China steals a march on a distracted world

Mar 26, 2024
Close-up of Afghanistan in the colourful world map.

For China these days it doesn’t get much easier to pursue it geostrategic objectives. With the US distracted on two fronts in Europe and the Middle East, and Russia mired in its intractable invasion of Ukraine, among the great powers, China is largely free to advance its interests on an increasingly global scale. Sabre rattling over Taiwan only further serves to distract the US from China’s much larger game.

On 31 January in Beijing, the representative of the government of the Emirates of Afghanistan – the first ambassador to China appointed by the Taliban – presented his credentials to President Xi Jinping. In doing so, China alone among major states has broken with the international understanding not to recognise formally the Taliban government.

Withholding formal recognition of the Taliban is intended to put pressure on the Kabul regime to improve its human rights performance, especially with respect to rights of women and children.

Following the formal ceremony, during which more than thirty ambassadors presented their credentials, China’s foreign ministry sought to dissemble on whether China had in fact recognised the Taliban. Despite this, for the rest of the world, and for the Taliban government, China has formally recognised the Emirates of Afghanistan and the Taliban as its legitimate government: if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it is a duck! The last Ambassador to China of Afghan’s Republican Government’s is firmly of that view, judging from his public comments made in the US.

Even before the fall of Kabul in August 2021, China had taken a more forward position to dealing with the Taliban. From 2016, it engaged actively in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (Afghanistan, Pakistan, US, China) and sought to use its close ties with Pakistan to encourage improved relations with the Republican government. And then, eighteen days before Taliban’s victory, China’s Foreign Minister met with the Taliban leadership in Tianjin. Wang Yi has also visited Kabul to meet with the Taliban.

China has three main objectives in Afghanistan, no matter whomever is in power.

First, and the single most important influence on all of China’s foreign policy, is frontier security – here challenged by militant Islam;

second, commercial considerations;  and third, its geostrategic objectives to become the dominant power in core Eurasia.

Since the Qing Dynasty’s (1644-1911) westward expansion from the late 16th century and progressive absorption of the lands that now comprise China’s Xinjiang province, controlling these Turkic speaking peoples and maintaining border security have been enduring foreign policy and security challenges for Beijing.

With the return of the Islamic, fundamentalist, Taliban, Beijing fears radicalisation of its Moslem Uyghur and Kazak populations by militant groups operating from Afghanistan. Within Xinjiang, Beijing claims elements of the former East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), now called the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), operate and that this is aligned with transnational al-Qaeda-led jihadi groups, especially IS-K (Islamic State – Khorasan), in Afghanistan that see Beijing as an enemy of Islam.

Beijing will be deeply alarmed if IS-K is found to be behind the Moscow attack over the weekend of 23 March. IS-K declared China to be an enemy in the 2010s. After the fall of Kabul, IS-K was reported to have been operating along the Wakhan Corridor, where the 92-kilometre border runs. Recently, it is thought to have been moved further away by the government in Kabul.

China has long been interested in Afghanistan’s wealth of mineral resources. It has extensive copper and lithium reserves among many others. In 2008, Jiangxi Copper first acquired the rights to develop the enormous reserves, reportedly the second largest in the world, at Mes Aynak, some 40 kilometres from Kabul. It was prevented by the Taliban during the civil war from developing the project, but all that might change now.

Afghanistan also has massive lithium reserves. It has been described as a ‘second’ Chili, which has the world’s largest reserves. Notwithstanding current weaker prices, China will take a longer-term stance on developing these deposits in view of lithium’s crucial role in the green energy transition.

Last year, Gochin, a Chinese battery company, was reportedly in discussions on a $10bil lithium project in Afghanistan. Its current status is at present unknown. Significant Chinese investment in Afghanistan’s resource sector will depend on whether Kabul can reassure Beijing over political stability and physical security.

Beijing’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Kabul will, however, give a lift to China’s Belt and Road initiatives (BRI) in Afghanistan. Already an extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to the west from the Khyber Pass to Kabul has been planned, although increasing tensions in relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan may set that back.

Already last year, a rail-road-rail route from Lanzhou in China to western Afghanistan via Kashgar in Xinjiang, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, was opened. While acknowledging that its purpose was primarily strategic at this time, China has ambitious plans to one day run its standard gauge rail lines across Afghanistan to Iran and beyond to Turkey and Europe, providing an alternative to the current northern routes which all run through Russia on a different gauge, requiring bogies to be changed at each border crossing. Tensions in the Red Sea have increased the attractiveness of China’s overland rail routes to Europe.

Resource development and BRI infrastructure may well fall far short of current expectations but, in addition to restraining its Islamic fundamentalists, recognising the Taliban government in Kabul ahead of other major powers, advances China’s broader geostrategic interests in expanding its influence over core Eurasia and beyond into west Asia and crucially the Middle East.

In March last year, China surprised the world by announcing that it had brokered an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to re-establish diplomatic recognition. This was as unexpected for its results as it was for China’s having in this way announced that it would in future become a substantial and influential player in the Middle East.

As the world’s biggest importer of crude oil, it is not surprising that Beijing would seek a bigger role for itself in Middle East affairs, especially if it views US influence there as waning. Beijing has long cultivated Iran. And through Iran, Beijing can also increase its influence over west Asia. This will be strengthened further by Beijing’s becoming the major (now the only) foreign partner of the Taliban.

In all of this, with the US out of core Eurasia, Russia is the biggest loser from China’s relentless expansion of its influence to the west. Russia has long regarded west Asia, Afghanistan, and Central Asia as its sphere of influence. Beijing’s unilateral recognition of Afghanistan breaks with Russia. It would be seen as highly opportunistic in Moscow and damage strategic trust between the two. It would not have been taken lightly in Beijing.

Chinese propaganda has for some time now been silent on Xi and Putin’s ‘friendship without limits’. While this ‘friendship’ may be without limits, it would seem to have a use-by date.


An abridged version of this was published in AFR Review 22 March 2024. It is taken from the author’s forthcoming book, Great Game On: China’s quest for primacy in Eurasia and what it will do when it gets it. MUP.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!