Chinese officials pose with the Taliban delegation during the latter’s visit to Tianjin
Dealing with a global crisis like Afghanistan allows China to tell the world that it has the political ambition to work with the Taliban and also tame the Taliban to its terms. Taliban has found a new friend in need. Only time will tell whether it is a friend indeed
by Savio Rodrigues
In a recent press conference, Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, said, “China is our most important partner”. He further stated that the Taliban support China’s One Belt, One Road initiative that seeks to link China with Africa, Asia and Europe through an enormous network of ports, railways, roads and industrial parks. Mujahid said, “China is our most important partner and represents a fundamental and extraordinary opportunity for us because it is ready to invest and rebuild our country.
Interestingly, the Taliban spokesperson also elucidated that it is looking at China to rebuild Afghanistan and exploit its rich copper deposits. “There are rich copper mines in the country, thanks to the Chinese, can be put into operation and modernized. In addition, China is our pass to markets all over the world.”
Even as early as July, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen noted, “We care about the oppression of Muslims, be it in Palestine, in Myanmar, or in China, and we care about the oppression of non-Muslims anywhere in the world. But what we are not going to do is interfere in China›s internal affairs.” During their first-ever press conference on 16 August after seizing power, the Taliban spokesperson said, “We want to reassure that Afghanistan will not be used against anybody.”
China too has been warming up to the Taliban, stating that China respects Afghanistan›s sovereignty and will not interfere and follow the friendship with «entire Afghan people»; Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that «facts show that in realising economic development we need an open inclusive political structure, implementation of moderate foreign and domestic policies and clean break from terrorist groups in all forms”. On 16 August, one day after Kabul fell, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson Hua Chunying was asked about potential recognition. She said, “We hope the Afghan Taliban can form solidarity with all factions and ethnic groups in Afghanistan and build a broad-based and inclusive political structure.”
On the same day, Chinese United Nations envoy Geng Shuang echoed the statement but also noted, “Afghanistan must never again become a haven for terrorists. We hope that the Taliban in Afghanistan will earnestly deliver on their commitments and make a clean break with the terrorist organizations.”
Two days later, on August 18, there came the strongest hint yet at official recognition of the Taliban by China. “It is a customary international practice that the recognition of a government comes after its formation,” MFA spokesperson Zhao Lijian said. Most recently, on 25 August, an MFA spokesperson, when asked about a reported meeting the previous day between the Taliban representatives and the Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan, said Beijing “stands ready to continue to develop good-neighbourliness, friendship, and cooperation with Afghanistan and play a constructive role in Afghanistan›s peace and reconstruction.”
According to Centre of Foreign Relations in the article by CFR expert, Ian Johnson, it stated, “The relationship with the Taliban will be twofold. First, it will be mercantilist. China will seek to revive business ventures inside Afghanistan, which the Taliban is likely to support because investment will provide badly needed revenues. The Afghan economy is fragile and highly dependent on Western donors’ foreign aid, which will almost certainly be cut off. So any sort of investment, especially if it is not accompanied by lectures on human rights, will be welcome.
“Second, the relationship will depend on each side not interfering in the other’s internal affairs. For Beijing, that means the Taliban cannot export extremism into China’s troubled Xinjiang region, which shares a tiny border with Afghanistan, or condemn the Chinese government’s abuses against Uyghur Muslims in that region. For the Taliban, it means China will not question the group’s human rights abuses unless Chinese citizens are involved.”
Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at the RAND Corporation in his article on China and the Taliban stated: “This new transportation infrastructure, including planned thoroughfares through the narrow Wakhan Corridor that links the two countries, would significantly enhance Beijing›s ability to access Afghanistan›s natural resources. According to a 2014 report, Afghanistan may possess nearly $1 trillion worth of extractable rare-earth metals locked within its mountains.
“Beijing further has its eye on projects that languished under the previous Afghan government due to a combination of obstacles including archaeological discoveries, security issues, and social impact. Under the Taliban, the future of these projects may be brighter. For example, in 2016, the Taliban offered protection for Chinese workers at the Mes Aynak Copper Mine near Kabul. If Afghanistan›s new masters are so inclined, Beijing may finally get long-sought-after benefits from a major oil project in northern Afghanistan›s Amu Darya basin.
“Developments since the fall of Kabul strongly suggest China and the Taliban have started off on the right foot. This week, the Taliban spokesperson confirmed the two sides are actively discussing their bilateral relationship, including Chinese humanitarian assistance.”
China, has positioned itself as a new great power in competition with the United States, and it will want to demonstrate its way of handling world crisis.
“Perhaps most importantly, recognizing Taliban-run Afghanistan would contribute to the perception that it is Beijing—and no longer Washington—that is now setting the agenda and shaping the future regional order” according to Derek Grossman in his analysis on China and the Taliban relationship.
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the pathetic manner in which the United States handled the Afghan crisis give China a point to rub into the US government, that when push comes to shove, the United States is unreliable and that it fails to walk the talk when it matters most.
China, recognizing the Taliban makes for strange optics: fighting Islamists at home but embracing them abroad. But it shows that China could be the ultimate politics playing nation.
As, Derek Grossman expressed, it’s still the early days under Taliban rule, so China is understandably cautious. Beijing is concerned the Taliban may reengage in illegal narcotics trafficking to fund their government and return to supporting terrorist attacks outside Afghanistan. Beijing worries the Taliban‘s spectacular success might embolden alleged members of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, which Chinese authorities have controversially designated as a separatist and terrorist threat in the north-western Xinjiang province. To date, China has predominantly relied on its “ironclad brother” Pakistan to do the heavy lifting to prevent fighters from entering Xinjiang or otherwise supporting the outlawed group.
China and the Taliban make strange bedfellows according to most defence analysts, but I do not see it as strange bedfellows. It is merely a relationship of bare necessities.
China wants to establish itself as a global power centre. Dealing with a global crisis like Afghanistan allows for China to tell the world that it has the political ambition to work with the Taliban and also tame the Taliban to its terms. China will play the friend of the Taliban till such time Taliban and its government benefits China. Having Pakistan on its one-side and Afghanistan on the other, with the Taliban gives it a strong and indisputable leverage not only in the region but the world but most all over India.
With the United States being an eagle with its wings clipped by the Taliban, the dragon will roar in Afghanistan while it will let the hyenas enjoy their prey.
Savio Rodrigues is the founder and editor-in-chief of Goa Chronicle