Appointment of Ambassador Signals China’s Ambition in Afghanistan, Experts Say

Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi attended talks Friday in the Russian city of Kazan, where he praised China for sending a new ambassador to Afghanistan and urged other countries to follow China’s example.

The newly appointed Chinese ambassador to Kabul signals China’s continued interest in Afghanistan, analysts say.

The Taliban’s deputy prime minister, Abdul Salam Hanafi, said the new development “will play an effective role in strengthening the relations between Afghanistan and China.”

During a meeting in Kabul last week, Hanafi and Chinese Ambassador Zhao Xing “exchanged views on enhancing bilateral relations and expanding practical cooperation,” stated the website of the Chinese Embassy in Afghanistan.

China’s ambassador is the first of any country to be appointed in this role since the Taliban takeover in 2021.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the appointment was “the normal rotation of China’s ambassador to Afghanistan” and Chinese policy is “clear and consistent.”

However, experts say the move signals China’s expanding influence in Afghanistan and the region.

By sending an ambassador to Afghanistan, China aims to “maintain and expand its influence” in the region, said Claire Chao, an analyst at The Asia Group. “China sees its long-term security and economic goals in Afghanistan hinge on security and stability in Afghanistan.”

Chao told VOA that China “knows that it needs to take a more active role to secure its interests,” though Beijing “will be careful about its economic involvement and security commitment in Afghanistan.”

China is one of the few countries that handed over the Afghan Embassy on its soil to the Taliban after the former government in Afghanistan collapsed in 2021.

China also kept open its embassy in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, but it has not yet recognized the group’s de facto government. No country has formally recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

China-Taliban relations

Officially, Beijing says it “hopes” that the Taliban will form an inclusive government, while it has called on the international community and regional countries for “coordination on the Afghan issue.”

A Chinese ambassador in Afghanistan “should not be seen as an immediate formal recognition of the Taliban government by China but rather indicates China’s intent to sustain diplomatic ties with the Taliban,” Chao said.

Considering it “a step towards recognition,” Afghan political analyst Haidar Adal, told VOA that the appointment at the ambassadorial level will not only help China expand its influence but also “boost” the Taliban’s position.

“It increases their [the Taliban’s] self-confidence, and they can now claim that ‘our relations have developed up to the level of ambassadors.’ They can say that their diplomacy is working.”

Human rights concerns

Adal added this “will make it more difficult for the international community to put pressure on the Taliban to respect the human rights, particularly women’s rights, in Afghanistan.”

“And those who suffer would be the people of Afghanistan, particularly,” he said.

The international community has called on the Taliban to honor their commitment to respecting women’s fundamental rights in Afghanistan before any talks about the recognition of their regime in Afghanistan.

Since coming to power in August 2021, the Taliban have imposed repressive measures on the women in the country. Women under the Taliban are not allowed to work, get secondary and university education or travel long distances without a close male relative.

Palwasha Hassan, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security, told VOA that China’s move is concerning, but “does not surprise” her as “China’s priorities are not the human rights condition but security and economic considerations.”

“For China, security is more important. It wants the Taliban to curb militants who could cause problems in China,” said Hassan. “The economy is important too for China. These are the important issues, not human rights.”¬†

China is concerned about the presence in China of Uyghur separatists “who are trying to fight for the independence of Xinjiang in China,” said Barnett Rubin, a former State Department official.

He added that Beijing engaged with the Taliban to “pressure them to hand [Uyghur militants] over to China,” but the Taliban “have moved them away from the Chinese border.”

Rubin told VOA that the Taliban have also kept their ties with other extremist organizations, including Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which is accused of several deadly attacks on Chinese interests in Pakistan.

The Taliban, however, have said they will not allow any militant groups to use Afghanistan’s soil against any country.

Chinese investments

Although China prioritizes security, it agreed in May to expand the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan, a $60 billion connectivity project that is part of China’s globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative.

Some Chinese companies have recently shown interest in investing in Afghanistan.

In July, officials of Fan China Afghan Mining Processing and Trading Company announced an investment of $350 million in various sectors.

Earlier in January, the Taliban signed a contract with Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Company to extract oil in the north of the country by investing $150 million annually.

A Chinese company, Metallurgical Corporation of China, which signed a contract with the then-Afghan government in 2008 to extract copper from the Mes Aynak mine in the Logar province, has met with Taliban officials in recent months on how to start the extraction of the mine.

But the work has not yet started.

Rubin said although the Taliban hope China will invest in larger projects, the conditions “for a huge investment simply do not exist in Afghanistan.”

“The expectation that they [China] would come in with big projects and do a lot, I think was much exaggerated,” Rubin said.

This story originated in VOA’s Afghan Service.

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