China’s Deepening Influence in Afghanistan

Photo source: Al Jazeera

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

hina has been showing a keen interest in investing in Afghanistan after the takeover of the Taliban. In January 2023, a Chinese company agreed to provide 450 million dollars to explore and develop oil reserves in the country. After that, another Chinese company in April 2023 wanted exploration and development of Afghanistan’s lithium reserves.

In contrast to the previous military adventures done by American, Soviet, and British into the Afghan frontier, China’s involvement is focused more on the economic and diplomatic side, with a negligible military element. Furthermore, China seeks to expand its political and economic influence in the region as part of its Belt and Road initiative in Afghanistan which for a while has been a weak link in this chain.

Moreover, trade frictions with the US and other countries have increased the pressure to open other markets for China’s goods. The Belt and Road is an effective channel to develop new export markets which can alleviate trade pressures. Although the Afghan consumer market is small, it is an untapped market for Chinese goods– particularly those produced in China’s western regions.

One of the most significant projects is the construction of a massive copper mine in Mes Aynak. It gives China access to one of the world’s largest copper deposits. China is also investing in iron and gold mining projects, the agricultural sector, as well as in oil and gas exploration. Infrastructure development projects include the construction of roads and bridges, repairing the Salang Pass, and the pavement of Kumar and Laghman Roads. All these projects will serve as an initial demonstration of a commitment to Chinese foreign investment. Future plans include linking Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan with Pakistan via railways and highways through Afghanistan.

The impact of Chinese investment in Afghanistan is far-reaching and has significant implications for the country and the region as a whole. Infrastructure development will help improve the Afghan transport sector and developing the mining sector will provide the Taliban regime with the cash it desperately needs.

As for the Taliban, the Taliban view China as a major stakeholder in the region, after bouts of famines, and extreme economic duress due to war that resulted from internal political struggles. They appear eager for an increase in Chinese investments, especially as Western aid dries up. Chinese investment has also provided a certain form of legitimacy to the Taliban – who are desperate to prove to ordinary Afghans that they can govern the country, despite the talk of social discrimination against commoners.

It should also be noted that there is a difference between signing memorandums on paper and the actual investment being materialised. China had signed many deals with the previous Afghan government as well. The Amu Darya Project was estimated to generate $7 billion for Afghanistan and had the potential to create 3,000 jobs. It was one such project – but it, along with many other Chinese projects, was delayed for security reasons.

The primary threat to China’s enterprises will come from the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan, known as Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), which will continue to pose a serious challenge to its security environs. It remains to be answered whether the Taliban could tackle ISKP or not. If they do so, they would have to transform from an insurgent group to a capable national government ready to undergo many internal challenges.

The Chinese might even come to realise that simply throwing money at a problem doesn’t resolve it. Over the last 20 years, the United States provided more than $150 million for economic development to the Afghan regime, with varied results. There were some noticeable improvements, especially in the education sector, with literacy rates rising from 5 percent in 2000 to over 30 percent by 2021. Yet, deep-rooted corruption, weak state institutions, and the Taliban insurgency prevented Afghanistan from benefiting from generous US aid.

The Chinese are also hopeful that the times of the 1990s come back to Afghanistan, where there was talk of regional pluralism through a grand national jirga that required some form of power-sharing with the Afghan opposition and the erstwhile Northern Alliance. As of yet, there are no such indications.

Even if Chinese companies push ahead with investments, there are concerns about how much of this money will flow into the coffers of the Taliban to generate revenue that can be used to improve the standard of living of ordinary Afghans. Moreover, the absence of strong state institutions will raise concerns about the ability of the current Taliban regime to ensure transparency and tackle corruption.

Chinese plans in Afghanistan are a complex and multifaceted issue, with both positive and negative implications for the entire region.

Diplomatically, China will not try to influence the Taliban’s political policy. It is in their interests that Afghanistan should remain both diplomatically isolated and rejected by Western countries in order to maintain its influence in the country. A democratisation of the Taliban regime would increase the number of foreign economic players in the country, which is clearly not in China’s interest.

However, securing Afghanistan would create an arc of Chinese influence as it competes with superpower rivalries against the United States.


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