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EXPLAINED: Why China is Cosying Up to Taliban As They Seize Power in Afghanistan

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets Taliban's Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin, China, July 28, 2021. (Li Ran/Xinhua via REUTERS)

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets Taliban's Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin, China, July 28, 2021. (Li Ran/Xinhua via REUTERS)

China has welcomed the chance to deepen ties with Afghanistan, a country that has for generations been coveted for its geo-strategic importance by bigger powers.

China is ready to deepen “friendly and cooperative” relations with Afghanistan, a government spokeswoman said Monday, after the Taliban seized control of the country. Beijing has sought to maintain unofficial ties with the Taliban.

The Taliban swept Kabul on Sunday after the US-backed Afghan government collapsed and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, bringing an unprecedented end to a two-decade campaign by the US and its allies. Follow LIVE Updates

US President Joe Biden promised a complete withdrawal of US troops by September 11, but Washington was left shocked by the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and the Taliban’s sweeping advance. China has repeatedly criticised what it sees as the US’ hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan as a failure of leadership.

China has so far stopped short of officially recognising the Taliban as the new leaders of Afghanistan, but Foreign Minister Wang Yi called them a “decisive military and political force” during last month’s meeting in Tianjin.

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We Welcome This: China

On Monday, China said it “welcomed” the chance to deepen ties with Afghanistan, a country that has for generations been coveted for its geo-strategic importance by bigger powers. “The Taliban have repeatedly expressed their hope to develop good relations with China, and that they look forward to China’s participation in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters.

“We welcome this. China respects the right of the Afghan people to independently determine their own destiny and is willing to continue to develop… friendly and cooperative relations with Afghanistan.”

Hua called on the Taliban to “ensure a smooth transition” of power and keep its promises to negotiate the establishment of an “open and inclusive Islamic government” and ensure the safety of Afghans and foreign citizens.

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China’s Embassy Remains Operational

While most foreign countries, including US, UK and the EU nations, rushed to evacuate their people, China’s embassy in Kabul remains operational, Hua said. Although Beijing began evacuating Chinese citizens from the country months ago amid the deteriorating security situation.

In a statement Monday, the embassy told Chinese citizens remaining in Afghanistan to “pay close attention to the security situation” and stay indoors.

China’s Uyghur Challenge, Taliban’s Promise:

China shares a rugged 76-kilometre (47-mile) border with Afghanistan. Beijing has long feared Afghanistan could become a staging point for minority Uyghur separatists in the sensitive region of Xinjiang, which shares its borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK), besides Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

But a top-level Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the probable new Afghan president, met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin last month, promising that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militants.

According to a recent UN report, hundreds of militants of East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which is affiliated to Al Qaeda terror outfit, are converging in Afghanistan amid the military advances made by the Taliban in the country.

ALSO READ | Taliban Leadership May Arrive in Kabul Today, Plans on ‘Broad-based Govt’ to Get Int’l Legitimacy

What Taliban Gets Out of a Friendly China:

In exchange for the promise to “deal resolutely” with the ETIM, China offered economic support and investment for Afghanistan’s reconstruction.

Further, the Islamist group is looking to a future where international legitimacy and assistance would be key for it to accomplish the task of reconstruction in Afghanistan. China has already said that it is happy to let the Afghan people sort out their internal matters and wants only to extend the help that they seek from it.

“When a major Asian power like China shows it recognizes Taliban’s political legitimacy by meeting them so openly, it is giving the Taliban a big diplomatic win,” said Lin Minwang, a South Asia expert with Shanghai’s Fudan University.

Geo-strategic Significance: Stability and Business

China-Pakistan Economic Corridor: The Taliban’s takeover opens a strategic door to China laden with both risk and opportunity. Maintaining stability after decades of war in its western neighbour will be Beijing’s main consideration, as it seeks to secure its borders and strategic infrastructure investments in neighbouring Pakistan, home to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Belt and Road Initiative: For Beijing, a stable and cooperative administration in Kabul would pave the way for an expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative into Afghanistan and through the Central Asian republics, analysts say.

Chinese Investment in Afghanistan: The Taliban, meanwhile, may consider China a crucial source of investment and economic support, either directly or via Pakistan -– the insurgents’ chief regional patron and a close Beijing ally.

China Lays Groundwork to Accept ‘the Reality’:

A series of photos published last month by Chinese state media of Foreign Minister Wang Yi standing shoulder to shoulder with visiting Taliban officials decked out in traditional tunic and turban raised eyebrows on the country’s social media. Since then, China’s propaganda machinery has quietly begun preparing its people to accept an increasingly likely scenario that Beijing might have to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate regime.

On Friday, the Global Times, a major state-backed tabloid, published an interview with the leader of an Afghan opposition party who said “the transitional government must include the Taliban”.

State media published at least two analytical stories this week highlighting that Afghanistan had been the “graveyard of empires” and cautioning China not to be mired in the “Great Game”, reinforcing a message that China harbours neither the intentions of sending troops into Afghanistan nor the illusion that it can fill the power vacuum left by the United States.

The Paradox of China’s Opposition to Religious Extremism and ‘Policy of Non-interference’:

The Taliban’s momentum as US forces withdraw is awkward for China, which has blamed religious extremism as a destabilising force in its western Xinjiang region and has long worried that Taliban-controlled territory would be used to harbour separatist forces. But China also hews to a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

It has also drastically tightened security in Xinjiang, hardening its borders and putting what UN experts and rights groups estimate were at least a million ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims in detention centres that China describes as vocational training facilities to help stamp out Islamist extremism and separatism.

After last month’s meeting in Tianjin Wang said he hoped Afghanistan can have a “moderate Islamist policy”.

“Isn’t this the same Taliban that blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan in front of world media? Shouldn’t we have a bottom line?” a Chinese netizen commented on the Twitter-like Weibo below a news clip showing Wang standing next to a Taliban official.

China’s Response to Previous Taliban Regime:

In dealing with the Taliban, an increasingly powerful China may be able to leverage the fact that, unlike Russia or the United States, it has never fought them.

When the Taliban were last in power between 1996-2001, China had already suspended relations with Afghanistan, having pulled out its diplomats in 1993 following the outbreak of civil war.

What it Means for India:

With US out of the picture and the Taliban in control, China could gain a strategic corridor allowing it and long-time ally Pakistan to bring further pressure against common rival India.

(With inputs from AFP, Reuters)

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first published:August 16, 2021, 18:23 IST