When the United States and its allies began evacuating from Kabul on August 15, as the Taliban entered the Afghan capital, China decided to keep its embassy open and claimed it was ready for friendly relations with the Taliban. State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi had already met with Taliban representatives in late July in Tianjin to discuss the reconciliation and reconstruction process in Afghanistan. During that meeting, the Taliban also agreed not to support Uyghur separatists who might threaten stability in Xinjiang. China has a principle of not intervening in internal affairs abroad and expects other parties to have the same policy. On this basis, China and the Taliban’s Afghanistan may develop new ties.
China’s policy toward the Taliban is sometimes misunderstood in Western countries, but it reflects China’s Realpolitik and ambitions for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Central Asia and South Asia. The new relations between Beijing and Kabul may accelerate the development of China’s flagship connectivity program in the region with the construction of new infrastructure facilities, but without deep evolutions, the Taliban regime may not be able to implement the “soft” BRI, which involves programs ranging from education to health. However, the huge opportunities offered by China’s BRI may soften the Taliban’s fundamentalism.
The Taliban and the “Hard” BRI
The first Memorandum of Understanding on the BRI between Afghanistan and China was signed in 2016, and then several initiatives were agreed between the two countries. However, because of terrorism, few projects were actually conducted within the framework of the BRI. In addition, Afghanistan’s climatic and geographic conditions also make the construction of routes difficult.
Due to the lack of proper networks and pervasive insecurity, untapped Afghan mineral resources have hardly been exploited. If the Taliban succeed in bringing stability back to Afghanistan, China may invest in several sectors, including mining.
But for China, stability in Afghanistan is also a prerequisite for the development and success of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a major segment of the BRI. In Pakistan, China has been investing billions of U.S. dollars in the construction of roads, special economic zones, and ports. But due to geographic conditions and tensions with India in Kashmir, the Chinese city of Kashgar is still hardly connected with the corridor, and projects face delays.
In southern Pakistan, China is developing the port of Gwadar, which is to become a major hub for energy. However, to be profitable, the new port needs to serve as a terminal for natural gas from Central Asia, through Afghanistan. But transportation by routes or pipelines could not be planned in this war-torn country. With a “Pax Talibana” in Afghanistan, both China and Pakistan can envisage new infrastructure facilities that may connect Gwadar to Central Asia. Once those networks are built, Gwadar will also become much more attractive to foreign investors, especially from the Gulf region, as they have, until now, shown some reluctance to invest in Gwadar because of a lack of prospects.
The new regime in Kabul may also prevent the development of troubles in Pakistan where Chinese-constructed projects have been targeted. Pakistan claims that Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies were involved in the Dasu terror attack on July 14, where several Chinese citizens were killed by the Pakistani Taliban. Good relations between Pakistan and the Taliban may improve the security environment for Chinese construction projects in the CPEC.
The Challenging “Soft” BRI
These “hard” BRI projects may successfully be implemented under the Taliban. However, the BRI is much more than just a few railroads or ports; it is about facilitating trade and exchanges between China and the world. The Belt and Road Initiative includes many “soft” components from the Health Silk Road to the Digital Silk Road, and these initiatives rely on innovation. Participation in the BRI demands that the Taliban be more open to changes and conduct reforms that are in line with China’s interests.
Countries that are active in the BRI tend to replicate, with more or less success, a Chinese model based on special incentives offered to companies as well as specific reforms where the priority is given to education. One of the most important achievements made by China over the last 30 years is in regard to education. In 1990, the gross school enrollment rate in tertiary education was only 3 percent, but it rose to more than 53 percent in 2019, and China now tops the PISA ranking. China has also become a top destination for foreign students from developing countries, especially from Africa. To gain long-term benefits from the BRI, the Taliban will need to change their views on education and adopt a Chinese model where science is a priority.
China will also want to see the Taliban change their stance on women. China’s unprecedented growth since 1978 is partly due to the participation of women, who are said to “hold up half the sky.” Some of China’s most successful companies have been led by businesswomen, like Sun Yang, who served as chairwomen of Huawei from 1999 to 2018, or Jane Jie Sun, CEO of Trip.com since 2016. This is due again to education: In 2009, for the first time, female students outnumbered male students in Chinese colleges.
China also expects the Taliban to soften their tone toward ethnic and religious minorities in Afghanistan if they want to join the BRI. In the past, the Taliban were accused of ethnic cleansing against minorities such as Hazaras. But the continuation of this abuse will elevate the risk of terror attacks against the infrastructure facilities that are to be constructed by Chinese companies in Afghanistan. Segregation and harassment against Shias or Uzbeks would also threaten relations with neighboring countries like Iran or Uzbekistan and challenge the roll-out of regional multilateral projects financed and constructed by China. Similarly, the Taliban should not transform Afghanistan into a destination for terrorists who would plan attacks in Xinjiang or other countries in Central Asia that support the BRI, as China would never tolerate this.
The rule of law and the fight against corruption are other targets that the Taliban will need to address. Although large-scale investment projects will be agreed between governments and will involve Chinese state-owned companies, for Afghanistan to attract investment from smaller private Chinese companies, some consistent legal reforms will be required in accordance with Islamic law, but also, more importantly, with Chinese laws. Without the insurance that the Taliban will secure Chinese investment in Afghanistan, Beijing will be quite cautious about developing major projects in this country.
If China does not intervene directly in Afghan internal affairs to implement these changes, it is very likely that other countries that enjoy close relations with the Taliban, such as Pakistan or some Gulf states, which are all very supportive of the BRI, will pressure new authorities in Kabul to follow more pro-China policies. Continuing chaos in Afghanistan would jeopardize CPEC projects in Pakistan, something that Islamabad cannot afford.
The soft and hard elements of the BRI are two sides of the same coin. Whereas the Taliban’s regime can ease the construction of infrastructure by China in Afghanistan, it is still doubtful that the Taliban would manage to develop the “soft BRI” as it requires the transformation of the Taliban regime. However, in the end, if the BRI is properly implemented, China may succeed in normalizing Afghanistan where years of wars, occupation, and foreign intervention have failed.