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What the Taliban's takeover in Afghanistan means for China's future approach towards Central Asia

Updated: Dec 12, 2021

Afghanistan countryside © Vladimir Lysenko / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

The Taliban's seizure over Afghanistan will dramatically change the power dynamics in Central Asia. China needs good relations with all its western neighbors to ensure its geopolitical opening to Eurasia. With that said, it is still an open question how it will secure its economic and political interests in the region with a fundamentalist government in Kabul.

China's growing presence in Central Asia

China is on its way to become the most important player in Central Asia. Chinese diplomats have been working for years to improve their relations with Central Asian states and their efforts have been so successful that many claim that China has replaced Russia as the leading power in the area, at least from an economic perspective (Asiryan and He, 2020). After the fall of the Soviet Union, China has built an effective presence in the region through investments and security cooperations. Social and political stability in Central Asia became a core interest for Beijing, especially because of its sometimes worrisome Chinese Western region of Xinjiang. Resources like hydrocarbons, and possible investments in agriculture and mining further increase Chinese interests in the region (Thornton, 2020). The elephant in the room in Central Asia is of course the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which needs a secure and stable environment to develop (Xie and Bai, 2021).

What's now shaking up the region is that in August 2021, the islamic-fundamentalist Taliban took over Afghanistan in shocking speed, changing the power dynamics at China's border and in all of Central Asia (Mellen, 2021). The country, which serves as a bridge between the Middle East and the rest of Asia, shifted from US-led instability to a shadowy future under the Taliban. While the Taliban takeover was perceived as a strategic victory in Pakistan, reactions in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were much more cautious (Kugelmann, 2021). For China, which intensified its engagement with the Taliban long before the US withdrew, relations with the newly founded caliphate are a mixed blessing.

Warming China-Taliban Relations

What is good for Beijing is that the Taliban have repeatedly expressed trust and hope in China, expecting it to participate in Afghanistan's reconstruction and economic recovery. Vice versa, voices from Beijing were also showing gestures of goodwill. In early September, China promised aid to Afghanistan (BBC, 2021) and in late October Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with a delegation of the interim Taliban government, promising the Afghan people to help them overcome their economic difficulties (MFA of PRC, 2021). Still those plans remain announcements and nothing really got on the ground since then. Another pillar stabilizing the Taliban-Chinese relation is the US as a common enemy. Even though the reasons for the antipathy towards Washington are different, it gives both uneven actors a uniting moment. What's also decisive is the Taliban's struggle for international recog