By Reza Javadi
The new Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan handed over his credentials to the Taliban authorities in Kabul on Wednesday, making China the first country to appoint an envoy to Afghanistan since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021 and the US-led coalition forces pulled out in haste.
Although Beijing has not indicated whether the move is a step toward formal recognition of the Taliban government, it seems to be broadening its ties with the de-facto government in Kabul, potentially paving the way for strengthening Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure projects in Afghanistan.
"This is the normal rotation of China's ambassador to Afghanistan, and is intended to continue advancing dialogue and cooperation between China and Afghanistan," the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement, adding that its policy towards Afghanistan is “clear and consistent."
The Taliban administration's deputy spokesman, Bilal Karimi also confirmed that Mohammad Hassan Akhund, the acting prime minister in the Taliban administration, warmly accepted the credentials of the new Chinese envoy Zhao Xing during a ceremony in Kabul.
Taliban spokesperson in Doha, Suhail Shaheen, said the move will further enhance relations between the two countries and pave the way for cooperation between them in various fields.
“Other governments appointed charge d’affaires after the expiry of the terms of their ambassadors. However, China decided to nominate a new ambassador,” Shaheen, who was a key member of the Taliban’s negotiating team with the US, stated.
China-Afghanistan bilateral ties
China has maintained a close relationship with the Taliban for years, and with the fall of Ashraf Ghani’s government in August 2021, it was one of the few countries that did not close its embassy in Kabul, while also entrusting the Afghan embassy in Beijing to Taliban representatives.
Since the return of the Taliban to power, representatives of a number of Chinese companies have traveled to Afghanistan and direct flights between Afghanistan and China have also resumed.
The intense rivalry between China and the United States, especially in the economic sphere, has seen authorities in Beijing increasing contact with the Taliban authorities in the last two years.
Beijing considers the Taliban's rise to power in Afghanistan as a key factor in Washington's diminishing role and influence in the region, creating a favorable environment for the implementation of the ambitious BRI project after it decided to extend the megaproject from Pakistan into Afghanistan.
In an agreement, reached in Islamabad in May this year, China and Pakistan agreed to extend the lucrative infrastructure project into Afghanistan, potentially drawing in billions of dollars to fund infrastructure projects in the sanctions-hit country, according to Pakistan’s foreign ministry.
Through it, China is looking for large investments in more than 150 countries and international organizations, in order to secure its strategic interests in various areas, including economic fields.
For the Taliban, which continues to grapple with regional and global isolation, building strong relations with China is mutually beneficial as it offers economic opportunities and geopolitical advantages, creating a win-win scenario for both parties, according to experts.
China follows soft power approach
Instead of following a hard power strategy, China has opted for a soft power approach to balance the leverage against the US ambitions in the east, following the blueprint India adopted in the Ghani era.
By furthering its diplomatic relations in the East and Central Asian countries and laying the underground for political and economic investments, Beijing is relying on “soft power” to fill the Western void.
A theoretical basis for the concept of “soft balance” by Robert Pape, a leading professor of political science at the University of Chicago, states that the purpose of creating a soft balance is to neutralize the performance of the hegemonic states without direct confrontation.
Pape, who specializes in international security affairs, argues that the purpose of creating a soft balance is to neutralize the hegemonic state's influence without engaging in direct confrontation.
As Stephen Walt, a prominent American political scientist, puts it, soft balance involves the conscious coordination of diplomatic actions in order to achieve results contrary to the wishes of the superior power, results that cannot be obtained without the support of equilibrators.
In the same vein, China is emphasizing diplomatic efforts, including measures based on temporary or long-time cooperation with its neighbors and potential partners such as Afghanistan or Pakistan.
China's approach to countering the US in Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan, revolves around a soft economic balance, which involves the construction of infrastructure, such as roads and railways, the development of financial institutions, and investments in mining and resources.
China’s Asian policy in face of US ambitions
China's Central Asian policy is designed to prevent Afghanistan, a geographically strategic location, from being again influenced by the US-led NATO military alliance, effectively keeping it away from the West.
The significance of Afghanistan in China's foreign policy and diplomacy goes beyond the power vacuum created by the US withdrawal and the evolving situation within Afghanistan itself.
The landlocked South Asian country has emerged as an integral part of China's new neighborhood diplomacy strategy as it assumes the role of a regional bulwark against Western hegemony.
China is actively building networks of countries, whether through organizations like BRICS and SCO in the Global South or informal ties in the East.
This approach, according to experts, aims to position China within the changing world order, where the US is no longer the sole global power, and power centers are becoming more network-based.
Chinese investments in Afghanistan
China has invested billions of dollars in Afghanistan before and even after the Taliban’s ascent to power.
As a significant example, a consortium of Metallurgical Corp of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper took on a 30-year lease for the largest copper project in the country, Mes Aynak, in 2008.
In January, the Taliban government signed its first international deal with China since taking power in August 2021, allowing a Chinese business to explore and develop oil reserves in northern Afghanistan.
According to the agreement, Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co. (CAPEIC) will give $150 million each year to Afghanistan. In three years, this amount will rise to $540 million for the 25-year contract.
Following the Taliban’s seizure of power, Chinese firms have signed several other contracts with the Taliban’s officials in different fields such as oil extraction, lithium mining, and gold extraction in Takhar province of northeast Afghanistan.
As the aid-dependent economy of the country collapsed after the hasty and botched US withdrawal, the Taliban administration has been attempting to stabilize the economy by inviting investments.
The Taliban have regained control of the country’s massive natural resources that a former mines minister of the country once said could be worth up to $3 trillion.
Although the situation in Afghanistan continues to be precarious, China sees the end of the US-led invasion and the subsequent takeover by the Taliban as an economic and strategic opportunity for itself.