China became the first country to formally name a new envoy to Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021. This development has raised questions as to whether this signals China’s readiness to recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. So far, no country has officially recognized the Taliban administration although several countries have engaged with them. While the Taliban hailed the arrival of the Chinese Ambassador as “the beginning of a new chapter”[i], the Chinese Foreign Ministry sought to play down hopes for a formal recognition.
Taliban welcomed China’s new Ambassador
On 13th September 2023, China's newly appointed Ambassador to Afghanistan, Zhao Sheng was welcomed at Kabul's Presidential Palace in an elaborate ceremony that was attended by Acting Prime Minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund and Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi. The new Chinese envoy presented his credentials to the acting Prime Minister, which the latter accepted. Foreign Minister Muttaqi called the nomination of Chinese envoy “a significant step, carrying a significant message.”[ii] The Chinese Foreign Ministry, however indicated that this is part of a routine shuffle; its official statement stated - “This is the normal rotation of China’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, and is intended to continue advancing dialogue and cooperation between China and Afghanistan.”[iii] Zhao's predecessor, Wang Yu, assumed the role in 2019 and completed his term last month. In July 2021, China had also appointed Yue Xiaoyong, a veteran diplomat with experience in the US and Middle East, as its Special Envoy to Afghanistan.[iv] Nonetheless, many saw the recent development as a sign of Beijing taking a step towards officially recognizing the Taliban.
The Taliban statement[v] issued on that day quoted Zhao as telling Muttaqi "China respects Afghanistan's national sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity and will never interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs". It also said the Chinese envoy praised the "significant economic progress and improved security" Afghanistan has made in the last two years.
China was among the first countries to welcome the Taliban’s return to power after the chaotic withdrawal of American troops two years ago and is one of only a handful to host a Taliban Charge d’Affaires.[vi] Over the years, China had maintained direct communication with the Taliban, and both sides had met on several occasions, bilaterally and internationally, underscoring China’s warming ties with the Taliban. In July 2021, a month before the Taliban takeover, China held a high-profile meeting with a delegation of nine Taliban representatives in Tianjin, led by the head of the Afghan Taliban Political Commission. During the meeting, China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, recognized the Taliban as “a critical military and political force in the country, [which] is expected to play an important role in the peace, reconciliation and reconstruction process of Afghanistan”.[vii] While some speculated that this openness indicated Chinese intentions to expand its sphere of interest in the region, it was more likely reflective of the Chinese government’s hedging strategy—its primary interests in Afghanistan being contingent on constructive if not cooperative relations with whichever faction took the reins in Kabul.[viii]
Chinese security and economic interests in Taliban ruled Afghanistan
Chinese engagement with the current Taliban regime is driven by Beijing’s security and economic interests in Afghanistan. In April 2023, China issued its 11-point position paper on Afghanistan, giving a clear indication of Beijing’s policy towards the crisis-ridden country and the areas it will prioritize in its engagement with the Taliban moving forward.[ix] For Beijing, security remains a priority in its relationship with the Taliban, it would want to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for terrorist groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) -- a Uyghur group that Beijing blames for unrest in its western Xinjiang Province. Some analysts viewed the presence of Chinese Military Attaché by the side of the newly appointed envoy on September 13, as an indication of the priority the security concerns occupy in the dynamics between the two countries.[x] However, there are differing perspectives on the extent to which the ETIM poses a direct threat to China from Afghanistan at present. A UN report suggests that the ETIM numbers (just a few hundred individuals), were already relocated from the bordering Badakhshan region to other parts of the country by the Taliban in what appears to be an effort to restrain their activities against China.[xi] Chinese concerns, however, also include Afghanistan being used by terrorist groups as a base for training and organizing or distributing propaganda, which could spill over into other countries in Central and South Asia where the Chinese presence is much more substantial in terms of investment and the number of Chinese nationals. Attacks on Chinese nationals in Pakistan only heighten such concerns.[xii]
China’s economic interests are diverse, ranging from infrastructure projects to mining and energy development. China has expressed its interest in investing in Afghanistan's abundant natural resources, which are estimated to have a total value of approximately $1 trillion-these resources encompass substantial deposits of copper, lithium, and gold.[xiii] In April 2022, the Taliban approved a $216 million Chinese investment project for an industrial park outside Kabul, which is expected to host 150 factories.[xiv] Reportedly, last month Chinese telecom giant Huawei has got approvals from the top levels of the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan to install CCTV cameras across provinces raising concerns that Beijing is advancing towards profiling Afghans to increase its influence in the country.[xv] Earlier this year, China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan reached an agreement to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, supported by Beijing, into Afghanistan.[xvi] Notably, Afghanistan occupies a central position within a region that holds significant importance for Beijing's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. Zhao’s appointment in a way signaled China’s willingness to forge closer ties with the Taliban regime.
Diplomatic Missions in Kabul
However, it is important to note that China is not the only country that continues to have a diplomatic presence in Kabul. Countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — have retained their Ambassadors appointed under the Afghan Republic.[xvii] Saudi Arabia’s envoy, who reportedly “relocated” to Pakistan temporarily earlier this year due to security reasons, plans to return to Kabul soon.[xviii] In May, Pakistan, appointed a special envoy to Afghanistan, amid strained ties between the two nations.[xix] Several other countries like US, UK, Germany and international organisations have appointed Special Envoys, Chargé d’Affaires or interim Ambassadors to Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August 2021, instead of permanent Ambassadors. But many of them work out of offices in Doha, Qatar. Unlike resident Ambassadors, Special Envoys or special representatives are temporary diplomats with specific responsibilities on specialized issues. India does not have an Ambassador in Kabul but has a ‘technical team’ to oversee the distribution of humanitarian aid. With the appointment of Zhao, China became the first country to formally appoint a ‘new’ resident Ambassador in Taliban ruled Afghanistan, Beijing however, did not specify whether the Ambassador's appointment amounted to a step towards formal recognition of the Taliban government.
To conclude, it can be said the appointment of the ‘new’ Chinese envoy to Afghanistan may have been part of “normal rotation” of diplomats, nonetheless it was a “significant step” and a noteworthy development. Beijing chose to remain ambiguous about whether or not Zhao’s appointment should be interpreted as Beijing’s formal recognition of the Taliban administration. It is, however, unlikely that China would go that far- for now there appears to be a consensus in the international community that the Taliban should address certain domestic issues and form an inclusive administration before formal recognition can be considered.
*Dr Anwesha Ghosh, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal
[i] “The newly appointed Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Afghanistan, Mr. Zhao Sheng presented his diplomatic credentials to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi.” Statement by Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Sep 13, 2023. Available at: https://mfa.gov.af/en/the-newly-appointed-ambassador-of-the-peoples-republic-of-china-to-afghanistan-mr-zhao-sheng-presented-his-diplomatic-credentials-to-the-minister-of-foreign-affairs-of-the-islamic-emirate-of-afgha/ (Accessed on 18.9.23_)
[ii] “Taliban gives a warm welcome to China’s new ambassador to Afghanistan.” Al Jazeera, Sep 13, 2023. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/9/13/taliban-gives-a-warm-welcome-to-chinas-new-ambassador-to-afghanistan. (Accessed on 18.9.23_)
[iii] “China appoints ambassador to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.” Duetsche Welle, Sep 13, 2023. Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/china-appoints-ambassador-to-taliban-ruled-afghanistan/a-66802533 (Accessed on 18.9.23_)
[iv] “China appoints Afghanistan special envoy as it prepares to play greater role after US troop withdrawal.” South China Morning Post, 21 July, 2021. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3141993/china-appoints-new-afghan-special-envoy-it-prepares-play. (Accessed on 20.9.23)
[vi] “ (Accessed on 18.9.23_)
[vii] ‘Chinese FM meets with Afghan Taliban’s political chief’, Xinhua, 28 July 2021 Available at: http://www.news.cn/english/2021-07/28/c_1310091932.htm (Accessed on 18.9.23_)
[viii] ‘Afghanistan: China’s critical jigsaw piece’, Australian Outlook, Australian Institute of International Affairs, 27 July 2021; and Mazhari, M., ‘China will fill power vacuum left by US in Afghanistan, Researcher’, 19 Oct. 2021 (Accessed on 18.9.23_)
[ix] “China’s Position on the Afghan Issue”. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, People’s Republic of China, April 12, 2023. Available at: https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx_662805/202304/t20230412_11057785.html (Accessed on 18.9.23_)
[x] “China Appoints First Ambassador to Afghanistan Since Taliban Return.” Voice of America, Sep 13, 2023. Available at: https://www.voanews.com/a/china-appoints-ambassador-to-afghanistan-for-first-time-since-taliban-s-return/7266961.html (Accessed on 18.9.23)
[xi] United Nations, Security Council, ‘Twenty-ninth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities’, S/2022/83, 3 Feb. 2022, pp. 16–17.
[xii] Delaney, R., ‘China faces an increase in extremist threats in Central Asia, US panel is told’, South China Morning Post, 13 May 2022. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3177557/china-faces-increase-extremist-threats-central-asia-us-panel. (Accessed on 18.9.23)
[xiii] “China Eyes Afghanistan’s $1 Trillion of Minerals with Risky bet on Taliban”. Bloomberg, Aug 24, 2021. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-08-24/china-s-eyes-1-trillion-of-minerals-with-risky-bet-on-taliban (Accessed on 19.9.23_)
[xiv] ‘Chinese businesses make headway in Afghanistan despite Beijing’s cautious approach to Taliban’, South China Morning Post, 28 Aug. 2022. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3190469/chinese-businesses-make-headway-afghanistan-despite-beijings. (Accessed on 19.9.23_)
[xv] “Is Profiling China’s New Game Plan in Afghanistan? Huawei to Install CCTVs in All Provinces.” News 18, Aug 18, 2023. Available at: https://www.news18.com/world/is-profiling-chinas-new-game-plan-in-afghanistan-huawei-to-install-cctvs-in-all-provinces-exclusive-8540583.html. (Accessed on 19.9.23_)
[xvi] “China and Pakistan agree to extend Belt and Road Initiative to Afghanistan.”WION, May 7, 2023. Available at: https://www.wionews.com/south-asia/china-and-pakistan-agree-to-extend-belt-and-road-initiative-to-afghanistan-590042. (Accessed on 19.9.23_)
[xvii] “China’s ‘new’ ambassador in Afghanistan raising eyebrows, but 6 other nations maintain envoys in Kabul”. The Print, Sep 16, 2023. Available at: https://theprint.in/world/chinas-new-ambassador-in-afghanistan-raising-eyebrows-but-6-other-nations-maintain-envoys-in-kabul/1764481/ (Accessed on 19.9.23_)
[xix] “Asif Durrani appointed as Pakistan's special envoy for Afghanistan.” Firstpost, May 23, 2023. Available at: https://www.firstpost.com/world/asif-durrani-appointed-as-pakistans-special-envoy-for-afghanistan-12639752.html. (Accessed on 19.9.23_)