China-Taliban Relationship
China Navigates a New Afghanistan with the Taliban as its Rulers


Map of Afghanistan

© By omersukrugoksu from Getty Images Signature via Canva Pro

China's relationship with the Taliban has undergone a dramatic transformation since their initial rise in the 1990s. Initially hesitant, China's engagement with the Taliban has steadily increased, culminating in a complex dance of pragmatism and opportunity following the American withdrawal in 2021. Chinese diplomats visiting Kabul, view the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover as the beginning of a “new era” of independent development and a transition from “chaos to order.”

This article delves into the evolving dynamics of the China-Taliban relationship, the gradual recognition of the Taliban, and the question that it poses to the West.

Shifting Sands: China's Priorities in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan

China's core interests in Afghanistan remain constant despite the Taliban regime's return to power. These interests can be categorized into three pillars: connectivity, security, and access to resources such as minerals, oil, and gas.

China views Afghanistan as a crucial link in its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a global infrastructure development strategy. In 2016, China and Afghanistan agreed on BRI integration. This is a position the Taliban regime has endorsed. China seeks to extend BRI westward through Central Asia, leveraging the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Gwadar Port. This expansion promises infrastructure development, resource extraction, market access, and a gateway to the lucrative Central Asian region. In August 2023, Taliban regime Deputy Prime Minister Maulawi Abdul Kabir affirmed their support for the BRI and "practical cooperation" with China. Acting Commerce Minister Haji Nooruddin Azizi echoed this sentiment in October 2023, seeking inclusion in BRI and CPEC discussions during the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing.

A critical security concern for China is the presence of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) within Afghanistan. China views ETIM as a separatist threat to its BRI projects in South and Central Asia and has repeatedly urged the Taliban to crack down on the group's activities. China's foreign ministry’s April 2023 statement on Afghanistan urges more decisive action against terrorism, including the ETIM, and emphasizes the safety of Chinese citizens. It calls for increased counter-terrorism cooperation and international support to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorists. In May 2023, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang met with Taliban Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, emphasizing the need for Afghanistan to fulfill its commitment to fighting terrorism and guaranteeing the safety of Chinese personnel and institutions.

China facilitates trilateral talks with Afghanistan and Pakistan, promoting regional stability and cooperation. These high-level meetings aim to prevent any souring of relations between the Taliban and Pakistan, especially regarding the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and cross-border activities that could threaten BRI and CPEC.

In 2013, China owned 79% of the foreign investment in Afghanistan. However, the pace of Chinese investment slowed afterward, as disagreement arose over the terms of the Aynak Copper Mine that was signed in 2008. Following the Taliban takeover of the country in 2021, Chinese business people rushed to Kabul in search of mining and other business opportunities. The influx of Chinese entrepreneurs to Afghanistan was dubbed the “gold rush” by Al Jazeera. The rush was so significant that the Chinese embassy in Afghanistan warned companies and citizens against “blindly” visiting the country in search of mineral resources due to the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum’s “extremely strict” standards for issuing extraction permits. Nevertheless, in January 2023, the Taliban signed a $540 million contract to extract oil from northern Afghanistan’s Amu Darya basin. In April of the same year, the Taliban Ministry of Mines and Petroleum announced that a Chinese company was interested in investing $10 Billion in Lithium and another rare earth mineral.

In November 2022, China officially revived the Pine Nut Air Corridor, resulting in exports of over  1,000 tons to China. Furthermore, in December 2022, China implemented zero tariffs on 98% of Afghan products. Restarting work on the Aynak Copper Mine in Logar and securing new oil and gas extraction contracts in the Amu Darya basin exemplify China's keen interest in resource extraction.

China actively seeks economic opportunities in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Resource-hungry industries drive China's push to integrate Afghanistan into BRI and CPEC projects. However, security concerns, particularly counter-terrorism, necessitate cooperation with the Taliban regime, prompting Beijing's engagement with them.

The Evolving Dynamics: China, Russia, and the West

While China hasn't formally recognized the Taliban government, it has taken significant steps in that direction. They received the Taliban ambassador and allowed them to control Afghanistan’s embassy in Beijing. In September 2023, China's new ambassador presented credentials to the acting Taliban Prime Minister. On Tuesday, January 30th, China's President Xi Jinping received ambassadorial credentials from the Taliban envoy to Beijing appointed by the interim Taliban administration. 

China's pragmatic approach to its relationship with the Taliban reflects a desire to secure its interests, but formal recognition remains a calculated decision. Official recognition could legitimize the Taliban regime, influence the decisions of other nations, and strengthen China's influence in Afghanistan. Conversely, withholding official recognition may be a strategic choice to avoid appearing as the first nation to legitimize the Taliban's oppressive policies toward women and non-Pashtun ethnic groups. For the Taliban, having China's support carries significant political, economic, and strategic benefits, potentially including Chinese investments and the use of China's veto power at the UN Security Council to block sanctions and resolutions against them.

Like China, Russia has allowed the Taliban to manage Afghanistan’s embassy in Moscow. However, the Russia-Taliban relationship appears less cordial. For example, in April 2023, Russia held regional consultations for peace in Afghanistan, excluding the Taliban, while inviting other regional actors. Unlike China, which commits itself to the principle of non-interference and not commenting on the Taliban regime's domestic policies, Russian officials’ statements urge the Taliban to form ethnically and gendered inclusive governments. Additionally, the horrific terrorist attack on the Crocus concert hall in Moscow, claimed by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) active in Afghanistan, strained relations.

Unlike China and Russia, the United States and the European Union have not allowed the Taliban to assume control over Afghanistan’s embassies within their territories. Despite this, the Taliban-controlled central bank of Afghanistan receives significant financial support indirectly through the United Nations, with periodic shipments of $80 million every 10 to 14 days. The Taliban regime's alignment—or lack thereof—with international norms on human rights and women's rights remains a significant point of contention. The group has strategically avoided actions that might provoke Western powers directly, such as permitting anti-Israeli demonstrations in Kabul and other cities. However, they have shown support for regional dynamics contrary to Western interests, such as backing Iran's retaliatory measures against Israeli actions.

It appears increasingly unrealistic to expect the Taliban to adopt liberal ideals voluntarily, respect for human rights, or inclusive policies toward women and non-Pashtun ethnic groups. In the background, armed resistance groups such as the National Resistance Front (NRF) and Afghanistan Freedom Front (AFF) have geared up their attacks in Kabul and other cities. The disillusionment among political forces that once hoped for a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban is growing, as evidenced by the escalating rhetoric and actions of armed resistance groups. These groups advocate for democratic processes and elections as a pathway out of the current regime's extremism, presenting the US and EU with potential allies. Supporting these democratic resistance movements could emerge as a strategic avenue for the US and EU to influence Afghanistan's future in a direction that aligns more closely with international norms and promotes human rights.