China sees both an opportunity and a threat in Afghanistan
China’s foreign minister Wang Yi recently hosted a delegation of the Taliban, led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Tianjin. The meeting highlighted Beijing’s balancing act — of seeing both an opportunity and a threat in Afghanistan in the backdrop of the withdrawal of United States (US) troops, now in its final stages.
This is not the first time that China has made an outreach to the Taliban. The Afghan militant group has visited China before, and the Chinese maintain regular channels of communication and contact through the Taliban’s Doha office. However, the recent Taliban visit has the markings of one that was put together over a short period.
Since 2018-19, China has arguably preferred to deal with the Taliban through Doha, but this time, the equation changed after the terror attack in Pakistan that killed nine Chinese workers in the country’s Dusa region. State-backed Chinese publications blamed the attack on Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) — the latter has direct connections with Uyghur Muslims in China’s restive Xinjiang province where the State has locked in more than a million Uyghurs in “re-education camps”.
Pakistan rapidly dispatched its foreign minister and intelligence chief to Beijing to pacify an upset Chinese leadership. The fact that the Taliban followed only a few days later cannot be seen as a mere coincidence.
China’s fears of Islamist groups such as the ETIM gaining strength in a largely unregulated Afghan landscape emit from the fact that Beijing does not want the issue of Xinjiang to become a rallying war cry by any Islamist group in this region. Here is where China has stepped in. It is willing to giving political support to the Taliban and not interfere in its affairs in Afghanistan. But, in return, it will hold the group accountable if Afghanistan is used as a staging ground by terrorists targeting China. Of course, the Taliban has a similar understanding, as part of its agreement signed in 2020 with the US over al-Qaeda, with no signs of actually honouring any of these commitments.
Interestingly, other groups in Afghanistan, such as the Islamic State (IS), have largely been mute on China and Xinjiang. As scholar Elliot Stewart has highlighted in his work, the Islamic world’s largely muted response to the plight of the Uyghurs would have been a ripe platform for the likes of IS to use as a tool for recruitment, but this has not been the case. While ETIM, under the IS caliphate, did release China-targeted propaganda from Syria in 2017, there has not been much activity since then by either IS or al-Qaeda on this front.
One possible reason for this is that Islamist groups may see China as a counterbalance to the Americans. For Islamist groups, the US’s eviction from these regions is a top priority and a level of convergence may be available for Beijing to leverage this issue. And this is where China’s equation with the Taliban may come into play significantly, both from a geopolitical and a geoeconomic point of view.
However, China, like others, will also be wary of any potential expanded role in Afghanistan. While many analysts have highlighted that the vacuum left behind by the US is ripe for the Chinese to fill, that is easier said than done. It is expected that Beijing, on the security front, would prefer to work on such issues via its only true ally in the world, Pakistan. This, in turn, will push Islamabad to control the Taliban even further. Pakistan will have to attempt this while battling the TTP, which has been emboldened by the Taliban’s juggernaut.
Finally, while China may have significant plans for Afghanistan, it is yet to place its cards on the table. For a country acutely conscious of the past, Beijing will be wary of Afghanistan’s history, geography, and the land’s relationship with great powers.
Kabir Taneja is fellow, Strategic Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation, and the author of The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia
The views expressed are personal