China has shown itself to be open to “friendly” cooperation with the Taliban as the United States tries to complete its departure from Afghanistan. For some observers, this is proof that Beijing wants to take advantage of the vacuum to grab Afghan natural resources. A too simplistic reading of the situation for other experts interviewed by France 24.
US President Joe Biden confirmed on Wednesday August 25 the US withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of the month. And after ? For some, Afghanistan will continue, even under the rule of the Taliban, to be the playground of outside powers. But this time, a new actor is invited: the Chinese.
“China is ready to fill the vacuum left by Washington,” said Zhou Bo, a former colonel in the Chinese army, in an opinion piece published by the New York Times. Beijing will hasten to “plunder Afghanistan for its own benefit”, wants to believe, for its part, Colonel Richard Kemp, the former head of British forces in Afghanistan, interviewed by the American channel Fox News.
By the smell of natural resources
In addition, the country has participated since 2016 in the “New Silk Roads”, this gigantic Chinese program to build infrastructure outside its borders. Yet Beijing has still invested very little in Afghanistan. For Zhou Bo, this would be mainly because the country was until now “under the influence” of Washington. Rid of the cumbersome American tutelage, the country could now offer itself without restraint to China.
Beijing has also shown itself open to the idea of a cordial relationship with the Taliban. At the end of July, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, number two in the radical Islamist movement, was very officially received in Beijing by Wang Hi, the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs.
After taking power, China said it wanted to “respect the choice of the Afghan people” and hope for “friendly cooperation” between the two countries.
But that does not mean that Beijing is going to pounce on Afghan natural resources as soon as possible in exchange for a few loans to develop infrastructure. “They will first adopt a defensive approach,” says Raffaello Pantucci, a specialist in Chinese security issues at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies (Rusi) in London, interviewed by France 24.
Indeed, the number one priority of the Asian superpower, which shares a 70 km border with Afghanistan, is to “ensure that Islamist terrorism does not spread to countries neighboring Afghanistan,” said Angela. Stanzel, China and Central Asia specialist at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP Berlin), interviewed by France 24.
The Uyghurs not far away
This is all the more important for Beijing as the Uyghurs – the Muslim minority currently persecuted by the Chinese authorities who portray it as a reservoir for dangerous religious extremists – live only a few hundred kilometers from the Afghan border.
In this sense, China would like to bring up to date the compromise reached with the Taliban in the 1990s. Uyghur separatist militants had established training camps in Afghanistan with the help of Al Qaeda, and Beijing had gotten the Taliban to ban these fighters from committing violent actions in China. In return, China had invested in the country.
Twenty years later, Beijing is no longer worried only about the risk of jihadist contagion in China. “They also want to prevent a spread to other neighboring countries [Tadjikistan, Pakistan, NDLR] because that would have a destabilizing effect in countries where Beijing has invested heavily in the new Silk Roads “, specifies Rafaello Pantucci.
This is why the Chinese “are going to wave promises of investment in infrastructure like so many carrots to encourage the Taliban to do what they want,” said Valarie Tan, a specialist in Chinese political discourse at Merics (Mercatour Institute for Chinese Studies) from Berlin, interviewed by France 24.
However, these will only be promises at first, believes Rafaello Pantucci. He does not subscribe to this idea of a Chinese rush for the El Dorado from the Afghan basement once the Americans have left.
First, “because the Chinese were not bothered by the American presence to do business, since they won the right to operate one of the largest copper mines in the world in Mes Eynak [35 km au sud de Kaboul, NDLR] and obtained a participation in the exploitation of oil fields “, recalls Rafaello Pantucci.
These two projects have not yielded much so far, but not because of the American presence. “The investment to build all the missing infrastructures and ensure the security of the sites is too important”, notes the Rusi researcher. The Chinese did not do it “while the country was more or less at peace thanks to the American presence, they are not going to go there now that the conditions are even more uncertain and there is great instability”, adds he does.
This is the whole problem of the exploitation of the Afghan deposits in general. “They are difficult to access, and we must build roads, train lines, and other infrastructure to operate them. China will think even more before going there as the regime is revising its investments downwards. abroad, ”notes Angela Stanzel of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Go there but when?
However, the Chinese will eventually give in to the temptation of Afghan resources, believes Valarie Tan. If only to prove that they can do better than the Americans. “The official propaganda has already started to prepare the spirits by comparing the United States to the ‘destructive’ power in Afghanistan, in opposition to China which embodies the ‘builders'”, summarizes this specialist in the official Chinese discourse.
“It is therefore not a question of if they will go, but of when”, summarizes Valarie Tan. For her, the Taliban will have to meet several conditions: form a government that Beijing can recognize, bring back stability throughout the country, ensure that Islamist terrorism stops at the eastern border of Afghanistan and not call into question. cause the way China treats Uyghurs.
The new masters of Kabul should not find fault with all this, judge the various experts interviewed by France 24. “They will make all possible efforts because they need to diversify their sources of funding and official recognition from China – which they had not had in the 1990s – would bring a very important form of international legitimacy, “concludes Angela Stanzel.
But nothing says that the Taliban will live up to Chinese expectations. Difficult, in fact, to know to what extent they will be able to maintain their control over the entire territory in the face of the inclinations of the local warlords. Or if they can contain the desires of other radical Islamist movements – such as Al-Qaeda – to use Afghanistan as a springboard to go east.