Why China’s rise is a ‘wildcard’ for how things could play out in Afghanistan

While several countries are evacuating their embassies in Kabul and scrambling to get their citizens out of Afghanistan, there are three notable exceptions. 

Australia closed its embassy back in May, but China, Russia and Pakistan are staying put for now.

Afghanistan has geographical significance, positioned as a bridge between Asia and Europe, and all three countries have an interest in regional stability and want to avoid the country becoming a hotbed of extremism.

Afghanistan is also sitting on to $US1 trillion ($1.3 trillion) worth of mineral deposits, including rare earths and lithium, a scarce but vital part of phone batteries.

China has ‘no choice’ but to work with the Taliban

China’s embassy in Afghanistan is still operating normally, according to Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying.

However, China did evacuate more than 200 of its nationals at the start of July, due to the deteriorating security situation.

Ms Hua has said China is ready to deepen “friendly” ties with the Taliban.

“China has all along respected Afghanistan’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, adhered to non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and pursued a friendly policy toward the entire Afghan people,” Ms Hua said.

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying.Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying.
Ms Hua says the US should “seriously reflect on its willful military intervention”. (



China has not officially recognised the Taliban as the new government, but Foreign Minister Wang Yi said yesterday that the world should support Afghanistan in its transition, not put pressure on it. 

“The international community should encourage and guide it in a positive direction instead of exerting more pressure,” he said. 

It’s a stark departure from the events of 1993, when China evacuated its embassy after the Soviet-backed government fell.

Professor Gu Xuewu, the director of the Center for Global Studies at the University of Bonn, said China would not trust the Taliban “entirely”, but both sides would work together.

“The same is true for the Taliban because they have no choice but to fulfil their promises given to China and Russia, especially to stop supporting extremists and terrorists.

“It is the core interest of the Taliban to gain international recognition as soon as possible to legitimise their regime.”

Ms Hua also rebuked the United States over its almost 20-year war in the country. 

“We hope the US could seriously reflect on its willful military intervention and belligerent policy, stop using democracy and human rights as an excuse to arbitrarily interfere in other countries’ internal affairs and undermine peace and stability in other countries and regions,” she said. 

In a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last month, the Taliban leader promised that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militants to attack China.

In return, China said it would provide economic support and investment in Afghanistan’s reconstruction.

North-eastern Afghanistan borders China's far-western region of Xinjiang.North-eastern Afghanistan borders China's far-western region of Xinjiang.
Beijing fears Afghanistan could become a staging point for separatists in Xinjiang.(

ABC Graphic by Jarrod Fankhauser


However, Professor Gu anticipated that China would recognise the Taliban regime if there was no outbreak of civil war.

“Whether Afghanistan will remain stable or not depends decisively on to what extent the ‘war lords’ in the north of the country [are] prepared to [submit] to the new regime,” he explained.

“It is in Beijing’s interest to act again as a mediator between the different forces of Afghanistan to avoid the outbreak of a new civil war, and by doing so to contribute to stabilising the country.”

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, only three countries officially recognised its legitimacy — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Both the US and China maintained unofficial ties with the Taliban government.

“Beijing will march in lockstep with Russia in cooperation with some members of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, especially Pakistan and other Central Asian countries.”

Importantly, experts note, China’s stance will factor into other countries’ calculations.

Russia’s ‘trust but verify’ approach 

While the Taliban is still officially designated a terrorist group in Russia, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said there had been some “encouraging signs from the Taliban”.

At the same time, he said Russia was in no hurry to recognise the Taliban and called for an “inclusive” government.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with President Joe BidenRussian President Vladimir Putin meets with President Joe Biden
Mr Putin will want to avoid instability creeping into Russia and the region, experts say.(

AP: Patrick Semansky


Elizabeth Buchanan, lecturer of strategic studies at Deakin University and fellow of the Modern War Institute at West Point, said Russia had a “strategic long game”.

“For now, Moscow will test Taliban commitment to safeguard Russian diplomats,” she said, with some embassy staff still on the ground. 

Dr Buchanan said Russia’s southern flank — Central Asia – “has long been a hotbed of geostrategic fragility and the Kremlin would be fixated on maintaining a buffer zone between this volatility and Russia”.

“Instability creeping into Russian territory is non-negotiable for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” she said.

“Tasks for Moscow include ensuring its military bases in the region, in Afghanistan’s orbit, are safeguarded and held.”

A headshot of a woman with brown hair. A headshot of a woman with brown hair.
Dr Buchanan says Moscow will want to keep a buffer between Russia and volatile regions.(



Russia has a history in Afghanistan, with a failed occupation in the 1980s culminating in their withdrawal and the collapse of the Soviet-backed Afghan government.

A power vacuum ensued, and the Taliban rose to prominence.

“Plenty of parallels can be drawn to Soviet experiences in Afghanistan — we know history rarely repeats but it rhymes,” she said, adding that Cold War hangovers would no doubt be shaping the narrative in Moscow and Washington.

“Today, there is another great power in the mix — China. This is a wildcard of sorts which complicates the point at which we can call ‘an end’ to strategic competition in Afghanistan.”

Neighbouring Pakistan’s foreign policy shaped by China and India

Imran Khan wearing white with his hands forming a triangle. Imran Khan wearing white with his hands forming a triangle.
After the Taliban takeover, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan says “the chains of slavery” have been broken in Afghanistan.(

Reuters: Saiyna Bashir


Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry has said it is closely following developments in Afghanistan, and that embassy staff are providing consular assistance and helping people to get flights out of the country.

They are also issuing transit visas on arrival to foreign nationals, including diplomats and journalists, leaving Afghanistan over security concerns.

“Pakistan always presented itself as a country that is willing to play a role in the region,” said Professor Samina Yasmeen, director of the Centre of Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia.

“Every time there is instability, there are people who come in from Afghanistan into Pakistan and refugees, which we have even seen in this current climate.”

She said Pakistan has historically had a close relationship with the Taliban and would seek to have influence there.

But she pointed out that India and China always loomed large in Pakistan’s geopolitical decision-making.

A head and shoulders photo of Professor Samina Yasmeen looking at the camera.A head and shoulders photo of Professor Samina Yasmeen looking at the camera.
Professor Samina Yasmeen says Pakistan already has close relations with the Taliban.(



“Americans went into Afghanistan and used Pakistan as the main ally, but that shifted, and India started emerging as a major partner for the Afghan government,” she said.

“There’s been a feeling in Pakistan that somehow this collaboration with the United States didn’t really earn them a significant place in the region.”

She said while there had been some positive statements about the Taliban from Pakistan, the government would not want the Taliban’s presence to energise militants in their country.

“They want to be in the good books of Taliban, but they also don’t want to move in a way that turns Pakistan into a pariah state.”

A handful of lithium from the Greenbushes mineA handful of lithium from the Greenbushes mine
Afghanistan is home to mineral deposits, including lithium.(

ABC South West: Ruslan Kulski


For that reason, she said, Pakistan was unlikely to go it alone and recognise the Taliban, but would likely engage with the international community and other Muslim countries.

“The fact that Chinese, Russians and Pakistanis are keeping their embassies open, [means] that they are either already engaged in some kind of mutual sharing of information or ideas, or they think it will be useful.”

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