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China rushes in to fill the vacuum created by US withdrawal in Afghanistan

Everyone was stunned by the collapse of Afghanistan’s civilian government. As the Taliban quickly gained control of the country, the US-led Western nations provided security and political assistance. They were able to open the capital Kabul within minutes.

China’s propaganda machine was quick to react as the dramatic scenes of US and Western nations’ evacuations of their officials, citizens, and civil servants were shown on television screens and social media. It criticized the US for its’messy’ handling of the Afghanistan situation.

Global Times published an editorial exulting in China’s ability to engage in “post-war reconstruction” and invest to support Afghanistan’s future development.

Beijing’s joy at the US withdrawing from its region was summarized in the Chinese reaction. Beijing has sought for dominance in Central Asia for a long time and has been working with Russia to shape the regional dynamics through Shanghai Central Organization (SCO).

For a long time, Afghanistan was missing a piece of the puzzle. China was able to expand its economic reach by gaining the security and stability it needed through the deployment of US troops. It could not assert itself fully against the US and other Western countries present in Afghanistan.

China now has the right backdrop to cast its spell over Afghanistan after the West has left. On July 28, Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, hosted a nine-member Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani, the head of the Afghan Taliban Political Commission. The event took place in Tianjin, a northern coastal city.

Yi had described the Taliban as “an important political and military force”.

China’s open engagement with Biradar and Co. reflects its strict transactional approach to Afghanistan. This is the culmination of China’s decades-long relationship with the Taliban. In fact, just prior to the attacks on 9/11 2001, China had reached a deal to increase economic and technical cooperation in Afghanistan with the Taliban government.

China attempted to hedge its bets about all political factions in Afghanistan. Days before the Taliban delegation arrived, the Chinese president Xi Jinping called Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, and offered support for peace and a peaceful reconstruction of Afghanistan.

China has long been interested in Afghanistan’s potential and mineral resources as a part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which links South Asia and Central Asia. One more reason was the attractiveness of Afghanistan’s untapped mineral and natural resources. Afghanistan is estimated to contain large amounts of gold, iron copper, zinc and other rare-earth-metals, which are valued at over $1 trillion.

After the fall of Taliban in 2001, Beijing initiated its first economic engagement with Afghanistan. It was the first time it became involved in a project when a Chinese company obtained a lease for a period of 30 years worth $3.5million to develop a copper mine in Mes Aynak, Logar province.

This mine development project was believed to have the second-largest global copper deposit. It was meant to open the door to Chinese investment in Afghanistan. In 2011, the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation was awarded a $400 million contract to drill three oilfields near Faryab in Sar-e-Pol and Faryab. Beijing invited Kabul to the Belt and Road Forum 2017.

China would need to ensure stability in Afghanistan if it wants to advance its interests there. The US presence in Afghanistan provided an anchor for the country’s security over the years. Beijing now hopes that intra-Afghan dynamics can bring stability to the country.

It is also concerned about the reported presence in China of terrorists from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, (ETIM), who have perpetrated multiple attacks in Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan. Beijing is concerned about the ETIM’s impact on the Taliban resurgence.

China’s fraternizing with the Taliban was also in stark contrast to its inhuman treatment Uighurs in Xinjiang. Under the pretext of counter-terrorism it has incarcerated a millions of residents in concentration camps and forced them into forced labour. It has even coerced them into engaging in un-Islamic practices. Beijing will continue to pursue a transactional approach, despite its claims of doing “post-war reconstruction” of Afghanistan.

Beijing has yet to officially welcome the Taliban’s takeover. It has still sent enough messages to Kabul to indicate that it is willing to support the new government. This includes greater access to Afghanistan’s minerals and more footprint for Chinese companies. Beijing will push for significant presence in Wakhan Corridor of People’s Liberation Army troops, which connects Xinjiang province to Afghanistan’s Badakshan provincial, and Tajikistan’s Khyber Pakthunkhwa to the south.

It is vital for the security of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (a critical part of the BRI), and its viability. ETIM militants also use this route.

The extent to which this is possible will depend on how much operational autonomy the Taliban receives from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the key benefactor of the Taliban. China will likely exploit its close relationship with Pakistan to gain control over Afghanistan. China has been able to use its long-standing relations with Pakistan and Taliban to continue its transactional engagement in Afghanistan since the U.S. left.

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