China's cautious embrace of the Taliban in Afghanistan

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, left, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for a photo during their meeting in Tianjin, China, Wednesday, July 28, 2021. [Li Ran/Xinhua via AP]
7 min read
03 August, 2021
Analysis: China and Pakistan have vowed closer cooperation in Afghanistan as Beijing seeks to protect its long-term interests amid the Taliban's resurgence.

Signifying a major change in stance, Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced in late July that Beijing might launch “joint actions” with Islamabad to tackle the terrorist spillover from Afghanistan.

Though both Wang and the Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi expressed complete support for an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” peace and reconciliation process and urged all stakeholders in Afghanistan to agree on a comprehensive ceasefire, another option is also on the table now.

If required, China and Pakistan would “jointly combat terrorism” and crack down on any terrorist forces that endanger regional stability. In tandem, multi-dimensional efforts would be carried forward to “pursue peace, give top priority to avoiding the spread of war, and prevent Afghanistan from spiralling into a full-scale civil war”.

"China and Pakistan, close strategic partners, each share a border with Afghanistan and naturally share concerns about the security environment on their borders"

Apparently, both China and Pakistan have started feeling a direct backlash from the instability in Afghanistan. Though it has avoided any military role in regional crises since 1979, when it became involved in Vietnam, Beijing is now ready to abandon its traditional strategy of non-interference.

But this reaction was not uncalled for, according to Qian Feng, research director at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University. “The meeting was arranged amid a ‘very important and sensitive’ time, as the Afghan government and the Taliban failed to reach an agreement, and turbulence within the country is yet to be subdued and is spilling over to neighbouring regions,” he said.

For Pakistan, regional stability is the main concern, though its overall interests converge with China. As its army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa has clearly outlined, “Peace in Afghanistan is Pakistan’s earnest desire because peace of the two countries is interlinked”.

But where China is concerned, it has significant geo-economic, geopolitical, and national security interests at stake. To secure these interests, it has three major goals.

Taliban - AFP
Both China and Pakistan have started feeling a direct backlash from the instability in Afghanistan. [Getty]

Firstly, preventing Afghanistan from becoming a "hotbed for terrorism" is top of the agenda. Both Beijing and Islamabad want to restrict and contain the activities of terror outfits using Afghanistan for staging cross-border attacks.

“China and Pakistan, close strategic partners, each share a border with Afghanistan and naturally share concerns about the security environment on their borders,” Prof. Michaël Tanchum, senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES) and a non-resident fellow of the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington, D.C., told The New Arab.

“In the economic realm, both countries are looking at Afghanistan's enormous potential for commercial connectivity in the context of extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative,” he added.

Last month, around nine Chinese engineers lost their lives in an attack at Dasu in Pakistan’s north where an important hydropower project is under construction. In fact, it was after this incident that China switched into defensive mode.

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While stopping the regrouping of Uighur militants from Xinjiang into the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is Beijing’s main goal, Islamabad wishes to keep a banned faction, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) from staging attacks in Pakistan.

But as per reports, only ETIM is mentioned in the press release mentioning joint actions so far.

Discovering alleged ETIM and TTP connections to the Dasu attack, China is worried about the province of Xinjiang, which faced attacks from ETIM in the past. The region is a high-value target as it connects China to Pakistan and Central Asia, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) takes off from there. 

Only last month, a UN report confirmed the presence of ETIM members in Afghanistan, saying that, "The ETIM consists of several hundred members, located primarily in Badakhshan and neighbouring Afghan provinces.”

Therefore, both Beijing and Islamabad have requested the Afghan Taliban to break their ties with these two organisations and evict them from areas under their control.

"By meeting the Taliban, Beijing has formally recognised them as major stakeholders in Afghanistan"

Secondly, saving its long-term investments in the region has become urgently necessary for Beijing

While an unstable Afghanistan has already emerged as a serious threat for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), there are two more projects of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Central Asia that need to be secured.

Named the China-Central Asia-West Asia Corridor which connects Xinjiang to the Central Asian states and the New Eurasian Land Bridge which runs from China to Europe, these are major new investments in Central Asia.

Lately, China has grown its presence there with the China+Central Asia mechanism (C+C5) and the second foreign ministers meeting was held in May this year.

In addition, there are future plans to extend CPEC into Afghanistan. Having upgraded ties with Afghanistan to the level of a “strategic and cooperative partnership” in 2012, China has already laid the groundwork.

“The effort to develop Afghanistan's connectivity potential is not new. During the Taliban's original rise to power in the 1990s, the US oil exploration and marketing firm Unocal (now a subsidiary of Chevron) and the Argentinian oil company Bridas (now 50 percent owned by China's CNOOC) each conducted competing negotiation tracks with the Taliban to construct gas pipelines across Afghanistan,” according to Prof. Tanchum.

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Saving its long-term investments in the region has become urgently necessary for Beijing. [Getty]

“Beijing and Islamabad are both cognizant of Afghanistan's importance for future commercial transportation and energy transit routes. Additionally, Afghanistan sits on an estimated $1 trillion of untapped mineral wealth.”

Thirdly, considering China’s diplomatic approach to regional spats, it may not wish to get too deeply involved in Afghanistan, which has earned the reputation of being the “graveyard of empires.”

In Afghanistan’s case, China can benefit from the fact that it is part of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO) as well. Any counter-terror efforts undertaken by China and Pakistan come under the ambit of the SCO, of which both are members while Afghanistan has observer status.

As Qian Feng has suggested, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan are all part of the SCO and more “regional and relevant” countries can unite to provide a solution for the Afghan situation. He observes that, "Since a significant solution needs time to put forward, such a small step may serve as a kick starter”.

The SCO Peace Mission counter-terrorism exercises are held every two years and focus on combat readiness and coordination for joint counter-terror operations.

"Beijing and Islamabad are both cognizant of Afghanistan's importance for future commercial transportation and energy transit routes. Additionally, Afghanistan sits on an estimated $1 trillion of untapped mineral wealth"

The Taliban factor

Since the Taliban have consolidated their position, China has been compelled to speed up engagement with them rather than the government in Kabul. Not only have they taken control of more than half of the rural areas and several border crossings, but they have also gained access to the Badakhshan province in Afghanistan.

Highlighting the significance of this province for China, Barbara Keleman, Research Associate for Asia-Pacific at the Risk Advisory Group writes, “More importantly, the Afghan government has now abandoned the Wakhan district in Badakhshan province, one of the most strategically important areas for China. Badakhshan province, and the Wakhan corridor, in particular, are now all but lost to the Taliban”.

Therefore, China has had to lean towards the Taliban to get results.

Receiving a nine-member Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin, China last week, Wang Yi asked them to “play an important role in the process of peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan”. At the same time, they were asked to crack down on ETIM as it was a “direct threat to China’s national security”.

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Responding to his request, the Taliban delegation assured him that they will not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against China, but it is unclear whether they can take the ETIM head-on without forming their own government.

Taking note of this meeting, the Afghan Foreign Ministry tweeted that Beijing had informed the Kabul government about the Taliban visit and said that the trip “reflects China’s concern over the security situation, the presence of foreign fighters alongside the Taliban and the country’s support for peace talks and political agreements”.

But with this meeting, Beijing has formally recognised them as major stakeholders in Afghanistan.

In the meantime, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken commented on this development, saying that Beijing’s involvement inside Afghanistan may be a “positive thing” if it wanted a peaceful resolution of the conflict and a “truly representative and inclusive” government.

But he warned that Afghanistan would become a “pariah state” if the Taliban seized power.

Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Middle East and South Asia. 

Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi