China’s Risky Bid for Regional Power

China has already pledged humani-tarian aid and expressed interest in investing in infrast-ructure projects.

Imagine a global chessboard, where states maneuver to secure power, John Mearsheimer states, and be­coming a regional “king” is crucial be­fore aiming for the global crown. China’s growing interest in Afghanistan, from accept­ing the Taliban envoy to in­frastructure deals, could be seen as strategic chess moves. While resources are a factor, the bigger play might be China positioning itself as the dominant force in Asia.

Afghanistan’s complex history and current instability pose significant challenges for its neighbors. The Tali­ban’s rule has raised serious concerns about human rights and the resur­gence of extremist groups. Interest­ingly, Xi’s administration became the first in the world to designate former Taliban spokesperson Bilal Karimi as an official ambassador to Beijing fol­lowing more than two years of talks. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Af­fairs made it clear that this acceptance of Taliban ambassador should not be taken as an indication of Beijing’s offi­cial approval of the country’s current administrators of Afghanistan, how­ever, the West isn’t comfortable with the idea of this diplomatic coziness between China and Afghanistan.

The 2021 US withdrawal from Af­ghanistan marked a seismic shift in the South Asian geopolitical land­scape, creating a vacuum of power and uncertainty. China, a rising glob­al power with long-standing interests in the region, has stepped forward to fill this void, engaging with the Tal­iban regime and pursuing its own geopolitical, economic, and strategic goals in Afghanistan. China’s primary geopolitical concern in Afghanistan is the potential for instability and the resurgence of militant groups like the Uyghur separatists of East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). A Taliban-led Afghanistan, if unable to main­tain control, could provide a breed­ing ground for such groups, posing a direct security threat to China’s western borders. Additionally, China seeks to counter US influence in the region and project itself as a respon­sible regional power capable of con­tributing to regional stability.

Engaging with the Taliban, albeit cautiously, allows China to exert some influence and shape the future of Af­ghanistan. Afghanistan holds vast min­eral resources, including lithium, cop­per, and rare earths, crucial for China’s technological development and infra­structure projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While previous mining ventures in Afghanistan have faced challenges, the Taliban’s willing­ness to cooperate with China presents an opportunity for economic engage­ment. China has already pledged hu­manitarian aid and expressed interest in investing in infrastructure projects, potentially offering much-needed eco­nomic relief to the war-torn nation. A contract for the extraction of oil from the Amu Darya basin was inked in January last year by the administra­tion led by the Taliban and Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co (CAPEIC) in China. The deal has a 25-year validity period, and CAPEIC will invest $540 million over the course of three years. Since July 2022, China has boosted the import of Afghan pine nuts and awarded zero-tariff treat­ment to 98% of Afghan commodities. Afghanistan’s economy is intended to be more closely integrated with China through the removal of trade restric­tions for Afghan goods.

The fact that China, Pakistan, and Af­ghanistan are holding successful tri­lateral meetings every year may give the idea that Kabul would be an easy place to join the Belt and Road Initia­tive. However, there are still insur­mountable obstacles because the dan­ger to Chinese nationals conducting business in Afghanistan keeps getting worse. More Chinese security forc­es will be stationed at the Khunjer­ab Pass in the Pamir Knot as a result of Beijing’s attempt to link the CPEC with Afghanistan, advancing China’s geopolitical objectives in Central Asia. China’s strategic interests in Afghani­stan are intertwined with its broader ambitions in Central Asia. A stable Af­ghanistan would facilitate trade and investment across the region, further­ing BRI’s reach and enhancing China’s economic and political influence.

Additionally, Afghanistan shares bor­ders with Pakistan, a key strategic part­ner for China, and with Iran, another significant player in the region. Engag­ing with Afghanistan strengthens Chi­na’s regional partnerships and bolsters its strategic position in South Asia. Pakistan has historically maintained close ties with the Taliban and shares a vigorous relationship with both Chi­na and the US. Pakistan views China as a crucial economic and strategic part­ner and may benefit from increased Chinese investment in Afghanistan. China’s growing presence in Afghani­stan is viewed with apprehension by India, which shares a long-standing border dispute with China and has his­torically supported anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan. India’s concerns stem from the potential for a China-aligned Afghanistan to pose a security threat, provide support to Pakistan, and lim­it India’s regional influence. The US may view China’s engagement as an attempt to fill the power vacuum and expand its influence, potentially lead­ing to competition and rivalry in the region. China’s success as a region­al hegemon will depend on its ability to navigate these competing interests and intricate partnerships. While Af­ghanistan’s resources are undoubted­ly attractive, extracting them requires a stable environment and addressing security concerns. China’s economic clout might offer a solution, but it’s not a guaranteed path to control.

Navigating these issues while gain­ing meaningful influence will be a delicate task for China. Furthermore, other players like the US, Russia, and India have their own interests in Af­ghanistan, creating a potential geo­political quagmire. Therefore, navi­gating this complex game won’t be easy for China. Can China checkmate its way to regional dominance? Only time will tell, but Afghanistan has be­come a pivotal piece on the board!

Dr. Gul.i.Ayesha Bhatti 

The writer is a current affairs analyst. She can be reached at guleayeshabhatti@gmail.com

The writer is a current affairs analyst. She can be reached at guleayesha
bhatti@
gmail.com

ePaper - Nawaiwaqt