Omar Sobhani | Reuters
Afghanistan has trillions of dollars in untapped mineral resources and urgently needs infrastructure investment, which in theory makes it prime terrain for China’s vast Belt and Road initiative. In addition, China is one of the few countries and the only economic superpower to have established friendly relations with the Taliban to date, which shocked the world in early August by overtaking Afghanistan in a matter of days.
In what many see as a symbolic mockery of the West, Chinese state officials chided Washington and its 20-year war, and cautiously greeted the Taliban’s announcement of their new extremist government and terrorists wanted by the FBI this week.
Wali Sabawoon | Agence Anadolu | Getty Images
But beyond the statements, many regional experts are not convinced of China’s enthusiasm to venture into the war-torn Central Asian state on its western border.
China is “very aware” of security risks
“China is interested in economic engagement in Afghanistan and the extension of its Belt and Road, including reconstruction and investment in the landlocked country’s untapped mineral resources,” Ekta Raghuwanshi, analyst for the landlocked country, told CNBC. Stratfor for South Asia for RANE.
“However,” she warned, “he would not invest substantially anytime soon given the security concerns in Afghanistan and the proximity to the troubled province of Xinjiang in China,” she said, referring to Uyghur militants and the resurgence of the Islamic Movement in East Turkestan.
“We have no evidence that China will view the Taliban as a more secure partner,” Maximilian Hess, a central Asia researcher in the Eurasia program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told CNBC.
“He is keenly aware of the security risks, and attacks on Chinese infrastructure in Pakistan by Islamist groups have increased in recent years,” including one last August, Hess said. China risks angering local Afghans with its presence, and Beijing “recognizes the tribal reality of Afghanistan and that the Taliban have many sub-factions that they allow to operate with virtual autonomy in many areas” , he added.
So even though the Taliban – who have embraced China’s diplomatic overtures and are celebrating the prospect of its investment – give Chinese investors a guarantee of security, the group does not necessarily have control over other militants and tribes. across the country nearly 40 million people.
What Beijing is not expressing publicly, analysts say, is its concern about the impact of the US withdrawal, as is Russia.
As journalist Sreemoy Talukdar wrote in the Indian newspaper Firstpost this week, China “may have rejoiced in the disappointment of the United States in the failed exit … witch brew of terrorism and ethnic insurgency .
China’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment from CNBC.
Sanctions weigh heavily
“All agreements signed with the Taliban face obvious political risks and sanctions,” said Jonathan Wood, deputy director of global research at Control Risks.
“Western sanctions mean that even if the Taliban are recognized (by China), very few banks or financial institutions will deal with the Taliban government as long as these sanctions remain in place,” Hess said.
But so far, it has proven to be almost impossible to achieve.
In 2008, a consortium of Chinese companies took out a 30-year lease for the largest copper project in Afghanistan, called Mes Aynak. To date, 13 years later, no work has been initiated on the mining project.
This is due to a combination of security concerns, state corruption and infrastructure constraints, even though the 11.08 million tonnes of copper it is estimated would be worth more than $ 100 billion at current prices. of the London Metal Exchange.
Despite all the limitations, these haven’t necessarily stopped China in the past, as its investments in Sudan and Congo show, noted Samuel Ramani, professor of international relations at the University of Oxford.
Given the stagnation of its previous Afghan ventures, “I think the Chinese involvement in Afghanistan could be very similar to their so-called reconstruction plans in Syria,” Ramani said. “Lots of speculation, but little substance. “