China sent Afghanistan an $8 million relief package after a devastating earthquake struck the nation, showing China may be replacing the US in Afghanistan.
Sun Fei, a Chinese businessman, established a comfortable life in Afghanistan prior to the United States’ departure from the country in August by bringing in and selling electrical goods from Pakistan and its neighboring China, including teapots, space heaters, and solar panels.
But only a few weeks after the Taliban retook power, his sales began to dwindle. According to him, many of his wealthy clients left the country out of fear for the Islamic fundamentalist group’s rule, and the country’s ban on international money transfers made it difficult to send money home or pay suppliers.
The 36-year-old, one of a few Chinese businessmen based in Kandahar, the second-largest city in Afghanistan and the birthplace of the insurgent group, quickly discovered a new trade: serving as a middleman between local Taliban officials and Chinese investors interested in Afghanistan’s mineral resources. “I’ve become quite close to the Taliban, because they are everywhere. It is impossible to not know them.”
Sun, a native of the Heilongjiang region in northern China, has lived in Kandahar for almost three years and established a thriving trade for himself. On Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok, he posts little excerpts from his life in Afghanistan. He ate lamb with his hands while picking mulberries from trees while wearing a turban and black-rimmed spectacles. Additionally, he hosted tea parties with government leaders in government buildings and gave his 186,000 followers virtual tours of nearby mines.
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As a result of the improving relations between China and the Taliban government, more and more Chinese businessmen are following in his footsteps and making an attempt to strike it rich in Afghanistan.
China Town Kabul, a commercial organization that has operated in Afghanistan for almost two decades, estimates that 200 Chinese businessmen have come to the nation since the Taliban took control last August.
However, Sun’s portrayal of life on social media is not completely accurate. He has been hiding out at home due to a recent wave of deadly attacks, some of which the local affiliate of the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for. He compared his personal success with that of his peers, who run companies in the Netherlands and the United States. “They are safe every day and spend their money happily. I dare not even go out ,” Sun remarked.
The challenges China faces as the only major power in Afghanistan after the United States and its allies withdrew their troops last year, ending a 20-year occupation, are highlighted by the unstable security situation there.
When China hosted a meeting of the foreign ministers of Kabul’s neighbors in March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared that diplomatic recognition will come “when conditions are ripe.” He has urged the international community to end the sanctions, which have devastated Afghanistan’s economy and frozen billions of dollars in foreign exchange reserves, and promised that Afghanistan will “uphold justice” for its South Asian neighbor at the UN. Wang also proposed last month to expand the $62 billion infrastructure project known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The relationship goes both ways. The Taliban leadership is increasingly turning to Beijing for assistance as China expands its influence in the region. When a forest fire scorched its eastern Nuristan region in June, Afghanistan requested aid from the Chinese embassy. A few weeks later, a devastating earthquake struck Afghanistan, killing more than 1,000 people. China responded by sending a $8 million relief package and announcing long-term economic restoration plans during a joint press conference with the Taliban government.
When pine nut exports to China resumed in November, providing a fragile lifeline to that country’s faltering economy, Taliban leaders rejoiced. Li Jiaqi, a prominent Chinese livestreamer, sold 120,000 cans of the Afghan cash crop in just two hours, showing poor Afghan farmers what they could gain from having access to China’s 1.4 billion consumers.
However, experts argue that despite the media attention surrounding China’s engagement with the Taliban leadership, its policy toward Afghanistan has not altered since the current government came to power.
Conversely, Pantucci of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies noted that the Chinese state-owned enterprises, the major players who would truly be able to transform the nation and provide infrastructure, are moving forward with the same projects they had been discussing with the previous Afghan republic and running into the same challenges.
Mes Aynak is one such undertaking. The location, which is home to the second-largest copper deposit in the world, could provide the Taliban administration with up to $300 million in state income annually.
The Hamid Karzai administration and a Chinese state-owned corporation agreed to a $3 billion mining deal in 2007, but the project has been blocked for more than ten years because of intermittent attacks and the priceless artifacts in the 2,000-year-old Buddhist city.
In March, a Chinese delegation went to Kabul for talks, and in June, they went to the mine. However, nothing moves on the site, and there are still questions about when it will open. According to a Taliban official, the Chinese company has attempted to violate the provisions of the contract, including those requiring it to move the artifacts for preservation, construct a power plant to supply Kabul with electricity, and compensate the Afghans whose lands would be stolen.
So why is China being so cautious? Despite the fact that Chinese businesses are interested in Afghanistan’s enormous natural wealth, experts say Beijing’s main concern with Afghanistan isn’t financial gain.
“I think the first priority for China is just that it doesn’t turn into a kind of security threat or a terrorist hub,” Small, of the German Marshall Fund, said. “They don’t want a mess that spills over into the neighborhood. They want to keep risks contained. I don’t necessarily think they have a maximalist kind of agenda in Afghanistan.”
China has prioritized security at the top of its agenda from the start of its interactions with Taliban leaders. The Chinese government has consistently urged the new government to fight terrorism, especially the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uyghur militant organization that Beijing views as a danger and which aspires to liberate the Xinjiang province. Abdul Haq al Turkistani, the group’s head, is shown in a recently released video celebrating Eid in northern Afghanistan in May. “It’s a bit of a smack in the face,” Pantucci said.
Such occurrences strain China’s and Afghanistan’s developing relationship. Amir Khan Muttaqi, the acting foreign minister of the Afghan interim government, informed Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in a meeting late last month that the Taliban would never permit the use of their land for “anti-China activities.”
But according to a report (pdf below) from the UN Security Council, ETIM is still operating in the country’s northern provinces and has plans to launch terrorist strikes against Chinese interests there “when the time is right,” despite the Taliban’s efforts to keep it in check thus far.
China, like many other nations, has been keeping an eye on the situation to see what kind of government would emerge in Afghanistan, especially given the intra-insurgent faction fighting, and whether it could overcome enough obstacles to gain international legitimacy. The Afghan government is also dominated by hard-line forces, which Beijing finds more uneasy to deal with because they are motivated by ideology rather than pragmatism, as its reversal on girls’ education demonstrated.
China is also aware of how quickly events could change, which makes it doubtful that it will move through with larger investment soon. “The unpredictability is going to be absolutely endemic for anyone—official or private sector—who’s operating in Afghanistan,” Small said.
On the other hand, if China takes too long to fulfill its promises, the Taliban’s patience may potentially wear thin. “At what point does the government in Afghanistan just get irritated that the Chinese keep saying they’re going to do all this wonderful stuff and nothing comes?” stated Pantucci.
However, some people try not to let the uncertainty dampen their optimism, even though the Chinese government does not yet envision a long-term future in Afghanistan. Back in Kandahar, Sun demonstrated to his supporters the solar panels that covered his roof and provided reliable electricity despite the nation’s frequent blackouts.
“It’s hard to summarize my experience here,” Sun said. “But I am hoping to stay for the rest of my life.”
Read the report given below: