An overview of relations history
The starting point of the historical relations between the two countries dates back to the seventh century AD; when, according to some historical documents, Chinese Monk leader Swan Zheng visited the Bamiyan Valley and glorified two large Buddha statues; the same statues that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
The beginning of official and diplomatic relations between Beijing and Kabul dates back to 1955. From this time until the last decade of the Cold War, relations between the two countries in the fields of trade, culture, border cooperation, as well as the arrival of officials and political relations were largely “normal” until early 1980s when important international actors arrived in Afghanistan and China’s view of the country also became important.
Despite Afghanistan’s importance to China, relations between the two countries during the Cold War were defined by China’s relations with Russia, Pakistan and India. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and in the post-Cold War period, developments and civil war, influx of war refugees, presence and activation of Mojahedin groups, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, etc., became major concerns for China and changed the face of Afghanistan for it.
The US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 marked the beginning of a new era in China-Afghanistan relations. China recognized the transitional government in Afghanistan immediately after its formation and reopened its embassy in 2002. China’s policy at the time was “not to get involved” in political conflicts and not to accept military commitments in Afghanistan. Until 2005, China had strategic concerns about expanding Indian and Japanese influence and the continued US and NATO military presence in Afghanistan. China’s relations with Afghanistan during that period, until 2005, focused mainly on infrastructure projects, including the launch of digital communications networks, road construction, dams, hospital construction, irrigation systems, etc., as well as limited military intelligence cooperation.
Hamid Karzai’s visit to China in 2006 marked an important turning point in relations between the two countries, which to some extent boosted bilateral relations; after that trip, China was Afghanistan’s first trading partner until 2009. Afghanistan’s entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2012 also deepened relations between the two countries and increased China’s presence and influence in the country. Overall, Chinese diplomacy in Afghanistan has become much more “active” and dynamic since 2012, and this trend has continued so far in various fields, including customs, trade and commerce, cultural and student exchanges, the development of political and security cooperation, and so on.
China’s behavioral pattern in Afghanistan
Although China has been involved in Afghanistan’s internal developments in various ways over the past decades, it has never been willing to become a major player in the country. China’s pattern of behavior in Afghanistan has not been ideological, but essentially “geopolitical” with “pragmatism”. In this context, China has avoided any military conflicts and political tension in Afghanistan and has focused more on the “economic” and investment spheres. Although it supported the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, its critical stance on the US has grown and grown over time, with Beijing now blaming the US for the unrest and insecurity in Afghanistan.
Considering that China has always adhered to its traditional approach of “neutral” role in the face of Afghanistan’s internal developments; it also has no history of border or territorial disputes with Afghanistan and has always respected the national sovereignty of that country, has always been considered a popular country among the public opinion and all Afghan groups and currents.
Regarding the Taliban, although Beijing did not recognize the Taliban government that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, it reportedly had “informal” relations with it. Even now that the Taliban control much of Afghanistan, China continues to seek trade and economic ties with Afghanistan, given some security and political considerations.
China and current developments in Afghanistan
China’s approach to Afghanistan is a function of its macro-strategies and policies at the regional and international levels. At present, the “economy” is China’s most important “priority” in domestic and foreign policy. In this regard, China views the current developments in Afghanistan through the lens of the economy. China views Afghanistan as one of the 140 countries defined by the One Belt One Road Initiative. This is so important to China that it is willing to expand its ties with the Taliban. In this regard, Beijing plans to increase its influence in Afghanistan by strengthening the 62 billion dollars economic corridor connecting Peshawar and Kabul with the One Belt One Road Initiative.
Afghanistan has more than 3 trillion dollars in natural resources, including energy and mines. Chinese companies understand this very well and do not simply ignore it. As an example in recent years, including 2008 and 2011, China has signed 30-year monopoly agreements with Afghanistan in the field of mining and oil exploitation, but those agreements have not been implemented due to insecurity, instability and presence of the Americans.
The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan has given the Chinese the opportunity to revive and implement those agreements more quickly, as well as to conclude new contracts and investments in Afghanistan, and to use economic policies to fill the gap resulted by the US presence in Afghanistan.
Specifically, China’s concern about developments in Afghanistan can be summed up in two issues: first, Xinjiang’s influence on the country’s internal developments and the resulting turmoil and insecurity from Afghanistan to the Xinjiang region, and second, US smart security plans in the country after the military withdrawal. To address these major concerns, China has put on the agenda a “key strategy” based on the intellectual teachings of the Copenhagen School. In other words, China seeks to “weaken” the extremist influence on Xinjiang by using “economic policies” and “investment” in Afghanistan’s infrastructure to contribute to its “economic development” and prevent the US security presence in that country, which is harmful to China.
China’s strategy towards Afghanistan is “economy-oriented”; however, there are still security concerns about Afghanistan’s internal developments. China, meanwhile, sees the Taliban as a “political power” that cannot be ignored. Security is essential to China’s economic interests in Afghanistan; this is an issue that China is well aware of, so it has resorted to economic mechanisms to create security without the use of military force.