Taliban, Russia, and China: Cooperation but No Bloc

Taliban, Russia, and China: Cooperation but No Bloc
Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, political chief of Afghanistan's Taliban, in Tianjin, China, on July 28, 2021. (Li Ran/Xinhua via Reuters)
Antonio Graceffo

The Taliban government of Afghanistan is expanding its trade and cooperation with Russia and China, but a true alliance is unlikely.

Earlier this month, Kabul and Beijing signed a $540 million dollar deal to develop Afghanistan’s oil and gas fields. This is the biggest deal the Taliban has signed since taking control of the country in August 2021. Immediately after the United States pulled out of Afghanistan, the economy collapsed. As the regime has not been recognized by any Western government and is designated as a global terrorist, Kabul has been placed under sanctions restricting flows of cash into the country. Washington has also frozen Afghanistan’s foreign currency reserves of around $7 billion held in the United States. The United States is placing them in a trust and will release the funds when there is a stable and internationally recognized government in Kabul.
Since August 2021, Afghanistan’s economy has experienced a decline of about 20 percent to 30 percent. Now, 97 percent of the population live below the poverty line, while 95 percent said that they had experienced hunger in the past year. The country has become completely dependent on foreign aid. The United States is the largest provider of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, but the U.S. Treasury Department has set strict rules on the provision of aid to ensure that it gets to the people rather than to the regime.
Many international aid organizations are reviewing their support for Afghanistan because the Taliban has tightened the restrictions on women’s participation in public life. Girls have been banned from education, and women have been barred from working in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The World Health Organization released a statement on Dec. 28, 2022, stating that if women are not permitted to participate in NGO work, then certain aid programs would have to be halted.
Afghanistan’s mineral reserves, including rare earth minerals, are estimated at $1 trillion. Sanctions are preventing Western countries from investing in extraction projects, which has opened the door for Chinese investment. Currently, a state-owned mining company is in negotiations with the Taliban about extracting copper. However, there are still major security issues. While the Taliban control most of the country, the ISIS terrorist group is still actively opposing Taliban rule and Chinese presence. In December, ISIS bombed a Chinese-owned hotel in Kabul.
In addition to the threat of ISIS attacks, another wrinkle in the Taliban-Beijing dynamic is Afghanistan’s harboring of the Turkistan Islamic Party, formerly known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist organization opposing repression in China’s Xinjiang region.
Beijing’s engagement with the Taliban is also compromising its relationship with Islamabad. Pakistan has been plagued by terrorist attacks carried out by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistan Taliban, which is closely aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The TTP’s stated objective is to defeat the Pakistan army and establish itself as the ruler of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Islamabad worries that money flowing from Beijing to Kabul will ultimately support terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

The Pakistan military has been clamoring to engage in preemptive strikes by attacking the TTP cadre inside of Afghanistan. The Taliban, while claiming neutrality in the dispute, has made it very clear that it would not tolerate a breach of its national borders by the Pakistan army.

The Taliban has managed to sign trade deals with a number of countries, including Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran while China, Russia, and Iran have all expressed interest in investing in Afghanistan. Russia, like China and Iran, does not officially recognize the Taliban government, although its leaders have been guests at the Kremlin.
The Taliban’s best hope for recognition was China, but the Taliban was excluded from attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in September last year. Both Russia and China are open to investment and trade relations with Afghanistan, but they’re wary of terrorists posing as refugees and trying to enter their respective countries. These concerns were underscored in September when a suicide bomber attacked the Russian Embassy in Kabul.
ISIS, who has called Russia a “crusader government” and “enemy of Islam,” later took responsibility for the attack. A few weeks later, Kabul signed an agreement to import Russian gasoline, diesel, and gas. The ongoing sales of energy and resources to Afghanistan are allowing Russia to bypass sanctions and continue to fund its war in Ukraine.

There appears to be growing cooperation between states outside of the U.S.-led Western order, namely Iran, Russia, China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. While they share a common distrust or even hatred of the United States, their fundamental interests are not clearly aligned. The tension and dispute among them are also preventing them from forming a real alliance. For the time being, it looks like Beijing may throw a lifeline to Afghanistan, and Kabul will help Russia keep afloat by buying its oil, but the formation of a politically and economically meaningful bloc seems unlikely.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Antonio Graceffo, PhD, is a China economic analyst who has spent more than 20 years in Asia. Mr. Graceffo is a graduate of the Shanghai University of Sport, holds a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University, and currently studies national defense at American Military University. He is the author of “Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion” (2019).
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