Ruth Pollard

Is China About to Tuck Afghanistan Under Its Belt and Road?

China won’t be rushing into Afghanistan any time soon — not to fill the political and security void left by the US and not to expand President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road project.

However decisive the Taliban’s victory looks right now, the country is far too fragile for Beijing to contemplate anything other than a pragmatic diplomatic engagement with a group it has spent decades trying to work with. It may dangle the promise of enhanced economic relations in front of an Islamist insurgent movement looking to cement key regional relationships, but the likelihood of any infrastructure projects materializing in the short-term is remote.

Afghanistan has vast mineral deposits, including copper, coal, iron ore, lithium and uranium, as well as oil and gas. But even though Chinese companies (and mining companies in general) have a higher-than-average tolerance for risk, few have made the decision to enter the market in the war-torn nation.

Beijing views Afghanistan as a very high-risk environment and the desire to turn it into an opportunity of any sort is a secondary consideration, says Andrew Small, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund and author of The China-Pakistan Axis.

Small has been tracking China’s relations with Islamabad and Kabul for years. He says Beijing is more concerned about regional stability and ensuring fresh terrorist insurgencies don’t spill over into its Xinjiang province, where international human rights organizations and countries like the US and UK say China is committing widespread abuses against the local Muslim Uyghur population. Beijing has consistently denied these claims.

It sees the success of a radical Islamist movement in Afghanistan as an inherent threat, Small says, leaving it even less likely to want to invest in the kind of infrastructure that might open up an already dangerous borderland even further. “China will be cautious about turning a Taliban-led country into any kind of interconnected hub for the region,” he told me.

China has already been burned by failed investments in Afghanistan, most notably the copper project at Mes Aynak, which sits just 25 miles (40 kilometers) outside Kabul. The Taliban had made specific commitments not to attack the mine, but even then, China decided to discontinue its operations. It put on ice the state-owned Metallurgical Corporation of China’s 30-year lease on the site, signed in 2007 in a $2.83 billion deal that has since been touted as the largest foreign investment in Afghanistan’s history. It is no doubt a significant deal on paper, but one that has never led to anything concrete on the ground.

As one of six countries on its border, China has had years to engage inside Afghanistan. Now the landlocked country is even more unstable and without an external presence like US and NATO troops to provide security guarantees. It’s for this reason Beijing will not be pushing its state-owned enterprises to enter Afghanistan any time soon, says Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

The Taliban will no doubt offer all kinds of assurances — it has already promised to refrain from reprisal killings and to allow women and girls to continue their studies — but at this point, no one knows how they will govern. Recognizing the group as the de facto political authority and engaging with them makes sense for China, Pantucci says.

Afghanistan’s stability is key to protecting the approximately $60 billion in Belt and Road projects in neighboring Pakistan that provide an overland route to the Indian Ocean. With those concerns in mind, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted a senior delegation of Taliban officials last month, where he pressed the group’s chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar to break with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and prevent it from launching attacks on China’s interests from Afghan soil.

Emboldened by Taliban gains across Afghanistan this year, terrorist groups have already targeted China — in Pakistan. In April, a car bomb exploded at a luxury hotel hosting Beijing’s ambassador in Quetta in an attack claimed by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or the Pakistani Taliban, a loosely organized terrorist group with ties to al-Qaeda, based along the vast Afghan-Pakistan border. Then last month, an attack in Dasu near the Pakistan border with China killed 12 people, including nine Chinese citizens.

Beijing immediately pressed Islamabad to find those responsible. The attacks highlighted the tenuous relationship between the two countries. China has never been fully confident that Pakistan had a real handle on these insurgent groups, Small notes. Pakistan has deep ties with the Taliban and has long played the role of intermediary with Beijing. At some point, he warns, this could all go horribly wrong for Islamabad.

For its part, Beijing is playing it safe. “China hopes the Afghan Taliban can unite with other political parties and with all ethnic groups and build a political framework in keeping with national conditions that is broadly inclusive and will lay the foundation for enduring peace,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters Monday in Beijing.

In the long term, China wants Xinjiang to be a prosperous and stable neighborhood, and for that, there cannot be instability in their backyard. But with the Taliban back in power, instability is all there is.