Agencies China has realised it is extremely difficult for an outside power to grow roots in Afghanistan Saibal Dasgupta Author of Running with the Dragon: How India Should Do Business with China

The Taliban in Afghanistan has described China as its ‘most important partner’, saying Beijing is ready to invest and rebuild the country. Is China equally enthusiastic about doing so?

China had a taste of power in Afghanistan in the 7th century, long before the Soviet Union and the US, never mind Britain and Russia in the 19th century, tried to control it. The region came under the Tang dynasty after it conquered the Western Turks in 659 AD and made the Turk shahis of Tokharistan its vassals. China lost control over the region within 100 years. But there is an element of historical continuity, as Xi Jinping has been trying to revive the ‘Silk Road’ under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Having sufficient influence over Afghanistan is crucial for BRI, as it links with Pakistan to the east and south, Iran to the west, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to the north, and Tajikistan and China to the northeast. Connectivity to a vast area of Asia has always been part of Chinese global ambitions.

In fact, the Chinese military began construction of a road that would connect its territory to Afghanistan in 2009 — four years before Xi became president — and went on to launch the BRI. This short stretch of road passes through the Taghdumbash Pamir to the Karakoram Highway, which, in turn, connects to Pakistan. This is besides the Wakhjir Pass, located at an altitude of nearly 4,923 m in the Hindu Kush, which has been part of the Silk Route for over a millennium. Chinese scholar Xuanzang supposedly travelled through this pass while returning from India in c. 649 AD.

China wants to take economic and political advantage of its short 92-km boundary with Afghanistan, which is at a tripoint with Tajkistan and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK). Beijing’s goal is to link its investments in Afghanistan to the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which will serve its military purpose as well as give it a positive image in the Muslim world.

But China has realised it is extremely difficult for an outside power to grow roots in Afghanistan and command influence for long. Which is why it is trying to cobble together an alliance with the Muslim world for the purpose of guiding and assisting the new Taliban government in Kabul.

It has joined hands with Afghanistan’s two important neighbours, Pakistan and Iran, and also with Qatar and Turkey, which continues to play a crucial role in connecting the Taliban with the world. Another partner is Russia, which commands some influence with its two neighbours and former Soviet bloc countries, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Incidentally, Turkey has a key role to play as the only Islamic member of Nato.

At the heart of these alliance-forming efforts is the fear that western countries will put up roadblocks in the path of the Taliban, even supporting anti-Taliban forces. This explains China’s advocacy for international approval of the Taliban and aid for the country. Contrast this with the action of the US Treasury Department, which froze billions of Afghan government dollars, currently held by the US Federal Reserve. This move will put China in a difficult position, besides hitting the Afghan economy at the worst of times.

In the coming days, Beijing will face intense pressure for aid from Kabul, which currently it is reluctant to provide. The Chinese believe in investing in specific long-term projects in economies that are not useful as markets for its products. Its spending in welfare programmes is small and focused only in areas where China has ongoing projects and needs to build goodwill in the local population.

Pakistan and Russia, under severe economic stress themselves, are in no position to help Kabul. This leaves Iran, Turkey and Qatar, which will play a key role in aid. But this may be connected with their political goals that include popularising their own genre of Islamic practice.

A serious competition for influence-building is expected to emerge among these countries. Pakistan, despite its latest fly-by-night efforts, may find itself in a difficult position to retain influence over the new Taliban government, which expects it to play the role of a messenger for China.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of .) Read More News on taliban afghanistan belt and road initiative xi jinping taliban government ETPrime stories of the day

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