China is brimming with optimism about the Taliban in Afghanistan. But a bombing that killed scores of people, including 13 American troops, outside the Kabul airport on August 26 has led many to distrust the Islamic group’s promise to not let anyone use the land-locked country’s soil to target another.
“The explosions show that the security situation in Afghanistan remains complex and grave,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said during a regular press briefing on August 27. In the same breath, he also said, “We hope relevant parties [the Taliban] will take effective measures to ensure a smooth transition of the situation in Afghanistan.”
The meaning is clear: China—which along with Russia and Pakistan maintains its embassy in Kabul—is prepared to accept that the Taliban will bring the situation under control in Afghanistan.
That essentially suggests that China has acknowledged the Taliban as a bonafide ruler, though it has not given the Islamic group diplomatic recognition so far. According to Yun Sun, a China affairs expert and senior fellow at the Stimson Centre, a think-tank in Washington, DC, China believes in statecraft, which she said is run according to the existing ground reality.
“They [Chinese authorities] think in the past 20 years, the Taliban have moderated and they are now more pragmatic and practical,” she said. Her arguments on China-Taliban relations revolve around the factors of give-and-take, the region’s geopolitical situation, and the importance of Afghanistan in China’s Belt and Road Initiative calculus.
Yun Sun, however, defended China’s departure from Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996, stating, “The Taliban were then a weak power and that China’s understanding of them was simplistic.”
Clearly, Beijing changed its tune with regard to the Taliban-2. Even before its takeover of Kabul, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi warmly embraced a Taliban delegation—led by the head of the terror group’s political commission, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar—in Tianjin on July 28.
What surprised the international community was the display of China’s double standard in meeting a group whose ideology appears antithetical to the Chinese Communist Party’s policies. China has banned Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang province from keeping long beards, wearing skull caps and veils, and saying prayers in mosques. As a totalitarian regime, it restricts Muslims from maintaining their religious identity. Rather, it has thrust over a million Uighurs into concentration camps spread across Xinjiang province. But Wang Yi and other Chinese leaders seemed set to bury such aberrations for the sake of their country’s interests. They were not happy with the US presence in Afghanistan, which shares a 76-kilometer (47-mile) boundary with China. They seemed to be equally afraid of the flourishing of democracy next door under the tutelage of the US. “America’s exit lowers strategic pressure on China,” Zhu Yongbiao, an expert on Afghanistan at China’s Lanzhou University, told National Public Radio.
Jubilation was overwhelmingly present when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi termed the Taliban “an important military and political force in Afghanistan.” In fact, during the Taliban’s arrival in Kabul, Chinese leaders saw a much-needed opportunity to run their diktat from South Asia to the Middle East to West Asia through the Belt and Road Initiative.
Afghanistan provides China potential physical linkages to Iran and Turkey that avoid the Pacific and Indian Oceans, where the Quadrilateral group including the US, Japan, India, and Australia wields power. Simultaneously, Afghanistan allows China to circumvent Central Asian countries where Russian has a greater influence on political, economic, and strategic matters.
Besides such strategic considerations, Afghanistan under the Taliban will serve as a “perfect partner to China: Dysfunctional, dependent and happy with whatever China can do for it,” columnist Ian Johnson says in his article published by the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think-tank on August 24.
China’s relationship with the Taliban will be multifold. First, it will be economic. China will seek to revive business ventures in Afghanistan, which the Taliban look forward to with much hope and expectations. The Islamic group would like investments from China to help Afghanistan’s fragile economy after the US froze nearly $9.5 billion in the country’s reserves and the International Monetary Fund cut financing for it, including nearly $500 million that was scheduled for when the Taliban took control. Importantly, investments from China will likely not include any conditions connected to human rights. The Taliban will welcome such trade and investment relations with China.
Then both China and the Taliban will welcome non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. Already, Beijing has received assurances from the Taliban that it will not allow Afghan soil to be used against China’s interests. The group also says it will not export extremism into China or question Beijing on the Uighur issue. For the Taliban, China has promised that it will not question the insurgent group’s human rights record. This can be seen clearly in China’s steadfast refusal to publicly condemn the Taliban fighters’ killing of people, including Hazara community members, harassing and abusing women, and prohibiting girls from attending schools freely and women from working.
Finally, the Taliban’s arrival in Afghanistan gives China a chance to fill the void the US left in the region. It offers Beijing an opportunity to tell the world that while the US left Afghanistan in chaos, blood, and violence, China will encourage the Taliban to restore peace and avoid making the country a den for local and transnational terror groups.
But China forgets that in its bid to get its myriad interests filled, it is ignoring the Taliban’s misdeeds. As the world’s second economic and military power, China must walk the talk on issues of larger international interests. It should behave responsibly and avoid doing things that would undermine its international credibility.