The Taliban are touting the signing of a multimillion-dollar deal with Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co in Kabul as their first big economic victory since the return of the Islamic Emirate in August 2021. Beijing gains access to the Amu Darya basin in northern Afghanistan with this estimated $540 million contract.
The majority of Afghanistan’s small and medium-sized mineral deposits are undiscovered. The basin was planned for development by the former Republic’s government more than a decade before the signing of this agreement. The interim government established by the Taliban sought a huge economic win, dangling the country’s natural wealth primarily in front of China while also attempting to dazzle other nations.
China’s objectives and obstacles
Beyond politics and posturing, the realism and implementation of the agreement will be crucial. China’s primary geopolitical objective has been to keep Afghanistan and Central Asia out of the West’s reach, but this objective was threatened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. Except for Tajikistan, several states in the region supported the arrival of the Taliban because they did not seek to incite border disputes. Today, they discuss regional collaboration with the group openly. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also allowed the United States to reengage in Central Asia.
China has been the most visible force in Kabul since the Taliban gained control and has been friendly to the Taliban for some time. Beijing has hosted many delegations from the Taliban. In 2021, when Wang Yi was serving as China’s Foreign Minister, he travelled to Tianjin for a meeting with Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is now serving as Afghanistan’s Acting Deputy Prime Minister. This took place just a few months before the Taliban took control of Kabul.
Beijing does not appear to have any security concerns. It has pressured the Taliban to take action against Uyghur-led militant groups operating on Afghan soil, such as the Turkistan Islamic Party, that target China’s actions in unrest-ridden Xinjiang. It is debatable how cooperative the Taliban has been with China on this issue recently.
To ensure that both nations are connected to larger initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Afghanistan’s economy would be at the centre of China’s approach to Pakistan. The rapidly deteriorating security situation between the Taliban and Pakistan, particularly over Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, has the potential to jeopardise Beijing’s goals. Recent attacks on Chinese targets in Kabul and Pakistan will test China’s dismal track record in dealing with Islam’s religion, society, and culture. Beijing’s power corridors will not be inspired by the fact that Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy is also failing.
The Taliban viewpoint
In the meantime, the Taliban seek to construct a successful Islamic Emirate distinct from its predecessor. To accomplish this, they require a relatively working economy to fund the state and the various groups that comprise the Taliban movement as a whole. Currently, the economic and social conditions in Afghanistan are abysmal. The Taliban have imposed retrograde practices, such as prohibiting women’s education. A prolonged economic downturn will threaten the current regime’s authority. The challenge may originate from something other than the general public but rather from within the movement. This does not necessarily translate into a challenge to Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzad’s leadership, but it could lead to greater alienation of the regime by the outside community, which many Taliban officials are attempting to prevent. The economic worldview of certain Taliban, notably those who negotiated with the West and the Haqqanis, differs from the Taliban’s ideological core, which is held by Akhundzada and his close-knit network of advisors and confidants. After constructing a narrative of having defeated a superpower, it is improbable that the Taliban would make ideological concessions solely to achieve economic advantages.
As a consequence, the question naturally arises as to whether or not Beijing is willing to economically substitute the control of the Taliban in exchange for natural resources. And does it believe that the cost of using such a strategy is within its risk appetite? In the past, China’s attempts to remotely manage investments and businesses in politically risky countries have been met with mixed success. If Beijing had intended to achieve its economic agenda in Afghanistan using a blank check and an economically unstable Pakistan that faces substantial political and strategic headwinds, it might need to rethink its approach at this point.
The collaboration between Afghanistan and China might depend on whether or not the oil transaction is completed successfully. On the other hand, Beijing would be careful to avoid becoming yet another footnote in the tale of the “graveyard of empires.”