Taliban security forces arrive as Afghan women march during a demonstration after a suicide bomb attack at the Dasht-e-Barchi learning centre in Kabul on October 1. Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan’s future remains uncertain. Photo: AFP
Yun Sun
Yun Sun

Why China hesitates to invest in Afghanistan or recognise the Taliban

  • China has embarked upon a policy of regional and multilateral engagement with the Afghan Taliban government
  • But as long as Uygur militants shelter in Afghanistan and the country’s future remains unstable, Beijing will remain cautious
More than a year has passed since the Taliban took over Kabul. No country has formally recognised the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as the government, including China. And Afghanistan’s relationship with its neighbours, such as Tajikistan and Pakistan, remains problematic.
Despite domestic enthusiasm and foreign speculation a year ago about Afghanistan’s strategic utility and commercial value for China, Beijing has remained extremely cautious in its engagement. Diplomatic recognition and major economic investment are unlikely to transpire soon. The issue of Uygur militants and the uncertainty of Afghanistan’s future remain the biggest hurdles.
When the Taliban took over Kabul in August last year, China’s top concern was the potential outflow of Afghan refugees and militants. Although they were unlikely to make their way to China directly, given the difficult terrain of the Wakhan Corridor, the fear was that they would flee to Tajikistan first and transit to China.
To prepare itself, China increased its security help to and cooperation with Tajikistan, including presumably at the joint military facility China reportedly maintains in Gorno-Badakhshan, which borders Xinjiang.
But terrorist threats through Tajikistan did not really transpire. Instead, it is in Pakistan that China has witnessed growing attacks against its nationals. Last month, a Chinese man was gunned down at a dental clinic in Karachi; last April, a suicide bombing killed three Chinese teachers at the Karachi Confucius Institute.


1 Chinese national killed, 2 injured in targeted shootings at Pakistan clinic

1 Chinese national killed, 2 injured in targeted shootings at Pakistan clinic

Despite the rising security threat in Pakistan, China’s security grievance with Afghanistan is far from resolved. The focal point remains the Uygur militants in Afghanistan.

Last year, a Taliban spokesman repeatedly promised not to allow any group or individual to use Afghan territory to launch attacks against any country, including China. This follows the commitment formalised in the 2020 Doha peace deal signed with the US, in which the Taliban “guarantees to prevent the use of Afghan soil by any international terrorist groups or individuals against the security of the United States and its allies”.
But nothing in the Doha agreement prohibits the Taliban from allowing militants to shelter in the country. This is why there are still Uygur militants in Afghanistan, although the Taliban removed them from provinces bordering China and relocated them to inner Afghanistan.
Technically, the Taliban has not violated its commitments, but this does not address Chinese concerns over the ticking bomb of Uygur militants in Afghanistan. As long as the Taliban is not committed to the eradication of Uygur militants – at best, a remote possibility – China is unlikely to extend diplomatic recognition.

Why Afghanistan’s terrorism problem is bad for China – and Pakistan too

In the past, China sought to exert influence over the Taliban through Pakistan. This is a key reason the Taliban victory last year was seen as a boost for China’s regional influence. But since then, both Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban and China’s relationship with Pakistan have been under increasing stress.

The Afghan Taliban has been supporting the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan – also known as the Pakistani Taliban – which is both a grave security threat for Pakistan and a major sore spot between the two.

On the China-Pakistan front, the slow progress of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Pakistan’s growing status as a financial burden and a locale of anti-China terrorist attacks, and Islamabad’s loss of strategic manoeuvrability between the US and China are all resonating disharmony between the two. China’s ability to influence the Afghan Taliban’s decision-making is minimal.
In Afghanistan, Chinese economic incentives were said to be key potential leverage. After all, the Taliban had been sending China welcoming signals for investment and trade even before it took over. But, despite early cheer over the potential resumption of the Aynak copper mine and Amu Darya oil project – two long-stagnant Chinese projects – concrete progress remains lacking.
The hesitation is primarily from the Chinese side. The Uygur issue is an obvious thorn. Without Beijing’s green light, none of the many Chinese companies and businessmen who have visited Afghanistan in the past year will launch any project.

The other factor in China’s slow motion on the economic front lies in the uncertainty of the future of the Afghan government and nation.

Without signs of domestic stability, effective governance and policymaking, as well as international recognition, any Chinese economic endeavour will face challenges, including security threats, reputational damage and potential economic loss. As seen with the CPEC, economic investment, no matter how innocuous and benevolent Beijing intends it to be, does not always lead to positive political and economic outcomes.


Taliban thanks China for earthquake relief in rare joint press conference

Taliban thanks China for earthquake relief in rare joint press conference

China’s caution has frustrated the Afghan Taliban. Most recently, Khan Jan Alokozay, vice-president of Afghanistan’s Chamber of Commerce and Investment, complained that “there has not even been a penny of investment by China”. The mismatch of expectations and conditions will continue until either or both sides see the need to adjust their policy.

China has set its policy course. It has adopted a regional and multilateral, rather than unilateral, approach to the post-conflict engagement with Afghanistan. The membership of China’s primary mechanism – the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting Among the Neighbouring Countries of Afghanistan – is self-explanatory.

In the most recent meeting in Tunxi, in Anhui province, at the end of March, China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan committed to humanitarian aid and development for Afghanistan through the Tunxi Initiative. Some would argue the initiative is moderate and insufficient for Afghanistan’s needs. But, given the political obstacles and practical constraints, bilateral economic contributions from China and its political recognition are unlikely to transpire soon.

Yun Sun is a senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Programme and director of the China Programme at the Stimson Center