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EXPLAINED: Why Taliban See China As An "Extraordinary Opportunity" As They Look To Rebuild Afghanistan

Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar (left) with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a visit by a Taliban delegation to China in July. The Taliban have called China their "most important partner". (File photo: Li Ran/Xinhua via REUTERS)

Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar (left) with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a visit by a Taliban delegation to China in July. The Taliban have called China their "most important partner". (File photo: Li Ran/Xinhua via REUTERS)

China has moved into the vacuum created by US' departure and is now looking to partner Taliban to explore economic gains in the mineral-rich country

As foreign troops left Afghanistan and countries pulled out diplomatic staff following the Taliban takeover, China has quickly moved in to offer a helping hand to the country’s new rulers. Beijing already appears to be a Taliban favourite and the feelings seem mutual given that China has not shied away from reaching out to the group. With the Taliban looking to begin the process of Afghan revival, experts say China can look to leverage its ties with the group to assume the role of Afghanistan’s economic backer, especially with the west eyeing the Islamists warily.

Why Are Taliban Talking About Cooperation With China?

After the Taliban swept aside the democratically elected and US-backed government in Kabul, international agencies quickly moved to deny access to the group to money committed to Afghanistan while Washington froze billions of dollars of Afghan money.

Reports say that “the US has frozen nearly $9.5 billion in assets of Da Afghan Bank (DAB), the Afghan central bank, and stopped shipments of cash to Afghanistan" while the IMF, too, has barred access to money. In any case, the bulk of the Afghan budget was raised via aid from international donors and all the supply of all that money is uncertain now following the Taliban’s return to power. While western countries have adopted a wait-and-watch policy for the moment, hinting that they would be open to engaging with the Taliban, the approach would be heavily influenced by how Taliban’s stand on human rights and treatment of women.

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But those are not considerations that authoritarian China would be actuated by while dealing with the Taliban. Beijing has stressed that Afghanistan’s internal problems are for the Afghan people to deal with themselves. Its core concern relates to terror actors in Afghanistan and the use of Afghan soil by terror groups targeting China, namely the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which Beijing sees as seeking a foothold in its restive Xinjiang province.

Ahead of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, China had hosted top Taliban leaders led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the group’s chief negotiator. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi had said during the Taliban delegation’s July visit to Tianjin that the “Taliban are a pivotal military and political force in Afghanistan".

Now, as the Taliban thrash out the components of their government in Afghanistan, the group’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Italian newspaper La Repubblica that “China is our most important partner and represents a fundamental and extraordinary opportunity for us, because it is ready to invest and rebuild our country".

What Are The Benefits Taliban And Beijing Represent For Each Other?

The centrepiece of China’s global power ambitions is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that was launched by President Xi Jinping. A key component of the project is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that is being built at an estimated cost of between $40-60 billion. However, the project’s Pakistan leg has faced trouble from radical groups with reports of frequent attacks on Chinese workers in that country. While Islamabad has tried to rein in Islamic fundamentalists on Pakistani soil, those efforts have not been very successful.

But Taliban support for the project can prove to be a game-changer, given the leverage the group is seen as having over the likes of Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is suspected to be behind some of the attacks targeting the CPEC. Taliban spokesman Mujahid is reported to have said that the group supports the BRI project while Beijing is said to be exploring an expansion of the CPEC into Afghanistan through the construction of a Peshawar-Kabul road.

Reacting to news of Taliban welcoming the BRI project, Pakistan’s interior minister Sheikh Rashid is reported to have said that Taliban’s desire that Afghanistan join the CPEC was “encouraging". “Pakistan is proud of its friendship with China and if the Taliban hold similar views, then it is really good," Rashid was quoted as saying by Pakistan daily Dawn. He had added that “CPEC was an economic lifeline for Pakistan".

China has been one of the first countries to open diplomatic channels with the Taliban and a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson has said “China and the Afghan Taliban have unimpeded and effective communication and consultation". The spokesperson also noted that the “Afghan Taliban believes that the BRI is good for development and prosperity in Afghanistan and the broader region.

But not only infrastructure, as Taliban looks to play ball with Beijing, Mujahid pointed to “rich copper mines in the country, which, thanks to the Chinese, can be put back into operation and modernised. In addition, China is our pass to markets all over the world".

What Is the Mineral Wealth Afghanistan Holds?

The US defence department is said to have noted in an internal memo in 2010 that Afghanistan was “the Saudi Arabia of lithium". Which was to suggest that the rugged, mountainous country is sitting on rich deposits of the mineral that is a key component of batteries and much in demand in the age of digital devices and smartphones. Now, with many countries looking to transition to electric vehicles, the demand for batteries — and material that go into their making — is set to zoom.

A report by news agency Reuters says that “Afghanistan is rich in resources like copper, gold, oil, natural gas, uranium, bauxite, coal, iron ore, rare earths, lithium, chromium, lead, zinc, gemstones, talc, sulphur, travertine, gypsum and marble". It also cited a former Afghan minister as saying that the total value of mineral resources in the country was close to $3 trillion.

For example, when it comes to copper, estimates by officials in the Afghan government in 2019 said that total reserves stood at almost 60 million tonnes, which is worth hundreds of billions of dollars. China had already obtained a “30-year lease for the largest copper project in the country, Mes Aynak", although no production had started at the site, likely due to the fighting that had continued in Afghanistan amid the presence of US forces.

But now that guns have mostly fallen silent, China would be eager to make up for lost time. As Zhou Bo, a China expert, wrote in an opinion piece for The New York Times, “With the US withdrawal, Beijing can offer what Kabul needs most: political impartiality and economic investment. Afghanistan in turn has what China most prizes: opportunities in infrastructure and industry building — areas in which China’s capabilities are arguably unmatched — and access to $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits."

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first published:September 07, 2021, 15:42 IST