BUENOS AIRES – For Beijing, the recent American withdrawal and the takeover of the Taliban make Afghanistan an urgent issue. A hostile Afghanistan could not only threaten its hold over the “autonomous” western region of Xinjiang, but also the implementation of China’s Belt and Road (or New Silk Road) initiative. Chinese interests in Afghanistan mainly concern security, but also the potential impact on the economy.
That’s why, hours after the Taliban captured Kabul, Beijing warned the group not to become a haven for terrorists. For the past five years, China has participated in the construction of transport and energy infrastructure in Afghanistan under the Belt and Road Initiative.
This vast plan includes six land corridors, two of which cross Central Asia: the China-Central Asia-West Asia Corridor, and the China-Pakistan Corridor. When completed, they will enable China to boost trade with Central Asia and the Middle East, as well as expand the development of natural resource activities in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan could distract China from other regions.
Afghanistan has around $ 1 trillion of extractable rare metals in its mountains. It also has the largest untapped reserves of copper, coal, cobalt, lithium, mercury and gold, also valued at over $ 1,000 billion.
China is the country’s biggest foreign investor and needs a stable and secure Afghanistan to make a profit here. Another concern of China, from a longer term perspective, is that the US withdrawal will benefit Washington by securing two of its objectives. One is to distract China from other regions (especially the Asia-Pacific area) and the other is to give the United States more time and resources to contain China.
Before the Taliban regained power, the group spokesman said China was a “friendly country” that was “welcome” to help rebuild and develop Afghanistan. Referring to fears of Muslim separatism in Xinjiang, he said the Taliban were concerned about “the oppression of Muslims, but we will not interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
A recent UN Security Council report noted that three militant groups – Islamic State, al-Qaeda and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM, which China views as a direct threat to its security) – are present in Afghanistan. ETIM has hundreds of active members in the Afghan province of Badakhshan which borders Xinjiang; and the organization, according to the Security Council report, wants to create an independent state in Xinjiang. To this end, it facilitates the movement of fighters to China.
The Taliban could prevent ETIM from operating in Xinjiang or hitting Chinese projects in Central Asia. But we cannot be sure, because the Taliban regime has yet to prove that it will govern in moderation. Indeed, it is unclear whether the Taliban actually control Islamist groups in Afghanistan, or are prepared to lose their legitimacy as a fundamentalist group by agreeing to curb the ETIM.
It is simply far too early to know how the Taliban will rule. Their first promises seem to be aimed at gaining international recognition and securing a fairly stable power transition. If they honor the agreements made before taking power, Beijing will benefit from the New Silk Road projects crossing Afghanistan and the brakes on separatism in Xinjiang. The withdrawal of the United States would also offer it an opportunity: to promote an alternative world order, following the reduction of the Western military presence in Asia.
But if a radical Taliban regime fuels instability in Afghanistan and Islamic militancy in parts of Central Asia where China has interests, or inside Xinjiang, it will test the declared policies of the China’s non-intervention in the internal affairs of states.
* Malena heads the Department of Chinese Studies at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina.