Commentary: What China wants from Afghanistan

August marks two years since the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan. During that time, the Taliban's oppressive attitude toward women has intensified, widening the rift with the international community. Under these circumstances, China has been increasing its involvement in Afghanistan, as if to take advantage of the absence of US troops. I would like to look at the many factors at play in Afghanistan in order to understand the situation.

Women's rights restricted

First, let's look at some of the issues that have been highlighted over the past two years.

The Taliban overran the capital city of Kabul and toppled the government in August in 2021, as US troops were withdrawing. The interim government that was subsequently established upheld governance based on Islamic law, claiming that this was to restore stability.

Taliban fighters at a parade in August 2023

In fact, terrorism and fighting are decreasing, and public order is reportedly on the road to recovery. However, the Taliban has escalated its extreme interpretation of Islamic law. One area that has drawn especially strong criticism from Europe and the United States is the restriction of women's rights, including education and employment.

In effect, girls are only allowed to attend elementary school, and female staff at NGOs and UN agencies have been barred from working.

Furthermore, an order was recently issued to shut down hair salons. The reason given was that "the practice of shaping women's eyebrows, for example, is against Islamic law."

Many of these decisions are said to come from the top down, originating with the Supreme Leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada.

Women's rights are restricted under Taliban rule.

Not only did the UN call for improvements, but in August, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who serves as UN Special Envoy for Global Education, revealed that he had sent a letter to the International Criminal Court asking it to investigate the Taliban for crimes against humanity.

However, the Taliban refuse to listen to these concerns, and the rift between them and the international community continues to widen.

No other country has so far recognized the interim government. Foreign aid is declining, the economy is stagnant, and food shortages are growing. The United Nations has indicated that more than two-thirds of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance.

Against this backdrop, China is increasing its involvement in Afghanistan.

China eyes Afghanistan's resources

Now, a look at the economic aspect of this involvement.

In January this year, the Taliban announced that they had reached an agreement with a Chinese company to develop a large oil field in northern Afghanistan.

This is believed to be the first full-scale resource development with a foreign company since the Taliban's return to power. With foreign investment declining, the Taliban must have been desperate for the contract.

What about China? Afghanistan is said to have reserves of one trillion dollars' worth of underground resources, including oil and important minerals.

It appears that China wanted to gain an advantage over other countries by starting resource development at an early stage.

In addition, China seems to be trying to strengthen relations by accumulating economic cooperation, such as inviting participation in the sprawling economic zone initiative known as "One Belt, One Road."

China takes lenient stance toward Taliban

Next, there is also a diplomatic movement.

In February of this year, China released a document detailing its position on the situation in Ukraine, and in April it also released its position on Afghanistan.

The latter document strongly criticizes the US, saying it created the current chaos in Afghanistan, but it takes a notably lenient stance toward the Taliban.

Regarding the oppressive attitude toward women, which is of particular concern, there are no harsh expressions or calls for improvement to the current situation.

Additionally, the United States is being asked to unfreeze Afghan assets outside the country. These assets, which are estimated to total 7 billion dollars, or over 1 trillion Japanese yen, were deposited in the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States. When the Taliban returned to power, the US immediately froze these assets and used them as leverage against the Taliban.

China is demanding that the assets be handed over to the Taliban. If this happens, the Taliban will become increasingly reluctant to listen to condemnations from the international community over women's rights and other issues.

China, like other countries, does not recognize the Taliban's interim government. However, in September, the newly appointed Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan submitted his credentials for the first time since the Taliban came back into power, which is likely to increase speculation that Beijing may be moving toward recognizing the interim government.

China appointed Zhao Xing as its ambassador to Afghanistan in September 2023.

China's security objectives

So, what is China's aim in increasing its involvement in Afghanistan?

China has its own security objectives. Specifically, it hopes to prevent the infiltration of extremists from Afghanistan into the bordering Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

In the autonomous region, there have been large-scale riots and suicide bombings in the past, and the Chinese government has been tightening its grip on the Uyghurs.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, although the Taliban is still ruling, the rival militant group Islamic State remains in some areas and frequently carries out terrorist attacks.

Over the areas controlled by Islamic State, there are countless reports that Uyghur fighters from China are being trained. It has been pointed out that these fighters may be returning to China via the border and neighboring countries.

China has motivation to ask the Taliban to take measures to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a hotbed of terrorism.

Another aim is to counter the United States.

Regarding Afghanistan, China has emphasized that the nation-building efforts led by the United States were a "failure." In particular, it has strongly criticized efforts to make democracy take root in the country.

China is now eager to create an international order that suits its own needs.

Afghanistan has become perfect propaganda material to demonstrate to countries in the Global South that the American ideas of democracy and the rule of law do not apply to all countries.

In this way, it appears that China is attempting to serve its diplomatic and security objectives by strengthening relations with and pandering to the Taliban.

However, with China's foreign affairs in turmoil, including the sudden dismissal of its foreign minister, it is still unclear how seriously China intends to get involved in Afghanistan.

Former Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang has been missing since June 2023.

Furthermore, when considering the reconstruction of Afghanistan, it is essential to utilize diverse human resources, including women. To that end, I believe China needs to say what needs to be said, such as improving the oppressive attitude toward women.