How will the neighbouring countries around Afghanistan react to the Taliban government? What advantages will be seized that we need to be fully aware of? The back story contains plenty of indications of what is to come. When the US withdrew from the TPP a vacuum was created in Asia into which China moved. Afghanistan may prove similar. In a discussion with Rory Stewart, he pointed out that the country to a large extent has depended on foreign aid to run basic services, money which is now frozen. A solution to this problem for the Taliban lies in Beijing.
Rich in minerals and natural resources, including substantial reserves of lithium, the basic ingredient in electric-vehicle batteries, Afghanistan is a prime target for China and its ally Pakistan. The withdrawal of US and NATO forces leaves the door wide open for the Chinese to exploit an opportunity that would be of great benefit to their economy. This, combined with the chance to point to a major failure of American foreign policy, should enable them to cut a long-term deal that will secure their existing investment in the major copper mine at Mes Aynak.
A few weeks ago in late July, China’s foreign minister met Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in China and signaled its willingness to do business. Yun Sun, Director of the China Programme at the Stimson Centre think tank wrote that the Chinese cannot believe that America walked away from this asset. Combined with its Belt and Road global initiative, China is likely to work with Pakistan on both their and Afghanistan’s infrastructure needs and open a route through Pakistan to gain access to Pakistani ports as a means of re-routing Chinese oil supplies.
Vanda Felbab-Brown of Brookings has highlighted China’s need to ensure that there is a secure border with Afghanistan. Although small, that border is close to Xinjian and China will need reassurance that a Taliban government does not allow an Islamic jihad to spread eastwards.. Most importantly, China does not want to see Afghanistan become a base for the East Turkistan Islamic Front or other Uighur related groups.
The Pakistan military supported the rapid Taliban deployment, without which they could never have been so effective. Bruce Riedel of Brookings has said that the problem is that the US has little influence over Pakistan. A nuclear power, it is China’s closest ally providing a land route to the Persian Gulf. China has already signaled it will support a Taliban Afghanistan.
As this is written, both China and Russia are keeping their embassies open in Kabul as others withdraw. At the end of last year China’s accumulated non-financial direct investment in Afghanistan totaled $630 million and total bilateral trade was $550 million.
The events of the past few weeks will prove to have been necessary from a domestic political perspective for President Joe Biden but be likely to have serious long-term economic and reputational consequences. Ryan Hass, another past Speaker at the Asia Scotland Institute, summarises this when he writes that while Chinese leaders are not enthusiastic about the Taliban takeover, they will not allow principle to stand in the way of pragmatism.
The geopolitical landscape has clearly become a great deal more complicated in this region of the world.
Roddy Gow, Chairman and Founder, The Asia Scotland Institute