Image: REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

By Donnelly McCleland

From 16-18 October, China hosted its third Belt and Road (One Belt, One Road, in Chinese) summit, marking the 10th anniversary of its iconic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – the biggest multilateral development programme ever undertaken by a single country. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision for the initiative began (in 2013) with large-scale infrastructure, such as power plants, roads, railroads, and ports around the world and has deepened China’s relations with Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. It is central to Mr Xi’s push for China to play a larger role in global affairs. China boasts it has transformed the world – and it has. But just as the global economy has faltered, and geopolitical tensions rose and shifted, so too, this initiative has had to develop and morph with an ever-changing world.  While the estimated Chinese investment of $1tn has been primarily poured into energy and transport projects, the latest forum has revealed additional avenues. China announced a new “digital silk road” focused on telecommunication and digital infrastructure, which analysts believe would be a more sustainable stream of profit for Chinese companies, while lessening the impact of Western bans on Chinese 5G equipment.

The BRI has many detractors, especially in Western circles, specifically in terms of relations with low-income and developing nations, in what has been labelled “debt diplomacy”.  But a report by the World Bank indicates that the BRI increased the trade of participating parties by 4.1%, attracted 5% more foreign investment, and levelled up the GDP of low-income countries by 3.4%. It went on further to summarise that “Benefiting from the BRI, the GDP share of emerging and developing economies in the world increased by 3.6% from 2012 to 2021.”

Considering such investment and cooperation, Afghanistan’s Taliban administration wants to formally join the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative and have committed to sending a technical team to China for talks to finalise it, according to Afghanistan’s acting commerce minister, Haji Nooruddin Aziz, in an interview with Reuters on 19 October. China has shown interest in developing ties with Afghanistan since the Taliban-run government assumed power in 2021, even though no other foreign government has recognised the administration. Key to these negotiations has been the strategic location of the country, crucial security considerations for the greater BRI, and Afghanistan’s largely untapped resources (such as lithium, copper and iron). China demonstrated its commitment to the development of relations last month by becoming the first country to appoint an ambassador to Kabul, with other nations retaining previous ambassadors or appointed heads of mission in a charge d’affaires capacity that does not involve formally presenting credentials to the government.

Up until 2001, Afghanistan’s economy experienced reasonable growth, and enjoyed a GDP growth rate of 8% in 2000. However, from the US invasion till the present, it declined dramatically and became a dependent, consumption economy, relying on the import of goods from supportive nations and foreign aid. By 2003, the country had plummeted into a strong and immediate recession. The economy remains precarious more than two years after the Taliban takeover. Drought, loss of crops, loss of human capacity, the immediate suspension of foreign aid, international financial relations, sanctions, political instability and insecurity, migration and internally displaced persons, together with shocks caused by Covid have all placed a tremendous burden on the country’s economy. While the Taliban’s previous control of Afghanistan in the 1990s was highly destructive, including economically, the current Taliban government has shown signs that it does not want to see a repeat thereof. Although the economy is not its top priority, it has become a fundamental pillar of the current administration. The World Bank’s most recent report (May 2023) of Afghanistan’s economy shows positive signs, such as inflationary decreases, currency stability, better cash flow management (such as paying salaries on time), improved access to bank deposits, and an increase in domestic income with better management of collection of taxes.

Foreign investors are hesitant to return to Afghanistan as the Islamic State militant group has, in recent years, targeted foreign embassies and a hotel popular with Chinese investors in Kabul. However, Aziz confirmed to Reuters that security was a priority for the Taliban-run government and added that after 20 years of war – which ended when foreign forces withdrew, and the Taliban took over – meant more parts of the country were safe.

It will most likely take many years to see the outcomes of China’s recent overtures towards cooperation with the Taliban-led government, but it provides the promise of a lifeline which the country desperately needs. It also provides exciting opportunities for establishing and re-establishing relationships with Afghanis. China’s general approach of non-interference, on a governmental level, in a country’s domestic administration might mean that some critical issues such as the redress of women’s rights in Afghanistan, may not be a condition of engagement. However, on business and social levels there may be opportunities to impact such practices from the inside. China’s burgeoning missionary force has a strong focus on building relationships through business and development endeavours. The BRI is seen by many Chinese believers as a “gift from the Lord”, an open door of opportunity into the ‘harvest fields’ of the world. The developing relations between the two nations does not come as a surprise to the Lord, and He has already prepared His children for such a time as this. The larger Body of Christ can engage in this opportunity through intercession and investing in resources that can assist these individuals and families as they “strengthen the arms” of the small, but resilient Church in Afghanistan.

Please join us in prayer for the following:

  • For the Lord to use these economic ties to bless and uplift the lives of Afghanis
  • For the Lord’s protection over faith-based workers as they prepare to serve in Afghanistan
  • For the Afghan Church to be strengthened and encouraged through the relationships that develop and that there will a wonderful harvest for the Kingdom