One Chinese scholar says that the US withdrawal has ‘provided the Afghan people with an important opportunity to become the masters of their own country’.
While talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have hit a dead end, the Taliban have been enjoying hospitality from Russia, Iran and China, thus legitimising the once deadly terrorist organisation. The Taliban’s chief negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was hosted in Tianjin on 28 July 2021 by none other than China’s Foreign Minister and State Councillor, Wang Yi, just two days after the US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman was hosted at the same venue. Though it is obvious that the Taliban is exploiting China’s troubled relationship with the US, however, China too wishes to secure its interests in the Af-Pak region as the Taliban is poised to take over Afghanistan after the US withdrawal. The Chinese media has upheld that hosting the Taliban is consistent with China’s advocacy for “Afghanistan-led and Afghan-owned” (阿人主导、阿人所有) peace process. Wang Yi, during his meeting with the Taliban in Tianjin pronounced them as “a very decisive (举足轻重) military and political force in Afghanistan”, which is “expected to play an important role in the country’s peace, reconciliation and reconstruction process”. So why is China hosting the terror organisation?
One, Chinese scholars believe that the hurried and “irresponsible withdrawal” (不负责任撤军) of the US from Afghanistan shows that the US and its allies have lost the two-decade-long war it initiated in Afghanistan. Lan Jianxue, director of the Asia-Pacific Institute of the China Institute of International Studies, posits that “the US has completely abandoned the Afghan people, leaving only devastation and endless misery”. Conversely, China has played the role of a “responsible major power and an important neighbour of Afghanistan, which has always adhered to non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs,” and has been actively mediating between different political factions in Afghanistan, so as to strengthen and promote dialogue and contribute to the Afghan peace and reconciliation process. Wang Yi’s meeting with the Taliban has been stated by Lan as an outcome of China taking stock of the situation (审时度势), strengthening contacts with the Afghan government, the Afghan Taliban, and closely coordinating policy with neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asian republics. The Taliban, on their part, have appreciated “China’s fair and active role in the peace process” and pronounced China as a “trustworthy and good friend of the Afghan people”. Lan, also says that the US withdrawal has “provided the Afghan people with an important opportunity to become the masters of their own country”.
Two, it is owing to mutual security concerns that China hosted the Taliban. Hu Ge, an analyst argues that the Taliban are lobbying for support of the neighbouring countries so as their prospective regime survives in Kabul. In other words, they want to “seek security” (寻求安全) from China, one of the most powerful neighbours of Afghanistan. In turn, China has also sought security for its restive Xinjiang and secured a guarantee from the Afghan Taliban that they “will never allow forces to use Afghan territory to threaten China’s security”. Obviously, China has the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in mind, which in tandem with the Taliban and foreign fighters has been operating in the Badakhshan region of the Wakhan corridor since 2016. Chinese media reports that in July 2020, they also participated in the Taliban’s attacks on mining areas and towns near the Pakistani border. A recent bus attack in Pakistan in which 9 Chinese engineers were killed has also been attributed to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and ETIM rebels. In tandem with Pakistan, China has urged the Afghan Taliban to make a clean break from various terror outfits including the TTP and the ETIM. Wang Yi urged the Afghan Taliban to “hold high the banner of peace talks, set up peace goals, build a positive image (正面形象), and pursue an inclusive policy (包容政策)” even as the Afghan Taliban continue to perpetrate atrocities amounting to war crimes in the areas controlled by them or where they are advancing.
Three, the importance of the Wakhan Corridor since 2015 has been replaced by the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the project of the century. China has committed to invest over US$70 billion in this corridor and desires to extend the same to Afghanistan. China building a road through Wakhan Corridor that will link Xinjiang to Afghanistan, and a road connecting Peshawar-Kabul-Dushanbe should be seen in this context. Once complete, the AF-Pak region and Central Asia will get connected to Xinjiang, and enable China to expand its investment in mining, energy and transport infrastructure on the one hand and export its products to the region on the other. No wonder, the Taliban promised to protect Chinese investment in Afghanistan during their meeting with Wang Yi. Owing to security concerns, China has been cautious to invest in Afghanistan. Its total investment in Afghanistan remains less than half a billion dollars. The promised investment of US$3 billion in the Mes Aynak copper mines has been stalled since the deal was signed in 2007. China has also secured a 25-year US$400 million bid to drill oil in Afghanistan.
Finally, as far as India is concerned, Lin Minwang, professor at the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University argues that since the US is unwilling to consign its “achievements” of decades in Afghanistan to flames, it has been actively seeking India to stand up and “take over” (接盘). Since India has long stood on the opposite side of the Taliban in Afghanistan, it is unwilling to see the Taliban regain power. This, according to Lin, has formed the strategic basis of the US-India cooperation. He posits that the United States hopes for India to play a greater role in giving air support to Afghan government forces, but it is still unclear what role India is willing to play. He asserts that even if the Afghan Taliban regain power, the two countries will not easily recognize their “legitimacy”. On the question of Pakistan’s apprehensions, scholars such as Wang Shida maintain that Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan stems mainly from geopolitical and security considerations. It strives to ensure the establishment of a friendly or at least a neutral regime in Afghanistan, to prevent the expansion of India’s influence and the continued tilt of the regional balance of power in favour of India, and to avoid having enemies on both its eastern and western flanks (东西腹背受敌).
Considering that ethnic groups such as the Tajik, Hazara, and the Uzbek maintain contacts with India to varying degrees, the Pashtuns can be described as Pakistan’s “worst choice”. In addition, Pakistan has also played an important role in the signing of a peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban. In future, whether the Taliban focus on consolidating their political status in Afghanistan or developing the economy after the formation of a government, they cannot do so without Pakistan’s support, asserts Professor Lin. Therefore, maintaining friendly relations with Pakistan will be the top priority of the Taliban’s regional policy.
B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.