The Taliban: 'China's Perfect Partner'?

Breaking through the blow-by-blow reporting that started when the Taliban began its sweep to victory are the geopolitical analyses of who gains and who loses in Afghanistan.



August 28, 2021
The Taliban: 'China's Perfect Partner'?


  1. Beijing’s Headache
  2. Into the Void
  3. What China Wants
  4. Pakistan
  5. Rare Earths
  6. What the Taliban Wants from China
  7. Chinese Investment in Afghanistan
  8. A Few Thoughts on America’s Withdrawal
  9. Great Analyses

Breaking through the blow-by-blow reporting that started when the Taliban began its sweep to victory are the geopolitical analyses of who gains and who loses in Afghanistan.

  • And the focus is on China.

Today we’ll look at just a few issues, such as:

  • What China wants in Afghanistan
  • What the Taliban wants from China
  • How keen or not the Chinese are to invest in Afghanistan.

There are of course many others to consider (including my favorite: Will the U.S. withdrawal encourage China to invade Taiwan? Short answer: No.)

  • But the issues considered here are some of the most immediately consequential.

You can find the links to the essays quoted here and more at #9, below.

1 | Beijing’s Headache

‘The hurried withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan — the 1975 fall of Saigon déjà vu — has been heralded as a win for China and an opportunity for Beijing to extend its influence across the region,’ writes Bloomberg’s Shuli Ren.

‘But in reality, Afghanistan is now a big headache for Beijing, which fears chaos there will spill over not just to its restive region of Xinjiang but to Pakistan.’

2 | Into the Void

‘In Afghanistan, China is ready to step into the void left by the hasty U.S. retreat to seize a golden opportunity,’ says Zhou Bo, a retired PLA senior colonel.

  • ‘While Beijing has yet to formally recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s new government, China issued a statement on Monday saying that it “respects the right of the Afghan people to independently determine their own destiny” and will develop “friendly and cooperative relations with Afghanistan.” ’
  • ‘The message here is clear: Beijing has few qualms about fostering a closer relationship with the Taliban and is ready to assert itself as the most influential outside player in an Afghanistan now all but abandoned by the United States.’

‘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, including critical industrial metals such as lithium, iron, copper and cobalt.’

But, Shuli Ren writes:

‘The U.S.’s hurried exit from Afghanistan was certainly bad publicity, but America’s debacle is not a win for China.’

  • ‘One superpower wants its soldiers to return home.’
  • ‘And the other? China just wants some positive internal rates of return to justify its dream of a new Silk Road.’

3 | What China Wants

Ian Johnson at the Council on Foreign Relations contends:

  • ‘In some ways, Afghanistan under the Taliban is China’s perfect partner: dysfunctional, dependent, and happy with whatever China can do for it.’
  • 'China’s engagement in Afghanistan can show other countries how China supports regimes: with few questions asked as long as they support Chinese interests.'

‘What kind of relationship will Beijing have with the Taliban?’

  • ‘Beijing’s relationship with the Taliban will be twofold.’

‘First, it will be mercantilistic.’

  • ‘China will seek to revive business ventures inside Afghanistan, which the Taliban is likely to support because investment will provide badly needed revenues. The Afghan economy is fragile and highly dependent on Western donors’ foreign aid, which will almost certainly be cut off.'
  • So any sort of investment, especially if it is not accompanied by lectures on human rights, will be welcome.’
  • ‘The economic interests are important but not decisive. At the end of the day, Afghanistan is an insignificant market and has only a few sources of raw materials.’

‘Second, the relationship will depend on each side not interfering in the other’s internal affairs.’

  • ‘For Beijing, that means the Taliban cannot export extremism into China’s troubled Xinjiang region, which shares a tiny border with Afghanistan, or condemn the Chinese government’s abuses against Uyghur Muslims in that region.’
  • ‘For the Taliban, it means China will not question the group’s human rights abuses unless Chinese citizens are involved.’

‘Of course, for China, recognizing the Taliban makes for strange optics: fighting Islamists at home but embracing them abroad.’

  • 'But it shows that China could be the ultimate realpolitik nation.’

Andrew Small at the German Marshall Fund says:

  • ‘China has several immediate goals.’

‘It wants to see a government emerge in Afghanistan that can consolidate its position, domestically and internationally.’

  • ‘This means the Taliban at least providing the semblance of a politically inclusive government and smoothing some of the roughest edges off their behavior, particularly while the spotlight is on them.’
  • ‘Beijing doesn’t want a sanctioned, pariah state in its neighborhood, and it doesn’t want a government that will offer the illusion of total control only for things to unravel into another round of conflict at a later point.’

‘The window between the Taliban’s victory and diplomatic recognition is also one where China can lean hard on its most important demand: that the Taliban abjure ties with transnational terror groups.’

  • ‘From Beijing’s perspective that primarily means Uyghur groups that target China itself and groups that may destabilize neighbors that matter to China, particularly Pakistan.’

4 | Pakistan

‘The key to Afghanistan’s peace and stability, of course, also lies partly in Pakistan,’ says Zhou Bo.

  • ‘Despite their proximity, the “conjoined twins,” as described by the former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, don’t always look in the same direction.’
  • ‘Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy is driven largely by the strategic goals of ensuring a friendly government in Kabul and undercutting India’s increasing influence in Afghanistan.’
  • ‘It is in Beijing’s own interest — not least for the success of Belt-and-Road — to ensure that Pakistan and Afghanistan are on good terms.’

Andrew Small writes:

  • ‘The pat logic that says that China can get Pakistan to do whatever it wants, and that Pakistan can get the Taliban to do whatever it wants, ergo China can get the Taliban to do whatever it wants, is demonstrably untrue.’
  • ‘The experience Beijing has gleaned over the last decade, particularly with the Afghan reconciliation talks, has made it better aware of its own limitations and the limitations of what the Pakistanis are willing and able to deliver.’
  • ‘But there is no question that this is going to be a period when Beijing will expect its Pakistani friends to bend over backward to ensure that the Islamist militant movement that they hosted and backed, and about which China has always made its reservations very clear, does not detrimentally affect Chinese interests now that it has come to power.’

Shuli Ren writes:

‘The People’s Republic has invested huge infrastructure projects in Pakistan as well as extended huge loans to Islamabad as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.’

  • ‘While China has not invested much in Afghanistan, it can’t afford for the Taliban to destabilize Pakistan.’
  • ‘Beijing still has very vivid memories of its last creditor’s trap, which it stumbled into with Venezuela six years ago.’

‘One more failed bet on a failed state will cut to the heart of Xi’s BRI dreams.’

  • ‘The Chinese people may not be all that generous about Beijing’s largesse abroad if it amounts to little.’

5 | Rare Earths

Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO & Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University contends:

  • ‘China is clearly positioning itself to be a major international partner to the Taliban.'

‘China wants to consolidate a dominant position in regard to the $1-2 trillion worth of rare earths -- most notably lithium.’

  • ‘As China seeks to consolidate as much control as they can over strategic supply chains for everything from microchips to electric car batteries, they want primacy in Kabul -- and will be the first major nation to recognize the new regime.'

‘For Pakistan, this is a moment of triumph.’

  • ‘They have assiduously supported the Taliban for the past two decades, both to control terrorist groups that occasionally threaten Pakistan and to deny India a foothold in a country on the other side of their border.’
  • ‘Closely aligned with China internationally, they will seek to partner with the Chinese in exploiting the mineral wealth and blocking India from a role with the Taliban regime.’

6 | What the Taliban Wants from China

‘The Taliban know they will not receive real economic backing from the West—at least not without conditions they will find unacceptable—China is one of the few places they can turn,’ says Andrew Small.

  • ‘Beijing provided the Taliban with money and arms when they were in exile, and made investments during their last period of rule, so there is a residue of goodwill.’

‘Beijing will almost certainly be willing to swing in with some immediate economic support.'

  • ‘This will be nothing remotely comparable to the level of aid the previous government received from the West, but some direct financing and some modest economic projects are plausibly within China’s gift.’

‘Beijing will want to convey the sense that far larger investments are possible, though, if certain conditions are met.’

  • ‘It has already been given reassurances by the Taliban that they will not allow attacks to be launched from Afghan soil and that they will treat Xinjiang as China’s internal affair.’

‘The Taliban only need to look at the diplomatic protection China affords to Pakistan and the economic commitments Beijing has made in the neighborhood to see what might be on offer.’

‘China can dangle these inducements to a government that is likely to be in a difficult spot, economically and diplomatically.’

7 | Chinese Investment in Afghanistan

‘Afghanistan until now has been an attractive but a missing piece of the enormous Belt and Road Initiative puzzle,’ writes Zhou Bo.

  • ‘If China were able to extend the Belt-and-Road from Pakistan through to Afghanistan — for example, with a Peshawar-to-Kabul motorway — it would open up a shorter land route to gain access to markets in the Middle East.’

David Sacks of the Council on Foreign Relations sees a different story:

  • Some now believe that the time is ripe for China to prioritize Afghanistan for BRI investment.’

‘Prioritizing Afghanistan for BRI investment may also help China address certain risks.’

  • ‘In particular, Chinese policymakers believe that Afghanistan, which shares a border with China, could be used as a base from which terrorists launch attacks against China.’
  • ‘Beijing also fears that instability in Afghanistan could spill over into Pakistan and Central Asia, destabilizing countries on China’s periphery and putting BRI at risk.’

‘So it would not be surprising if China announced billions of dollars in new infrastructure commitments in Afghanistan in the coming months.’

  • ‘This would further the narrative China is attempting to build that it is the best bet for providing economic prosperity, while the United States is a has-been power.’
  • ‘It might also lend the Taliban international legitimacy and help it build support domestically, as it can demonstrate that it is interested in governing the country and delivering economic development to Afghans.’

‘In the end, however, one should not expect that significant new Chinese investment will materialize.’

  • ‘BRI is retrenching and China’s risk tolerance is declining.’
  • ‘In recent years, lending across BRI has fallen.’
  • ‘BRI has entered an era of smaller lending and its backers are prioritizing projects where Chinese lenders have a greater chance of being repaid.’

‘As China looks for smaller and safer bets in BRI countries, Afghanistan does not come to mind as an appealing destination.’

  • ‘So at a time when BRI is retrenching, investing in Afghanistan is simply too risky and does not have enough economic upside.’
  • ‘China is unlikely to expend significant resources to connect CPEC with Afghanistan, and Afghanistan will not become a focal point for BRI.’

‘China is likely to be deterred from investing significant money in Afghanistan given the country’s deteriorating security and Beijing’s concerns with their ability to protect Chinese investments in Afghanistan.’

  • ‘China benefitted from the security U.S. forces in Afghanistan provided, and now that the United States has withdrawn it will need to devote significant resources to securing any future projects.’

8 | A Few Thoughts on America’s Withdrawal

As disheartening as the policy failures in Afghanistan are, they have to be distinguished from the superb conduct of the U.S. military.

  • America’s enemies who believe the chaos at the Kabul airport indicates something lacking in the courage, will, or abilities of U.S. soldiers, sailors, Marines, and air-men & -women are confusing inept policymakers with exemplary fighters.

As we in America mourn the 13 dead Marines, soldiers, & sailor and (as I am writing) 169 Afghan citizens, and remain watchful for news of those wounded, there was today a story that I found so moving I wanted to share it.

  • The day after the bombing that killed their comrades, Marines elected not to retreat to relative safety behind the gates to carry out their screening duties.
  • Instead they ventured again out into the crowds, taking, as one report says, frightened Afghan children on their backs and their fearful parents by the hand to guide them into the airport for their escape from Taliban rule.
  • All the time knowing that among those surging toward the gates could be another suicide bomber.
  • I am in awe of their courage, dedication, and humanity. They represent everything I love about this country.

This comes on top of stories that CIA and U.S. military operators are flying Blackhawk helicopters into the heart of Taliban-controlled Kabul to rescue those unable to reach the airport.

  • And of reports of the many private initiatives to bring those who Afghans who aided the U.S. in its 20-year war to safety.

There is something wonderful in the hearts of all these heroes that our policymakers would do well to understand and to take as a guide.

9 | Great Analyses

Here are a few the essays I’ve drawn on here. Have a look:



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