July 14, 2023 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 501

Bolstered By Afghan Taliban Government's Proactive Support, Chinese Companies Are Digging Deeper In Afghanistan

July 14, 2023 | By Tufail Ahmad*
Afghanistan, China | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 501

Under the Afghan Taliban, China's economic diplomacy has been making rapid progress in Afghanistan. On July 5, 2023, Beijing opened a new land route for trade with Afghanistan, signaling a deepening of economic ties with the Taliban-ruled country. A train loaded with commercial goods worth $1.5 million departed from Lanzhou, the capital of China's northwest province of Gansu, on July 5 and headed for Hairatan in Afghanistan, marking the launch of a new cargo route.

Lanzhou is a major trade hub from which Chinese trains transport commercial goods to 20 countries. One route brings goods by train from Lanzhou to Kashgar, in China's Xinjiang province, then from there to Kyrgyzstan by truck, and from there once again by train through Uzbekistan to the border town of Hairatan in Afghanistan.[1]

A land route not in regular use had previously existed between Kashgar and Hairatan. In September 2022, a train of Chinese goods from Kashgar arrived in Hairatan via Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.[2] Qudratullah Abu Hamza, the governor of Balkh province, who received the goods train in Hairatan, stated: "It is a milestone and a positive step toward boosting trade and economic relations between Afghanistan and the neighboring countries."[3] Earlier in 2019, an Uzbek-owned train left Hairatan for China. So, the new cargo route is an extension, connecting Kashgar to Lanzhou, one of the many trade hubs in China, by train.

A freight train heading for Afghanistan's Hairatan pulls out of the Dongchuan logistics center in Lanzhou, northwest China's Gansu province, on July 5, 2023 (image: Xinhua)

The bilateral relationship between the two countries made strides with direct flights between Afghanistan and China resuming on May 24, 2023, when an Ariana Airlines plane left Kabul and landed in Urumqi, the capital of China's Xinjiang province. The flights had been suspended for security reasons amid the chaos of August 2021.

China is perhaps the only country that has kept its embassy open in Kabul through the chaotic collapse of the Republican government and the Taliban forces' swift takeover of Afghanistan in August-September 2021. Since the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA, i.e., the Afghan Taliban) seized power, Chinese firms have been digging deep to benefit from Afghanistan's natural resources and market for cheap goods.

Chinese Companies Sign Contracts Worth $2 Billion

Chinese companies are investing in a range of sectors of the Afghan economy. Akhundazada Abdul Salam Jawad, a spokesman for the Afghan Taliban's Ministry of Industry and Commerce, disclosed in May 2023 that contracts worth billions of dollars had been signed by the Chinese firms involving the extraction of mines, services at airports, formation of industrial parks, and the modernization of customs offices, among other things.[4]

In July 2023, the Chinese pharmaceutical firm TNA was in talks with the Taliban government to invest $10 million in the production of medicines in Afghanistan.[5] On July 8, the Taliban government said that the Fan China Afghan Mining Processing and Trading Company will invest $350 million in various sectors, including power generation, the construction of a cement factory, and health in Afghanistan.[6] While the pre-Taliban Afghanistan did have business dealings with China, the Chinese firms are now in a rapid mode, picking up large chunks of contracts.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi welcomes Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin

China is driven by sheer realpolitik and its national interests centered around its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) network. In early June, representatives of 40 Chinese manufacturing firms visited Afghanistan to assess the market. According to a media report, China's investment in Afghanistan stood at $2 billion since the Taliban captured power, with the Chinese firms winning major contracts.[7] Since August 2021, businessmen from more than 120 large Chinese companies have met with the Taliban officials to discuss investment projects. Yu Minghui, a prominent Kabul-based Chinese entrepreneur, observed: "Currently, the investment and economic activities are more favorable in Afghanistan than ever before."[8]

On January 5, 2023, the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan also signed a 25-year contract with a Chinese firm to extract oil from the Amu Darya basin. The agreement was signed by Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co., a subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corporation, in the presence of Afghan Taliban's Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar Akhund and China's ambassador to Kabul Wang Yu. The Chinese firm will invest $150 million in the first year and $540 million over subsequence three years to explore five oil and gas blocks located in a 4,500-square kilometer area in northern Afghanistan.[9]

Afghanistan sits on oil and gas reserves worth $1 trillion. In May 2023, Homyaoon Afghan, the spokesman of the Afghan Taliban's Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, said China has expressed interest in investing more in the gas and oil sectors of Afghanistan.[10] According to a media report, in 2008 the Metallurgical Corp of China Ltd had won a $3 billion contract to mine copper deposits in Logar province, which had not progressed. But now the Taliban rulers are renegotiating the deal.[11]

Over the past decade and more, China's economic presence in Pakistan-Afghanistan region, driven by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), has deepened. Consequently, Afghanistan and Pakistan are receiving Chinese goods from two directions: Chinese goods coming via Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to Afghanistan are transported through Torkham border to Pakistan; and Chinese goods landing at the port city of Karachi are transported through Pakistan to the Torkham border crossing into Afghanistan.

In June 2023, Mufti Esmatullah, the commissioner of the border town of Torkham, estimated that each day 400-450 containers are cleared at the Torkham border crossing headed toward Pakistan and almost the same number cross into Afghanistan from Pakistan.[12] "The majority of them are goods from China," Mufti Esmatullah added.[13]

China's Strategic Influence In Afghanistan-Pakistan Region

Afghan Taliban and China built strong relationships even before the former took control of power in Afghanistan. On July 28, 2021 – when the Taliban were not yet in power – China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Afghan Taliban's co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was heading a nine-member Taliban delegation, for a meeting in Tianjin, a Chinese port city around 100 kilometers from Beijing. At the meeting, the Chinese foreign minister described the Taliban as "a pivotal military and political force" in Afghanistan.[14]

Before, during and after the U.S.-Taliban negotiations in Qatar, the Taliban delegations made trips as part of their political outreach to Russia, Iran, China, Indonesia, and several other countries. They undertook similar visits to China, including in late 2014,[15] July 2016,[16] September 2019,[17] and July 2021.[18] It has been argued that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has "a decades-long relationship with Afghanistan and has had relations with the Taliban since the 1990s."[19]

At the bilateral meetings, the only Chinese concern seems to be a likely threat from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an Afghanistan-based jihadi group comprising of mainly Uyghur Muslims from Xinjiang (East Turkestan) province of China. After coming to power in August 2021, Afghan Taliban rulers reassigned shelters to several jihadi groups such as Al-Qaeda, which is of concern to the West, and the ETIM, which China views as a threat.

This point was noted by the May 26, 2022 experts' report submitted to the UN Security Council, titled "Thirteenth Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team Submitted Pursuant to Resolution 2611 (2021) Concerning the Taliban and Other Associated Individuals and Entities Constituting a Threat to the Peace Stability and Security of Afghanistan." The UN Security Council Report said that ETIM has an active support base in Afghanistan, adding: "Some members of ETIM were relocated from Badakhshan to provinces further from the Chinese border as part of the Taliban's efforts both to protect and restrain the group."[20]

Beyond the issue involving ETIM, China and Afghan Taliban have no concerns about each other, with the Taliban never speaking about the Chinese persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. While such a diplomatic compromise between the two countries has helped Chinese companies forge their investment plans in Afghanistan, Beijing has also recently assumed a far greater role of playing a mediator in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China are engaged in ties of strategic nature

At the fifth China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers' Dialogue in Islamabad, Pakistan, held on May 6, 2023, the three countries decided "to extend" the CPEC to Afghanistan, according to an official statement issued by the Afghan Taliban government.[21]

A joint statement published on the Chinese foreign ministry website was comprehensive: "The three sides resolved to further deepen and expand their cooperation in the security, development and political domains based on the principles of mutual respect, equal-footed consultation and mutual benefit."[22] Regarding the Taliban's ban on girls' education, it offered token words: "Taking note of the Afghan [Taliban] Interim Government's repeated assurances to respect and protect women's rights and interests, the three sides called on the international community to support the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan."[23]

At the tripartite meeting in Islamabad, the Taliban government also promised – a routine assurance given to the Chinese – to take action against the ETIM, the jihadi group of Uyghur Muslims, according to a report in the Pashtu daily Wrazpanra Wahdat.[24] To meet Pakistan's demand, the tripartite statement also included an Afghan Taliban promise to act against the members of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a jihadi group of Pakistani fighters who attack from Afghan soil into Pakistani tribal border regions.

The Afghan Taliban rulers had always rejected Pakistani accusations that TTP fighters were using Afghan soil to launch into Pakistan. At the tripartite meeting, China prevailed on the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan. Consequently, the Taliban government has now adopted a policy of settling the TTP mujahideen and their family members in northern Afghanistan along the border with Tajikistan.[25] This Chinese intervention is similar to Beijing's brokering of a historic rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

However, in the case of Afghanistan, it has engendered fears that a Waziristan-style jihad enclave will be created in north Afghanistan along the Tajikistan border. In a Dari-language tweet, a Twitter account reported that the commanders of the anti-Taliban resistance forces in the Andarab district of Baghlan province called on residents of northern Afghanistan to rise and against the Taliban.[26] "A very big conspiracy is being implemented by the Taliban; the transfer of terrorists from tribal areas of Pakistan under various titles will turn the North into a second Waziristan," the tweet read.[27]

The basic thinking behind not recognizing the Afghan Taliban government is that recognizing it will legitimize the jihadi leadership's abuses and violations of human rights such as their total ban on the education of girls beyond Grade Six and the banishment of women from colleges and universities, as well as from workplaces, parks, public baths, and so on. Yet, China – along with Iran, Russia, and Turkey – has practically recognized the Taliban government, allowing them to take control of Afghan Embassies in their capitals. For China, the realpolitik of international relations and a desire to create and nurture a market for Chinese goods in Afghanistan-Pakistan region is the real motivation, and the West too – with its Chinese-like disregard of the jihadi rulers' ban on girls' education – is inching closer to recognizing the Taliban government.

* Tufail Ahmad is Senior Fellow for the MEMRI Islamism and Counter-Radicalization Initiative.


[1] (Afghanistan), July 10, 2023.

[2] (China), September 22, 2022.

[3] (China), September 22, 2022.

[4] (Afghanistan), May 10, 2023.

[5] (Afghanistan), July 11, 2023

[6] (Afghanistan), July 8, 2023.

[7] (Afghanistan), May 26, 2023.

[8] (Afghanistan), May 26, 2023.

[9] (India), January 6, 2023.

[10] (Afghanistan), May 14, 2023.

[11] (India), January 6, 2023.

[12] (Chinese), June 28, 2023.

[13] (Chinese), June 28, 2023.

[14] (India), July 28, 2021.

[15] (India), January 28, 2015.

[16] (India), August 3, 2016.

[17] (UK), September 22, 2019.

[19] MEMRI Daily Brief No. 319, The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) And The Taliban Are 'Old Friends' New Roman",serif">, September 29, 2021.

[21] (Afghanistan), accessed June 11, 2023.

[22] (China), May 9, 2023.

[23] (China), May 9, 2023.

[24] Wrazpanra Wahdat, May 14, 2023.

[26], June 8, 2023.

[27], June 8, 2023.

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