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China’s rumored aims to dive into Afghanistan are exaggerated: experts

View of a gold mine in Nor Aaba, Takhar province, Afghanistan.

Omar Sobhani | Reuters

One of the first things many Western pundits predicted as the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan unraveled was the replacement in that power vacuum by China, long a critic of and strategic adversary to the United States. 

Afghanistan has trillions of dollars worth of untapped mineral resources, and is in dire need of infrastructure investment, making it in theory a prime ground for China’s expansive Belt and Road Initiative. What’s more, China is one of the few countries and the only economic superpower to have so far established friendly relations with the Taliban, who shocked the world in early August by overtaking Afghanistan in a matter of days. 

In what many see as a symbolic taunt to the West, Chinese state officials have chastised Washington and its 20-year war, and cautiously welcomed the Taliban’s announcement of its new government of hardliners and FBI-wanted terrorists this week.  

Taliban take control of Hamid Karzai International Airport after the completion of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 31, 2021.

Wali Sabawoon | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

“This has ended the more than three weeks of anarchy in Afghanistan and is a necessary step for Afghanistan’s restoration of domestic order and postwar reconstruction,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, told reporters at a briefing on Wednesday, according to a transcript published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. 

But beyond the statements, many regional experts are not convinced of China’s enthusiasm for barreling into the war-torn Central Asian state on its western border.  

China is ‘very aware’ of security risks 

And while China has made clear its approval of the Taliban, that doesn’t mean it’s ready to commit to doing business with them.  

“We don’t have evidence China will see the Taliban as a more secure partner,” Maximilian Hess, a Central Asia fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program, told CNBC.  

“It is very aware of the security risks, and attacks on Chinese infrastructure in Pakistan by Islamist groups have increased in recent years” including one as recently as August, Hess said. China risks angering local Afghans with its presence, and Beijing “recognizes Afghanistan’s tribal reality and that the Taliban has many sub-factions that it lets operate with quasi-autonomy in many areas,” he added. 

So even if the Taliban — who have embraced China’s diplomatic overtures and celebrate the prospect of its investment — give Chinese investors a guarantee of security, the group does not necessarily have control over other militants and tribes across the country of nearly 40 million people. 

What Beijing doesn’t voice publicly, analysts say, is its concern about the impact of the U.S. withdrawal, much like Russia.  

As journalist Sreemoy Talukdar wrote in Indian news outlet Firstpost this week, China “may have been gloating at U.S. discomfiture during the bungling exit … but had so far been quite content with America’s role as the security guarantor next door in a region that is a veritable witches’ brew of terrorism and ethnic insurgency.”

The Chinese foreign ministry did not reply to a CNBC request for comment.

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China’s rumored aims to dive into Afghanistan are exaggerated: experts

2021-09-12 02:29:12

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