The rapid recapture of almost all of Afghanistan by the Taliban only weeks after the US pulled out is a major headache for China, but Beijing has already moved to recognise the fundamental Islamic movement in an effort to end the fighting as soon as possible.
The situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated very fast. The Taliban already controlled significant tracts of rural territory and have taken control of a number of border crossings, as well as stepping up their attacks on major cities, several of which have already fallen to them.
“The United States is conducting airstrikes to halt the Taliban’s advances, but it is unclear how far even this will continue after the withdrawal is completed at the end of August,” says Andrew Small of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
“There appears to be little serious Taliban engagement with peace talks anymore, given that they see the opportunity to position themselves at least to wield the lion’s share of power in any political settlement or even to achieve an outright victory on the battlefield. Civilian deaths are rising, and the inevitable outflow of refugees has begun,” Small added.
On August 13 the US and major EU embassies ordered their diplomatic staff out of Kabul in anticipation of an assault on the capital. Most of the US troops already left on July 2, just before the Independence Day holiday, but 2,500 US troops remain in the country, based in the capital, that have been providing security. However, these troops are due to be withdrawn by September 15 and suggestions by powers like the UK to replace them have fallen on deaf ears. Without an international military contingent, the government control capital of the country is very likely to fall rapidly to a Taliban onslaught.
The withdrawal of the US forces and the collapse of the US-backed government have created a power vacuum that is being rapidly filled by the Taliban. Some argue that this is an opportunity for China, the analysts at the ECFR argue that China mainly sees Afghanistan as a problem.
Previously the mountainous country has been a refuge for Chinese Islamic fundamentalists and separatists. It also has a significant Uighur population that fled northwest China to escape the government’s persecution.
There have been reports that during last week’s meeting between China’s foreign minister and Taliban officials, the Taliban had already agreed to hand over list of Uighurs that have been nationalized and given Afghan passports, as Beijing and the Taliban begin the process of building relations.
“China does not tend to perceive Afghanistan through the prism of opportunities; it is almost entirely about managing threats. The US presence was understood as a geopolitical threat, much like the Soviet military presence in the 1980s, but Beijing had grown to see it as the lesser of two evils,” Small said. “Pushing back Islamic militancy in China’s backyard and killing militants on China’s hit-list ranked above nebulous fears about how the United States might use bases there for strategic ‘containment’ purposes.”
The sudden collapse of the US backed regime has made China anxious as it sees a greater threat from instability in region from the fighting, which will fuel Islamic fundamentalism, than a peaceful Afghanistan, argue the ECFR analysts.
Commentators on social media close to Beijing’s foreign policy makers have also reported that Beijing is willing to open talks with the Taliban and recognize its participation in the government in potential peace talks as the fastest track to returning some stability to the region, Reuters reports.
“China is now anxious on multiple counts. Its perennial concern, going back to the Taliban’s last time in power, is the potential for Afghanistan to become a safe haven for militant groups targeting China,” Small said. “Chinese economic and political interests in the wider region have grown considerably since then, though, and Beijing is also worried about the spill over effects in neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan.”
The Chinese government main focus for talks with the Taiban’s relations with the Uighur groups, which are also Muslims.
The recent meeting between the Taliban’s Mullah Baradar and Chinese Wang Yi in Tianjin was unusually well-publicised, but the two sides have been interacting with each other for a couple of decades, says ECFR.
“Although Beijing is pragmatic about the power realities in Afghanistan, it has always been uncomfortable with the Taliban’s ideological agenda,” says Small. “China wants to see them hemmed in by compromises with other political forces in the country, not resurgent after a military victory.”
China is pushing for a political compromise that would see the Taliban as part of a coalition government that also contains remants of the US-backed government as a way of constraining the Taliban in Afghanistan. But with city after city falling to Taliban forces in rencent weeks that outcome is already looking increasingly unlikely and a total victory by the Taliban is on the cards.
“China does not tend to perceive Afghanistan through the prism of opportunities; it is almost entirely about managing threats Beijing is also concerned about the risks of entanglement in Afghanistan, which is seen as a strategic trap that has diminished the other great powers that have involved themselves too deeply,” Small said.
Several outlets have reported that Chinese government-linked commentary on the Afghan developments have repeated referenced the “graveyard of empires” moniker the country has won following the defeat of the British, Soviet and now US expeditionary forces. While this “graveyard” meme is seen as a myth by academics, who point out the country has been part of multiple empires over the last two millennium, the experience of the three great powers in the country remains a stark warning that is likely to dissuade Beijing from aggressive policies. Moreover, Beijing is hoping to capitalise on the fact that of the other main players in the region – Russia and the US – China is the only one that has never fought the Taliban.
“So, while they see the necessity of taking on a more active political role to deal with the fallout of what is now underway, there is considerable wariness about being sucked in,” says Small.
At the same time military intervention would run counter to Beijing’s wider policy of building up commercial and economic ties in Central Asia through its Belt and Road initiative. China is already a big investor into infrastructure projects in Central Asia and Pakistan. Afghanistan is the missing link that would open Central Asia up to the markets in SE Asia and is also a goal of Uzbekistan that has taken the lead in Central Asia in tackling the instability of its neighbour.
During his first UN speech Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev specifically brought up the issue of Afghanistan and called for the UN to take action to bring some stability to the country and aid in its economic development.
China has already discussed several economic projects in Afghanistan but the perennial instability in the country means little progress has been made on any of them.
Amongst existing Chinese investments is the Aynak copper mine and the Amu Darya energy projects, but work on these has largely been frozen for many years.
There have been numerous discussions about Afghanistan’s involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative, including connections to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, but Beijing is holding off on all these ideas until there is peace in the country.
Uzbekistan has also taken the first steps at opening up Afghanistan to the wider region by building power lines into the country with the hope of eventually building on export lines to supply Pakistan. And the dream of an oil export line from the oil and gas fields of Central Asia onto the Pakistan and then Indian markets has been on the table for decades.
Russia too is anticipating an opening of Afghanistan and has recently started building a gas pipeline in Pakistan. As Russia’s main energy consumers in the Europe and the US – America is currently Russia’s second biggest customer for oil – increasingly go green, Russia is now looking to prepare to switch exports to Asian markets to make up for the lost business. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Pakistan last month in the first high level meeting for years to push these talks forward.
Beijing is still dragging its heels despite a willingness on the Afghan side to start work. Notoriously cautious, Beijing has chosen not to build any cross-border infrastructure through the Wakhan Corridor, despite Afghan government requests, effectively leaving a physical buffer with its neighbour on the border.
“If there is a permissive security and political environment in the country, then China would certainly take on a significant investment role – but it will be extremely cautious. Right now, it is very worried about recent attacks on Chinese nationals working on projects in Pakistan, not thinking about hair-raisingly risky new ventures in Afghanistan,” says Small.