Taliban fighters patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 19, 2021.

Taliban fighters patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 19, 2021. AP / Rahmat Gul

China’s Top Priority In Afghanistan Is Stability, Experts Say

Three miles away from the Kabul airport chaos, it’s business as usual at the Chinese embassy.

The scene at the Kabul airport continues to be chaotic more than a week after the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s capital, with throngs of people so desperate to escape the country that some are passing babies over barriers to help get them out.

But just three miles away, it’s business as usual at the Chinese embassy. 

China is one of only a handful of countries that have kept their embassies in Kabul open amid the Taliban takeover. Beijing’s interest in Afghanistan, at least in the short term, is more focused on preventing instability that could spill over the border into China, rather than capitalizing on American chaos or stepping in where the U.S. is stepping out, experts say.

“The main concern is that whatever problems there are in Afghanistan stay in Afghanistan,” said Andrew Small, a senior transatlantic fellow in the German Marshall Fund’s Asia program. “They want the Taliban to establish a government that at least jumps through enough hoops that it can reach diplomatic legitimacy….They don’t want a pariah state on its border again.” 

The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan was expected to help the Pentagon shift its attention to great power competition and the threat of China. This strategic point should not be lost amid images of the frenzied evacuation and efforts to affix blame, said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine and CEO of the Punaro Group.

“While we’ve been bogged down in Afghanistan, China has been on the march militarily, economically and technologically,” Punaro said. “Are we taking advantage of this inflection point as we put Iraq and Afghanistan in the rearview mirror and actually focusing on China?”

China shares a 46-mile border with Afghanistan, and Beijing has worked with the Taliban in some way since at least 1999, when the terrorist group last governed the country, Small said. The two groups have maintained a “working relationship” both before and after 2001, despite tension over Taliban-sponsored attacks against Chinese citizens in 2007 and 2011. The relationship has benefited from China’s ties to Pakistan, a key Taliban supporter, but Beijing has been engaging with the group directly without Islamabad’s help since 2014.

Chinese officials have met with Taliban officials to discuss the Afghan peace process multiple times in the past, in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2019. Most recently, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held a meeting with nine members of the Taliban last month where he reiterated that Beijing won’t intervene in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs. 

Long-term, China will likely seek to profit off of Afghanistan’s nearly $1 trillion worth of minerals, including rare Earth minerals used in most electronics. But it needs to make sure the country remains stable enough to do so. 

“Beijing would almost certainly like to gain access to minerals in Afghanistan, but the prerequisite is a high degree of stability,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund. “China's past economic investments in Afghanistan have faltered due in part to the lack of security in the country.”

But there is “virtually zero chance” that China would ever intervene militarily in Afghanistan to impose that needed stability, Small said. 

“There’s a sense that Afghanistan is a trap and that this is not a vacuum that China thinks it should be filling,” he said. “They’ve seen this as a potentially critical mistake that has been made to weaken or drag down anyone that’s attempted to do it.”