In the first six months of 2023, there was a series of business deals and contacts between Chinese companies and Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) officials in mining and other sectors, supported by China’s leadership in Beijing and its embassy in Kabul. The Afghan media, including state-owned media outlets, covered these deals and meetings between IEA officials and Chinese business delegations extensively and a number of Western researchers have also weighed in on the issue. The coverage has been conspicuously less widespread in Chinese, perhaps reflecting Afghanistan’s relative insignificance for it. Yet, what might seem like ‘small fry’ projects for China – a mere ‘slip road’ in its global Belt and Road Initiative – hold the potential to inject significant income into the Afghan economy and the Emirate’s lean coffers.
While China’s policy remains difficult to read, it is not indecipherable. Its activity in Afghanistan appears big because of two facts: first, the United States-led West has left, and this has opened more space for other actors; secondly, there is relative peace, making business easier. That does not mean, however, that China will (or is inclined to) step in with investments to match the amounts the US invested in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2021.
China’s engagement in Afghanistan needs to be seen in the context of its long-term strategy to secure access to strategic resources, including land and food and, increasingly, its global rivalry with the US. Afghanistan is not an unimportant piece on this chessboard. Given its wealth in minerals, gas and oil, the country has long-term potential for Chinese companies, small or large, private or state-owned, particularly if it remains relatively stable under the Emirate. However, only two years after the Taleban’s second takeover, it is probably too early to say whether China and its (state-run or state-owned subsidiary) companies have now, in contrast to the two decades of the Islamic Republic, really started to work, including on such mega projects as the Ainak copper mine in Logar province.
This report brings together available details on the deals and highlights some contradictions and question marks in the media coverage. It also considers China’s engagement under the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in order to provide context, and finds that although, at first glance, the Chinese players involved have changed, there is, in fact, some continuity.
Edited by Roxanna Shapour and Rachel Reid
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