Beijing and the Taliban have an eye for each other

Talks between Afghan government forces and the Taliban on both sides began July 17 in Qatar. Meanwhile, foreign troops have withdrawn and the Taliban and Afghan government forces are fighting fiercely. France has withdrawn more than a hundred people from its embassy in Afghanistan, and China, India, Germany and Canada have also withdrawn or asked their respective expatriates to leave. However, the Chinese government’s unique stance toward the Taliban has drawn the attention of observers: China is fighting Islamic extremist forces on its soil, but is accommodating and accommodating to the Taliban in foreign countries.

The withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan on Aug. 31 undoubtedly poses an extremely significant threat to Afghanistan, where the Taliban claim they now control 85 percent of the country’s territory. Beijing has accused the U.S. of “irresponsible behavior” in withdrawing its troops, and China is particularly worried about the out-of-control civil war that has erupted in its immediate neighbor, preferring to restore stability after a Taliban victory.

Fan Hongda, a professor at the Institute of Middle East Studies at Shanghai Foreign Studies University, admitted to AFP that the danger for China is not in who is in power in Afghanistan, but in the country’s continued instability.

China has only a very short stretch of border with Afghanistan – 76 kilometers – and no road access. But Beijing authorities fear that this little border will lead to the vast Muslim-majority territory of Xinjiang. In Xinjiang, human rights groups have revealed that more than a million Uighurs are being held in camps for “re-education” to prevent extremist Islamism.

According to Fan Hongda, an unstable Afghanistan naturally poses some kind of threat to the security of China’s border regions. “If Afghanistan descends into a bitter civil war, it will undoubtedly strengthen the extremist forces.”

Faced with the risk of Afghanistan falling into chaos, Beijing opened the door to negotiations with the Taliban early on. in September 2019, Beijing hosted a visiting Taliban delegation. At the end of June, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi even offered to host both Afghan sides in China for talks. In a meeting with Pakistan’s foreign minister he claimed that the Taliban must be brought into the normal game.

Not quite as openly appreciative of the Taliban as Hu Xijin: “China’s line makes us both a friend of Kabul and the Taliban treat us as a friend,” Wang Yi presupposes a condition: “terrorism must be avoided,” “intensify the fight against the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement””.

The Chinese Communist regime seems to be implicitly hoping that the Taliban, or potentially in power, will not allow the East Turkestan Islamic Movement to use Afghanistan as a rear base to launch offensive operations inside Xinjiang.

The two sides could make a deal: the Taliban would leave the “Uighur separatists” alone, and Beijing would invest in the Taliban, who appear ready to accept the deal.

When an AFP reporter asked Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen in Qatar about the Taliban’s China position, the spokesman said, “If a country wants to develop our mines, we welcome it.” In an interview with the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post a few days ago, the spokesman had assured that the Taliban had forbidden anyone from using Afghanistan to attack any country, including China.

If the Taliban sheltered al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden before the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, Qian Feng, a researcher at the National Institute for Strategic Studies at Tsinghua University, said: China has never seen the Taliban as a terrorist group, but as a radical religious organization.

The question is, to what extent can Beijing trust the Taliban? Andrew Small, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, an American think tank that wrote “The China-Pakistan Axis: The New Geopolitics of Asia,” argues that China can negotiate and even reach an agreement with the Taliban, but the latter’s religious motivations are unsettling to the Chinese, who have no certainty about how far the Taliban would go if a deal were reached on the Uighur issue.

Another factor in China’s approach to extremist Islamic forces is Beijing’s desire to secure its own economic ties with Afghanistan. Political scientist Atta Noori observes that Beijing is reluctant to commit its military forces in Afghanistan, but wants to strengthen its economic ties to take full advantage of the country’s rich mineral deposits. But to do this, the Chinese want security guarantees. This is something the current Afghan government cannot guarantee: “It costs nothing to play security on the Taliban anyway.”

Thierry Kellner, an academic at the Free University of Brussels, believes that through its ally Pakistan, Beijing has long established ties with the Taliban. This relationship has allowed China to avoid terrorist attacks on its projects in Afghanistan, particularly against the giant Aynak copper mine near Kabul, for which China was awarded a concession in 2007 for $3 billion.

China likewise roped Afghanistan into its “One Belt, One Road” plan in 2016, but due to a lack of security, Chinese investment is only $4.4 million in 2020. Beijing’s pearl in the South Asian subcontinent is, of course, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, but it wants to connect with Afghanistan, which is connected to the Indian Ocean and China.

Thierry Kellner notes that in order to win Taliban cooperation, China may propose to build roads in Taliban-controlled areas, as well as develop energy sources. But whether these plans will last is anyone’s guess.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani military and economic expert, noted that until now, China has been hesitant to invest large sums of money in Afghanistan. I don’t see Afghanistan being connected to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as long as there is no strong power controlling the country.

In case the situation gets out of hand, Beijing will never take Washington’s place in Afghanistan, a country that has been nicknamed the “graveyard of empires” and has resisted many foreign invaders.

Before making a final decision on what China will do, Beijing authorities began evacuating its expatriates in Afghanistan in early July.