s long insurgency.
The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), for example, argued last week that while Afghanistan is formally a member of BRI and sent delegates to some BRI forums, the membership was largely ceremonial before the Taliban takeover and China will see little need to develop that role any further just to grab Afghanistan’s minerals and gas.
CFR saw a few potential benefits for expanding BRI in Afghanistan, including beefing up CPEC and keeping extremists hostile to China’s interests under control, but felt these benefits were offset by the difficulty of protecting expansive Chinese operations and by the heavy risks of sinking big money into Afghanistan’s shaky soil at time when BRI is emphasizing smaller, safer projects.
BRI could also become a carrot China dangles in front of the Taliban to secure its enduring cooperation, perhaps holding out expanded membership in CPEC as a reward for the Taliban aggressively handling China’s security concerns. In other words, the road to Belt and Road gold could be paved with a lot of dead Uyghurs.
The Diplomat thought the Taliban might be interested in the “hard” aspects of BRI, such as getting a piece of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’s roads and pipelines, but not so much with “soft” BRI projects like China’s ballyhooed Digital Silk Road and Health Silk Road. Those “soft” projects would involve cultural changes the Taliban is reluctant to make, like expanding educational opportunities for women, and they tend to spread Chinese political influence into client states.
The Diplomat proposed an interesting sticking point for greater Taliban participation in BRI could be ethnic cleansing, which Beijing obviously has no moral objection to, but only when it is done with crisp industrial-scale efficiency to avoid revolutions and uprisings:
China also expects the Taliban to soften their tone toward ethnic and religious minorities in Afghanistan if they want to join the BRI. In the past, the Taliban were accused of ethnic cleansing against minorities such as Hazaras. But the continuation of this abuse will elevate the risk of terror attacks against the infrastructure facilities that are to be constructed by Chinese companies in Afghanistan. Segregation and harassment against Shias or Uzbeks would also threaten relations with neighboring countries like Iran or Uzbekistan and challenge the roll-out of regional multilateral projects financed and constructed by China. Similarly, the Taliban should not transform Afghanistan into a destination for terrorists who would plan attacks in Xinjiang or other countries in Central Asia that support the BRI, as China would never tolerate this.
Bloomberg News suggested China will be reluctant to make big investments that the Taliban could use against it as leverage if their relationship turns sour at some point in the future. China wants a stable Afghanistan that can be mined for resources and neutralized as a menace to CPEC, not Afghanistan as a blossoming regional economic hub under the iron control of a mercurial theocracy that enjoys humiliating great powers.
If anyone could twist China’s debt-trap diplomacy into a “creditor trap” – a failed state that can blackmail Beijing by threatening to destabilize and bankrupt Pakistan, where China has invested so much money that it cannot walk away – it would be the Taliban.
“The Taliban comeback in Afghanistan will galvanize many Islamist actors in Pakistan to emulate the Afghan jihadist movement. It will be a huge challenge for a terribly weakened Islamic Republic of Pakistan to sustain itself with an Islamic emirate next door,” the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) noted.
The WSJ speculated China rushed so quickly to embrace the Taliban because Beijing is growing nervous about how many other powers it needed to rely on, in order to keep Afghanistan’s chaos from disrupting its Central Asian business interests: Pakistan, Iran, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan.
“Resultantly, China has shelled out large loans to countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan to secure its BRI dream. However, such a forward-looking strategy often falls on its head when regimes can change overnight in unstable territories, and China therefore willingly or unwillingly must extend its support to the Taliban, a group that by its very nature is highly erratic and poses a threat to all investments made in Afghanistan by countries globally,” the Business Standard judged.
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