China’s Strategic Gambit: Why Beijing Is Betting on Afghanistan

Last Updated on June 3, 2024 9:22 am

In the wake of the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, the international community has largely distanced itself from the nation due to the group’s hardline policies, including the exclusion of women from educational institutions and foreign NGOs. However, China has taken a different approach, aligning itself closely with the Taliban. This strategic move has raised questions about Beijing’s underlying interests in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s interim Taliban government has expressed its intention to bolster economic ties with China through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure development strategy spearheaded by Beijing. Amid an economic collapse exacerbated by the Taliban’s return to power three years ago, Afghanistan views this partnership as a potential lifeline. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid noted that relations between Kabul and Beijing are improving steadily.

Experts suggest that China’s involvement in Afghanistan is multifaceted. Professor Sultan Barakat of Qatar University emphasizes China’s pivotal role in Afghanistan’s progress, asserting that Beijing’s presence is more pronounced than that of other nations. However, this raises the question: Is China a reliable partner for Afghanistan?

Political analysts argue that China’s primary interest lies not in the welfare of the Afghan people but in the country’s vast mineral wealth. Afghanistan is rich in untapped resources, including rare earth elements, lithium, and other minerals essential for high-tech industries. This mineral wealth is crucial for China, particularly as it seeks to maintain its edge in the global technology race and to support its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, which requires a stable Afghanistan to ensure secure and efficient trade routes.

The history of China’s engagement with Afghanistan underscores this strategic interest. High-level Chinese delegations have frequently visited Kabul over the past decade, beginning with a visit from Politburo members of the ruling Communist Party of China in 1966 and continuing with significant visits such as that of Politburo member and Security Department chief Zhao Yongkang in September 2012. These visits have underscored China’s long-term interest in Afghanistan as a commercial and security partner, especially in a post-US landscape.

In February 2012, the first Trilateral Security Conference took place in Beijing, involving Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China. This marked the beginning of China’s ongoing engagement with Afghanistan, driven by a vision of mutual benefit in security and commerce. As a result, numerous high-level delegations from Afghanistan have reciprocated with visits to Beijing, reflecting a deepening bilateral relationship.

China’s calculated engagement with Afghanistan reflects a broader strategy. By securing a foothold in Afghanistan, China aims to enhance its geopolitical influence, secure critical resources, and ensure the stability necessary for the success of the Belt and Road Initiative. For Afghanistan, leveraging this relationship could provide much-needed economic support, but it must tread carefully to ensure it does not become overly dependent on its powerful neighbor.

As Afghanistan navigates this complex relationship, it must balance immediate economic needs with long-term sovereignty and stability, recognizing that while China’s interest is beneficial, it is driven by its broader geopolitical ambitions.

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