In the days following the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, China has made public advances to bolster its relationship with the Taliban in an apparent effort to expand its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
“They’re gloating. This undoubtedly furthers Beijing’s narrative of the U.S. inevitable decline, which really started to be integral to China’s global strategic communications following the financial crisis in 2008,” Heino Klinck, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia under the Trump administration, told Fox News.
Klinck said the perceived “economic weakness in 2008” played into China’s strategy to persuade underdeveloped nations that the U.S. democratic capitalist system is failing.
“The debacle that we’ve seen recently in Afghanistan only furthers this long-standing Beijing narrative that we’re in decline,” Klinck added.
Experts have questioned the authenticity of China’s intent to financially invest in the Taliban-controlled nation and suggest it is more likely an attempt to buoy the perception of the People’s Republic of China (PRC.)
“The immediate goal is to try to persuade people… that western-style republicanism – which was supported by the United States – is a failure,” Eric Brown, a senior fellow specializing in Asian and Middle East affairs at the Hudson Institute, told Fox News. “And that the PRC’s policy of Belt and Road Initiative, and the new international order that it wants to create, is superior to what the United States tried to create after 20 years in Afghanistan.”
“I think that their immediate goal is a political victory to shape perceptions in Asia that the United States is very much in withdrawal,” he added.
Just two days after two U.S. officially withdrew from Afghanistan, the Chinese foreign ministry released a statement alleging that the Taliban referred to its communist neighbor as a “trustworthy friend” and agreed to permit the continued expansion of the BRI.
“I think Xi wants to embarrass the United States,” Brown said referencing Chinese President Xi Jinping, who launched the BRI program in 2013.
But some have suggested the optics for Chinese involvement in Afghanistan do not add up, indicating China may not have a genuine interest in immediately expanding its multitrillion–dollar plan in the Taliban-controlled state.
“I think what you’re seeing is China wanting to seem like a positive partner, but I think it’s unlikely that you’re going to see really large investments by China into Afghanistan,” said Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) specializing in U.S. strategy in Asia.
The Taliban have championed the recently announced partnership as its “ticket” to modernize Afghanistan’s infrastructure.
Earlier this month, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the group – still designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. – “care a lot about the Belt and Road project.”
“We own rich copper mines, which, thanks to the Chinese, will be modernized,” the spokesperson said during an interview. “Finally, China represents our ticket to the markets around the world.”
Afghanistan is estimated to have roughly $1 trillion in mineral resources that have yet to be tapped, which Klink argued China could utilize for the production of “electric cars, cellphones and other high-tech consumer goods.”
“It also allows the Chinese, frankly, to diversify and secure its own supply chain,” he added.
But it remains unclear what China’s actual plans for Afghanistan are.
“Pakistan for me is a good example here of what to look at,” Cooper, who served at the Department of Defense and as an assistant on the White House National Security Council during the Bush administration, said. “What China has been most interested in is road/rail networks from the Indian Ocean through Pakistan into China. Afghanistan is just not perfectly located for some of those road and rail networks.”
Cooper argued that while there are some opportunities for China in Afghanistan, China’s resources have become more limited due to other financial commitments it has made relating to BRI projects.
Afghanistan also lacks the required infrastructure needed to extract resources on a substantial scale.
The experts argued that China’s interest in Afghanistan likely lays outside of its typical investment in foreign nations.
Klinck said China is likely looking to see if Beijing can “shape a Taliban-led Afghanistan into policies of positions that favor Chinese interests.”
“What I do believe will happen is that the Chinese government will seek a first-mover advantage by being one of the first governments… to give the Taliban-led government diplomatic status and diplomatic recognition,” he said. “And frankly, this will be a significant boon for the internationally isolated Taliban.”
Klinck also said he thinks in a “quid pro quo” move, China will try and leverage loans for the Taliban by using “its leadership of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank” – a move he thinks will happen before any Chinese companies or state-owned enterprises move into Afghanistan.
There are also major security concerns that remain in Afghanistan.
Chinese engineers in Pakistan, a nation classified as a Level Three under the State Department advisory system, have increasingly fallen victim to terrorist attacks.
In July, nine Chinese nationals were killed in northern Pakistan when a bus carrying workers to a dam construction site were attacked by a suicide bomber. The Pakistan government blamed Pakistani Taliban militants known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.
Afghanistan is listed as a Level Four and the State Department has explicitly advised against any travel to the collapsed state.
“My sense is that actually a lot of Chinese experts are pretty nervous about being in Afghanistan,” Cooper said. “There are some real vulnerabilities for China.”
The experts agree that one of China’s biggest motivations in making nice with the Taliban is down to geography.
Afghanistan shares a border with China’s Xinjiang province – once home to the Uyghur Islamic extremist organization East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and a frequent justification by China for mass human rights abuses against the Uyghurs.
Klinck argued that “China’s metrics for ROI, return-on-investment, is not necessarily measured in financial terms.
“In fact, that’s probably the least important aspect of any quote-unquote ‘investment’ under the auspices of BRI,” he added.