The unlikely relationship between the Taliban and China has been developing for decades and this is primarily out of necessity for both actors. Despite stark cultural and political differences between Afghanistan and China, recent developments since the Taliban takeover in August of 2021 has compelled China to take a more active role in Afghanistan. Beijing's engagement ultimately seeks to promote security and stability in the region as well as provide much needed economic investment for the war-torn country that has seemingly been cut off from the international community ever since the US withdrawal. This research explores the reasons behind China's involvement, its relationship with the Taliban, and the potential gains both parties stand to achieve from their partnership.
China's involvement in Afghanistan can be attributed to a combination of security concerns and economic interests. One of China's primary security concerns is the presence of Uygur Muslim militants, often grouped into the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and other extremist terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), located throughout Afghanistan. The two state's direct land border spans less than 100 kilometers and is known as the Wakhan Corridor, which remains highly isolated. Potential spillover of instability and terrorism from Afghanistan into the neighboring Xinjiang region, home to a significant Uygur population, poses a major threat to China's internal security. As a result, China sees the need to address this issue proactively to safeguard its borders and promote stability within its territory. Fortunately for China, the estimated strength of the ETIM is only a few hundred militants, and the Taliban has seemingly relocated them from the border region with China to central Afghanistan in order to diminish their military capabilities against China . Moreover, China has fortified its side of the border extensively to mitigate potential security threats. As of now, there have been no recorded instances of direct attacks on Chinese nationals attributed to ETIM members operating from Afghan territory. However, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K) as well as other extremist groups in Afghanistan remain a substantial threat, and a sizable number of disenfranchised Uyghur militants have joined their ranks as a result of their forced relocation.
A stable Afghanistan for China would present an array of opportunities for economic reconstruction and development in the post-conflict period. China has formally supported the Taliban in international forums, advocating for the recognition of the de facto authority as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. This support stems from China's perspective that Afghanistan has suffered from over two decades of US foreign involvement, and criticizes the West's response to the Taliban's takeover of imposing stringent sanctions and asset freezes, which Beijing strongly affirms exacerbates the ongoing humanitarian crises . China's economic interests in Afghanistan are also driven by its potential participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Afghanistan's strategic location and abundant natural resources make it an attractive prospect for resource extraction investment, particularly in rare-earth minerals and oil. China aims to enhance its economic influence in the region through the BRI and views Afghanistan as a potential partner for large-scale trade and investment. The Pakistan-China Economic Corridor (CPEC) agreement is a crucial component of this economic engagement, envisioning the revitalization of a highway from Islamabad to Kabul in order to facilitate international trade and improve logistical infrastructure for resource extraction . Prioritizing security through these routes and remote regions of Afghanistan to be able to transport valuable resources will be paramount to allow these projects to come to fruition.
Regarding Beijing's specific economic interests, it’s estimated the value of Afghanistan's natural resources, including rare-earth minerals now utilized in electric automobiles, to be worth around $1 trillion. Subsequently, China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) has secured contracts for copper extraction from the Mes Aynak mine. As for oil extraction, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has invested in fields located in the Amu Darya basin, which is projected to contain up to 87 million barrels of crude oil in the northern provinces of Faryab and Sari Pul that border Turkmenistan . Economic officials for the Taliban have stated that the basin once developed will be able to produce around 25,000 barrels of oil per day. However, both mineral and oil extraction projects have experienced delays, mainly attributed to the persistent instability through terrorist groups who seek to limit any international involvement in Afghanistan . The uncertain security situation and challenges in governance have hindered progress and posed considerable obstacles to the realization of any significant economic investment projects.
The recent increase in stability since the Taliban takeover and US withdrawal from the region has prompted the Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co. (CAPEIC) to contribute $150 million annually to Afghanistan, rising to $540 million for the 25-year contract in three years . These strategic decisions seek to address China's lack of domestic resources to meet the demands of its rapidly growing global markets. Additionally, China wishes to confront its apparent vulnerability in regards to its energy imports as much has to be transported by sea, often traveling through sensitive regions that the US is closely monitoring and militarizing, such as the South China Sea. This dependency on these maritime routes through contested waters raises concerns for China's energy security and its ability to safeguard energy supplies in the face of potential increases of geopolitical tensions and disruptions to international trade. As a result, China has been actively seeking alternative energy transport options and investing to diversify the state's energy sources, which would reduce reliance on vulnerable sea routes.
As China's involvement in Afghanistan continues to evolve, several challenges lie ahead. Recent terrorist attacks targeting Chinese nationals in Kabul underscore the continuous security risks and uncertainties associated with the region . Balancing economic development and pursuing international legitimacy with the responsibility of governing and stabilizing Afghanistan presents a very difficult task for the Taliban, whose extremist ideology may hinder effective management of foreign economic engagement. Achieving a mutually beneficial and stable partnership will require tactful diplomacy and a pragmatic approach from both parties to navigate the complexities of the region and foster long-term cooperation. This will be paramount to the Taliban's ability to gain international legitimacy and prove through performance legitimacy that they have the ability to govern Afghanistan effectively.
Matthew Fessick is a master's student pursuing a degree in criminal justice at Chaminade University of Honolulu and obtained his bachelor's degree in political science from Saint Joseph's University. In his current role as an administrative assistant at Chaminade University of Honolulu, he efficiently manages several graduate programs within the behavioral sciences department. Additionally, Matthew is a research intern at the East-West Center focusing on examining the nuances of contemporary Afghanistan, particularly the developing humanitarian crisis under Taliban governance.