The US withdrawal from Afghanistan after two decades of war opened up an opportunity for China to expand its influence and lock down access to the country’s vast mineral deposits.
It has not worked out that way.
More than a year after US troops left, Afghanistan’s economy is collapsing, 19 million people are at risk of acute hunger and the investment the Taliban was counting on from Beijing has not arrived. Both sides blame each other.
“There has not even been a penny of investment by China,” Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Investment vice president Khan Jan Alokozay said in an interview. “Many of their companies came, met with us, conducted research, and then left and vanished, which is frustrating.”
From China’s perspective, the Taliban has not shown it is doing enough to crack down on a group that has ties to “separatists” in its far western Xinjiang region, two people familiar with the issue said.
The Taliban is also seeking to renegotiate the terms of existing projects to tap Afghanistan’s resources, the people said.
While the Taliban has vowed not to allow terror groups to operate on Afghan soil, China on multiple occasions has implored the group to take action against the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Muslim group seeking to establish an Islamic state overlapping with China’s vast Xinjiang region.
China and Afghanistan share a 76km border.
The Taliban has repeatedly said that the ETIM is not operating in Afghanistan and that it “won’t allow anyone to use Afghan soil against any other country,” Doha-based Taiban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said.
However, a UN report in May cites several nations as saying the ETIM remains a presence in Afghanistan.
Support for any group stoking tensions in Xinjiang is a red line for Beijing, which has been accused by the US and other nations of “genocide” for pressing the region’s largely Muslim Uighur population into forced labor camps after a spate of unrest more than a decade ago.
China rejects those charges and says critics are trying to meddle in its domestic affairs.
“The ETIM is certainly a ticking time bomb for China, which makes it a long-term threat,” said Faran Jeffery, deputy director of Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism, a UK-based think tank.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) directed questions about the Taliban’s ties to the ETIM to officials in Kabul, but added that “according to our communication with the Afghan Taliban, the Taliban side said on multiple occasions that they will not allow their territory to be used by any terrorist forces to attack countries, including China.”
The dream of mining riches in Afghanistan dates back centuries. After the US withdrawal, China signaled it would help make it happen — by activating earlier joint ventures that had stalled and breaking ground on new projects. With many nations pausing support for Afghanistan to see how the Taliban would rule, China was one of the few countries to promise the new regime an economic lifeline.
China “is ready to step into the void left by the hasty US retreat to seize a golden opportunity,” Zhou Bo (周波), a military strategist and former colonel in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, wrote in the New York Times just days before US forces left last year.
He cited access to Afghanistan’s mineral wealth as a key benefit of enhanced ties.
To facilitate those ties, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) met repeatedly with Taliban representatives before and after the US exit.
In March, he made a rare visit to Kabul for talks with Afghan Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs Amir Khan Muttaqi. After praising the country’s leaders and hinting at support for Afghanistan’s participation in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, Wang’s statement afterward cut to the chase.
“China hopes that the Afghan side will earnestly fulfill its commitment and take effective measures to resolutely crack down on all terrorist forces, including the ETIM,” Wang said.
However, Beijing is still not convinced that is happening, leaving billions in promised and future investment on hold. That includes a US$3 billion deal with state-owned Metallurgical Corp of China, which in 2007 was awarded a contract to mine a copper deposit in the Mes Aynak area for 30 years.
The Taliban had expected to earn hundreds of millions of dollars per year from the long-stalled project.
Also, a project by China National Petroleum Corp is either not fully operational or making little progress in extracting oil from the Amu Darya basin in northern Afghanistan after getting its contract from the previous Afghan government. Building a refinery was part of the deal, which never came to fruition.
The Taliban’s ties with the ETIM date back to the 1990s, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan for five years before being ousted by the US following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
“The Taliban see ETIM as their guests who have fought alongside the Taliban against US and NATO forces” over the past two decades, Jeffery said, adding that such ties are proving difficult to turn their backs on.
Citing comments by member states, the UN report said the ETIM has expanded its “operational space” in Afghanistan by forming alliances with local Taliban commanders and “covertly” purchasing weapons, aiming to improve its capabilities for “terrorist activities.”
Estimates of the group’s size vary widely, from a few dozen fighters to as many as 1,000, the report said.
While the Taliban is trying to restrain the movement of ETIM militants in Afghanistan to satisfy China — such as pressing them back from the border with Xinjiang — Taliban officials also “worry that if they come down too hard against ETIM, many of their members could end up defecting” to the Islamic State group, one of the Taliban’s biggest threats, Jeffery said.
The Taliban arguments that it is not hosting terrorists last month was undercut further by a US strike on a safe house in downtown Kabul that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Taliban officials said they were not aware that al-Zawahiri, who helped organize the Sept. 11, 2001, and USS Cole attacks was living in Afghanistan’s capital.
Also frustrating Beijing is that the Taliban wants to renegotiate the terms of some of the previously agreed upon investments from China, including raising the royalty rate for copper mining at the Mes Aynak site.
China has previously sought to lower the 19.5 percent rate.
Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum spokesman Mufti Esmatullah Burhan downplayed any security risk to China, saying the Taliban has tightened control throughout the country, and that a “suitable business environment” has emerged for China and other countries to “leverage” the country’s resources.
That has not been enough to persuade Beijing.
For now, the continuing standoff means that Afghanistan’s mineral treasures — including deposits of gold, copper and lithium — are to remain underground even longer. By some estimates, the assets could be worth more than US$1 trillion, but only if they can be mined.
Experts who follow the country say that after two decades of warfare, the Taliban has not transitioned from insurgents to rulers.
The Afghan government is run largely based on orders from Taliban spiritual leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, who rules from the group’s birthplace in the Kandahar region bordering Pakistan.
All of that is also giving China pause, said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in the UK.
It is difficult for China to move companies to a country ruled by people with “very little managerial experience, very little sort of capability to deliver what you need on the local government side,” Pantucci said.
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