China’s rumored intentions to dive into Afghanistan are exaggerated: specialists

View of a gold mine in Nor Aaba, Takhar Province, Afghanistan.

Omar Sobhani | Reuters

One of the first things that many Western experts predicted in the wake of the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan was the replacement of this power vacuum by China, which has long been a critic and strategic opponent of the United States.

Afghanistan has trillions of dollars of untapped natural resources and is in dire need of infrastructure investment, which in theory makes it a major driver of China’s sweeping Belt and Road initiative. In addition, China is one of the few countries and the only economic superpower to have developed friendly relations with the Taliban, who shocked the world in early August when they overtook Afghanistan in a matter of days.

What many see as a symbolic mockery of the West, Chinese officials have reprimanded Washington and its 20 Years War and cautiously welcomed the Taliban’s announcement this week that hardliners and terrorists wanted by the FBI will announce their new government.

Taliban will take control of Hamid Karzai International Airport after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is completed on August 31, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Wali Sabawoon | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

“This ended more than three weeks of anarchy in Afghanistan and is a necessary step in restoring internal order and post-war reconstruction in Afghanistan,” Wang Wenbin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters at a briefing on Wednesday Transcript published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China.

But beyond what has been said, many regional experts are not convinced of China’s enthusiasm to invade the war-torn Central Asian state on its western border.

China is “very aware” of the security risks

China has long been suspicious of Islamic extremism in its far west. It is also determined not to get caught up in the same quagmire that the Soviet Union and the US were dragged into with Afghanistan, analysts say.

“China is interested in doing economic activity in Afghanistan and expanding its belt and strait, including rebuilding and investing in undeveloped inland natural resources,” Ekta Raghuwanshi, Stratfors South Asia analyst for RANE, told CNBC.

“However,” she warned, “given the security concerns in Afghanistan and its proximity to China’s troubled Xinjiang Province, it would not make any significant investments anytime soon,” she said, referring to the Uyghur militants and the resurgence of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

And while China has made clear its approval of the Taliban, that doesn’t mean it is ready to do business with them.

“We have no evidence that China will see the Taliban as a safer partner,” Maximilian Hess, a Central Asia fellow on the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia program, told CNBC.

“It is very aware of the security risks and attacks by Islamist groups on Chinese infrastructure in Pakistan have increased in recent years,” including as recently as August, Hess said. China risks angering native Afghans with its presence, and Beijing “recognizes the indigenous reality of Afghanistan and that the Taliban have many sub-factions that allow it to operate virtually autonomously in many areas,” he added.

Even if the Taliban – who have welcomed China’s diplomatic efforts and celebrate the prospect of investment – give Chinese investors a guarantee of security, the group does not necessarily have control over other militants and tribes in the country of nearly 40 million people.

What Beijing does not publicly express, according to analysts, is its concern over the impact of the US withdrawal, similar to Russia’s.

As journalist Sreemoy Talukdar wrote in the Indian news agency Firstpost this week, China “may have pounded over the unrest in the US during the botched exit … witch brew from terrorism and ethnic uprisings.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond to a CNBC request for comment.

Sanctions are great

The Taliban continue to be sanctioned by the US, the EU and the United Nations. This presents an obvious legal and financial risk to anyone wishing to do business with the group.

“Any agreement signed with the Taliban involves obvious political risks and sanctions,” said Jonathan Wood, assistant global director of research at Control Risks.

China has proven adept at handling US sanctions in the past, embargoing Iranian imports thanks to the use of things like “ghost ships”. But some Chinese companies have been hit by US penalties, and in the case of Afghanistan, the security risks make this border even less attractive.

“Western sanctions mean that even if the Taliban are recognized (by China), very few banks or financial institutions will do business with the Taliban government as long as these sanctions remain in place,” Hess said.

Infrastructure constraints

Afghanistan’s natural resources are overwhelming. The country has about 60 tons of copper reserves, more than 2.2 billion tons of iron ore, 1.4 million tons of rare earth minerals coveted for their use in electronic products like lithium – which is in high demand for electric vehicle batteries – 1.6 billion barrels of crude oil , 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and another 500 million barrels of natural gas liquids according to US geological surveys.

But so far it has proven almost impossible to achieve.

In 2008 a consortium of Chinese companies signed a 30-year lease for the largest copper project in Afghanistan called Mes Aynak. To date – 13 years later – the mining project has not yet started.

This is due to a combination of security concerns, government corruption and infrastructure restrictions, even though the estimated 11.08 million tons of copper would be worth over $ 100 billion at current London Metal Exchange prices.

“Afghanistan’s limited infrastructure – electricity, roads, railways – difficult terrain and inland geography will continue to hamper natural resource development,” said Stratfor’s Wood.

Despite all the constraints, these have not necessarily stopped China in the past, as demonstrated by its investments in Sudan and the Congo, noted Samuel Ramani, tutor of international relations at Oxford University.

Given the stagnation of his previous Afghan ventures, “I think the Chinese engagement in Afghanistan could be very similar to their alleged reconstruction plans in Syria,” said Ramani. “A lot of speculation, but little substance.”

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