As the world fled Afghanistan, China set up footprint

Taliban fighters stand guard

Taliban fighters stand guard as women march in support of the Taliban regime. 

Photo credit: Wakil Kohsar | AFP

When the US-led NATO forces left Afghanistan a year ago, allowing the Taliban back in leadership, few may have thought the country would have any friends left.

The Taliban themselves were under sanctions, the country’s Central Bank reserves worth about $10 billion had been frozen by Washington and millions were facing starvation. Then China came.

According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Beijing pledged 250 million Yuan ($37 million) in aid to Afghanistan including food and warm clothing as winter approached. The goodies arrived in sacks (in the case of food) labelled ‘China Aid: for a shared future.’

A year later, China says it was among the few friends who stood by Afghanistan when the West fled, after nearly two decades of war in the country.

And it seems the focus has gone beyond humanitarian assistance, to establishing cultural ties as Beijing sees Afghanistan as another country to add to its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)

On July 31, China inaugurated teaching building and auditorium at Kabul University, a project it funded. The teaching building has an academic lecture hall and 30 classrooms equipped with projectors, audio and other multimedia teaching equipment. The auditorium can hold more than 1000 people, according to a report by Xinhua News Agency.

The cultural interaction has gone further. A group of young scholars from China's Peking University, Lanzhou University, Wenzhou University, the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the Hong Kong-based non-profit Friends of Dunhuang financed and helped the protection of some of the historic caves in Afghanistan’s Bamyam province. The renovation included establishment of ticketing offices which would also double up as security shelters for night guards, reported the Frontier Times, a daily in the country.

Maulvi Atiqullah Azizi, Deputy Minister of Culture told the newspaper last week that a team of Afghan archaeologists travel to China to “to gain scientific and professional experience.”

There is an economic goal, however. Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Afghanistan’s Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in July where he pitched the idea of aligning the country to Beijing’s BRI “with the development strategies of Afghanistan, support the extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan, and share China's development opportunities,” according to his office.

“China will grant zero tariff treatment to 98 percent of the tariff lines of the Afghan products exported to China, and is willing to import more quality specialty products from Afghanistan,” Xinhua news agency reported after the meeting.

“China appreciates Afghanistan's firm attitude to the counter-narcotics issue, and is willing to assist Afghanistan in planting alternative crops.”

Beijing offered to pressure US and Western allies to lift sanctions on Afghanistan and help the country join the fray of regional cooperation against terrorism and rebuild own economy.

A year after the start of Taliban administration, Chinese businessmen who remained in Kabul as everyone fled the city on available airlines are celebrating the gains, according to a report by the Policy Research Group (Poreg). They include Yu Minghui cited in the report as having set up four steel processing plans and has put up a small ‘China Town’, a storeyed building that has acted as centre for Chinese influence.

Yet China is still cautious. In spite of increased commercial and cultural interaction China has yet to recognise the Taliban formally as the government of Afghanistan, even though its diplomats frequently hold meetings with local Taliban officials and have kept their embassy running since August last year when Taliban took over.

Afghanistan still has problems such as 25 million people living in poverty, three million children out of school and a poor human rights record including harassment of women.

A report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan says the human rights situation, worsened by poverty and hunger means nearly 60 percent of the population need assistance, 6 million more people than in early 2021 before Taliban.

In June, an earthquake in southeastern Afghanistan killed more than 1,000 people and injured nearly 2,000 others while destroying tens of thousands of homes.