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Motives and Constraints

Analyzing the Dynamics of Ambassadorial Exchanges between China and the Afghan Taliban Government

22 February 2024

On January 30, 2024, Chinese President Xi Jinping accepted the credentials of the Afghan Ambassador to Beijing, Bilal Karimi, an action that sparked differing interpretations from observers. While some view it as the first recognition of the Taliban government in Afghanistan by an international power, others see it as a contradictory move by Beijing, given its continued engagement with the Taliban without officially acknowledging it as a government.

China has become the first country to appoint a new ambassador to Afghanistan following the Taliban's takeover, after its previous ambassador presented credentials in September 2021. This situation raises questions about China's motives for establishing diplomatic ties with the Afghan Taliban government, as well as the potential outcomes and implications of this development, including the limitations and constraints of China's decision.

Motives of Beijing

Afghanistan is of strategic importance in China's outlook, serving as a vital area that provides access to the world. This is particularly significant as Beijing aims to regain and strengthen its influence in its Asian neighborhood. Therefore, China’s acknowledgment of the Taliban can be associated with Beijing's pursuit of strategic, economic, and security objectives in Afghanistan. These objectives can be explained as follows:

1. Desire to enhance influence and fill the American void:

China appears to recognize the gravity of the Taliban-led government's commitment to refrain from using Afghan territory to pose a threat to or harm the interests of neighboring countries, including China. This has prompted Beijing to view it as beneficial to formalize its ties with the movement, which is closely tied to China's aspiration to bolster its regional role and influence in Asia, particularly in light of the void created by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. The alignment of China with the Taliban can be interpreted as part of the strategic competition between the two major powers, with Beijing aiming to position itself as an alternative to Washington. This is also connected to China's aim to undercut India's endeavors to strengthen its influence in Afghanistan and diminish New Delhi's sway in Kabul in favor of Chinese influence.

2. Exploiting Afghan natural resources:

Afghanistan possesses abundant natural resources and minerals, including copper, lithium, and rare earth elements, which are in need of development and exploitation. As of February 2024, the country has a population of approximately 43 million people. Consequently, China is looking to tap into these unexploited mineral resources, establish a market for its goods and products, and encourage its companies to invest in the neighboring country. Additionally, China is keen on securing access to Afghan oil supplies and has already commenced oil extraction activities in 18 wells located in the Amu Darya Basin, northwest of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s lithium holds significant value for China due to its use in lithium-ion batteries, crucial for portable electronic devices and electric vehicles. China, a major electric vehicle producer, has expertise in renewable energy storage, an area from which Afghanistan can benefit as Chinese companies plan to invest $500 million in solar energy there. The Taliban movement requires Chinese investments to rebuild the Afghan economy, offering China a significant opportunity to resume Belt and Road Initiative projects in Afghanistan. This includes the railway line connecting China and Iran through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, as well as the Wakhan Corridor linking Afghanistan to China. Moreover, China's increased investments in Afghan mining, manufacturing, agriculture, and services are crucial. Afghanistan also serves as a key link for China to expand the Belt and Road Initiative to West and Central Asia.

3. Avoiding potential security threats:

China's decision to exchange ambassadors with the Afghan Taliban movement is driven by several security concerns, particularly due to the two countries sharing a 76-kilometer long border. One major worry for Beijing is the potential threat posed by Uyghur militants from the Xinjiang region, who are known to have a presence in Afghanistan. The fear is that these militants, associated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement – an organization classified as a terrorist group by China – could launch terrorist attacks against China. Consequently, China is seeking assurances from the Taliban that Afghan territory will not be used as a base for such attacks.

China seeks assurances from the Taliban for protection against potential terrorist attacks that threaten Chinese interests. This includes safeguarding Chinese territory and interests within Afghanistan, particularly in light of the presence of the Islamic State branch of Khorasan Province (ISKP). ISKP strongly opposes Chinese presence in Afghan territory and occasionally targets Chinese interests. Additionally, China desires protection for its investments and citizens working in Afghanistan.

Potential Implications 

While Beijing’s acknowledgment of the Afghan Taliban movement may yield several strategic gains for China, it could also lead to increased regional competition in South Asia, as follows:

1. Enhancement of Chinese national security:

Afghanistan holds great significance for Chinese security, particularly in western China where the Xinjiang region, home to Uyghurs with self-rule, is located. China's ability to maintain security and stability along its western borders, and thereby its national security, is a key benefit of cooperating with the Taliban. The Taliban has shown strong responsiveness to Beijing. In May 2023, the Taliban committed to preventing the East Turkestan Islamic Movement from launching attacks against China. In a bid to address Beijing's concerns and monitor the activities of Uyghur armed groups, the Taliban relocated these groups from the northeastern Badakhshan province, which borders China, to the central Afghan provinces of Baghlan and Takhar.

Undoubtedly, the deepening ties between China and the Taliban could lead to a decrease in support for Uyghur armed groups by the movement, thus reducing the probability of these groups targeting Chinese interests. This could prompt Beijing to insist that the Taliban implement stricter measures against the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

2- Supporting bilateral economic cooperation: 

Afghanistan is of particular significance for the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative due to its strategic location and abundant resources. China aims to bolster investment, economic, and trade collaboration with the Taliban in the near future. Recent developments validate this trajectory. In January 2023, the Taliban entered into an agreement with the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) to extract oil from the Amu Darya Basin in northern Afghanistan. The initial investment amounts to $150 million, projected to increase to $540 million over the first three years of the 25-year contract. Furthermore, there are ongoing efforts to construct a 300-kilometer road connecting the Afghan region of Badakhshan to the Chinese border, which will boost bilateral trade.

In the same context, the Taliban, China, and Pakistan have agreed to expand the Belt and Road Initiative to include Afghanistan. This aims to involve investing billions of dollars in funding infrastructure projects in the Afghan economy, which has been affected by international sanctions. This expansion encompasses extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a part of this initiative, to include Afghanistan. Additionally, China and Afghanistan have reinstated direct flights since May 2023, with the goal of bolstering bilateral relations and increasing Afghan exports to China. In April 2023, the Chinese company "Gosin" expressed interest in investing $10 billion in lithium extraction in Afghanistan, a project that would offer 120,000 direct job opportunities and another million indirectly for Afghan citizens.

3- Growing regional and international competition in South Asia: 

China's establishment of relations with the Afghan Taliban is expected to raise concerns among countries in the South Asian region, leading to regional competition. Given China's significant international and regional influence, other important regional powers may be incentivized to similarly establish relations with the Taliban to prevent China from monopolizing the Afghan arena. Consequently, this could turn Afghanistan into a battleground for competition and influence between China and other Asian powers, especially those neighboring Afghanistan.

In this context, Russia may move towards normalizing and enhancing its relations with the Taliban, seeing Afghanistan as part of its sphere of influence. As India has maintained its embassy in Kabul, it might seek to re-establish connections with Afghanistan by reopening the Afghan embassy in New Delhi, to avoid ceding ground to Pakistan, its historical adversary, and China, its traditional competitor in Asia. Moreover, relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been notably tense since the Taliban's rise to power in August 2021.

Internationally, the United States is considering the possibility of reopening its diplomatic mission in Kabul without officially recognizing the Taliban. This new strategy, approved by the US Department of State, is driven by concerns that countries such as Russia, China, and Iran may expand their strategic and economic influence in Afghanistan, capitalizing on Washington's absence.


The acceptance of the Afghan ambassador's credentials by China represents a significant development that is poised to create important opportunities and incentives for advancing mutual strategic interests for both China and Afghanistan. This encompasses Beijing's success in consolidating its influence in Afghanistan strategically, economically, and in terms of security, as well as bolstering its role and position regionally and internationally. Conversely, it also pertains to the potential for the Taliban to overcome international opposition to granting them legitimacy by refusing to acknowledge their new authority in Afghanistan, which could lead to a break in the international isolation imposed on the group. This was evidenced by the Taliban's invitation, on January 30 last year, to Russia, Iran, and other countries to establish bilateral diplomatic relations with Kabul.

However, China continues to withhold official recognition of the Taliban, requesting substantial changes in the Afghan government's governance style as a prerequisite for Beijing's approval, aligning with international community standards. In November 2023, a United Nations evaluation connected the recognition of the Taliban government with its adherence to Afghanistan's international obligations, such as removing restrictions on women's education and employment. Additionally, the United Nations has consistently denied the Taliban government a seat in the international organization.

On the other hand, there are several constraints that may diminish China's gains from exchanging ambassadors with the Taliban government, negatively impacting the growing relations between the two sides. These include:

1- The Afghan government's inability to provide security across the country, making the Taliban unable to fulfill their security guarantees to China and neighboring countries.

2- China's fear of the continued close relationship between the Taliban and armed groups, including the The Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which could be used to plan further attacks against China from within Afghanistan.

3- The possibility of terrorist organizations targeting Chinese interests in Afghanistan, which would affect Beijing's projects in the country.

4- The implications of tension in relations between a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and Pakistan on China's Belt and Road Initiative projects in Afghanistan.

In conclusion, official communications and exchanges exist between China and the Afghan Taliban, fueled by mutual political, economic, and security interests, which are driving them towards strengthening bilateral cooperation. Despite the challenges associated with recognizing the Taliban and the constraints and obstacles involved, their advancements may diminish due to ongoing international isolation. However, China's pragmatic foreign policy allows it to reap benefits from exchanging ambassadors with the Taliban government without formally recognizing the movement.