Risks and opportunities for China in Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan
- As the world criticises chaotic US withdrawal, Beijing has strengthened its border with the country and met Taliban leaders
- The main concerns are that instability could spill into the Xinjiang region and hurt belt and road investments
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Monday that China “respects the wishes and choices of the Afghan people”, and hoped the Taliban’s declarations that it would transition the country under an “open, inclusive Islamic government” and ensure the safety of Afghan citizens and foreign missions would be carried out accordingly.
Taliban takes control of Afghan capital Kabul as President Ghani flees country
But the dramatic collapse of the Afghan government comes with devastating losses for the US – increasingly a strategic rival for China – as its nearly 20-year war ends as it began with Taliban rule and the sight of helicopters evacuating its diplomats in an unmistakable parallel with its withdrawal from Saigon in 1975.
When asked if Beijing would recognise the Taliban as the legitimate leaders of Afghanistan, Hua did not answer directly, saying China has “maintained contact and communication with the Taliban” and that it respected the country’s sovereignty and its various domestic parties.
“Afghanistan’s Taliban has expressed many times a desire for good relations with China, with an expectation that China will take part in Afghanistan’s rebuilding and development process, and will not allow any forces to use Afghanistan’s soil to harm China,” she said. “We welcome this.”
The Chinese embassy in Afghanistan is continuing to operate as normal, and its ambassador and embassy staff will remain in their posts. Most Chinese citizens in Afghanistan had earlier returned to China, but the ones who remained behind are in close contact with the embassy.
In Beijing, Javid Ahmad Qaem, Afghanistan’s ambassador to China, on Monday said he had no plan to leave China yet.
While China may not be directly involved in the ongoing power transition, Beijing will play an active role in the rebuilding process to secure its interests, observers said.
“China will play a more important role in Afghanistan, but this will have to wait until the security situation is more stable,” Du Youkang, a former diplomat and international affairs researcher at Shanghai’s Fudan University, said. “The Taliban already has taken control of most of Afghanistan but many of the smaller places and other forces have not been fully sorted out, and the situation is still rapidly changing, so there will still be a process for the entire situation to be stabilised.”
Why Afghanistan matters to China as US withdraws from war-torn country
At the same meeting, in the eastern Chinese city of Tianjin, Wang slammed the US for its “hasty withdrawal” from Afghanistan and said the Taliban was a “pivotal military and political force” that was “expected to play an important role in the country’s peace, reconciliation and reconstruction process”.
Du said the more chaotic the security environment in Afghanistan, the “more space it allows for terrorist groups and organisations to conduct their activities, including accessing channels for weapons procurement”. But he said China would need to maintain a relationship with the Taliban, particularly because the group had promised not to allow terrorist or separatist forces against China to operate from Afghanistan.
“For the Taliban, China is Afghanistan’s largest and most powerful neighbour, and they want to secure Chinese aid and investments because they know they will not be able to stay in power without economic development,” he said. “For China, the Taliban is a political force in Afghanistan that cannot be ignored, whether it is in power or not. You cannot ignore it, so under these circumstances, engaging with the Taliban is better than not engaging with them.”
Hua Liming, a former Chinese ambassador to Iran and expert in China’s relations with the Middle East and Islamic countries, said Beijing’s immediate concerns were the uncertainties created by Afghan asylum seekers heading to China’s borders and the region, as well as the Taliban’s existing relationships with terrorist groups.
“The question is whether the Taliban now is the same Taliban from 20 years ago, when they were in government,” he said. “The group has such deep-rooted and complex ties with extremist and terrorist groups that it is too early to tell how worried China should be.”
While the Taliban had expressed a desire to build good relations with China at the Tianjin meeting, he warned that “their attitude and promises can also change”.
Wu Sike, former Chinese special envoy to the Middle East, said the key issue for engagement with the Taliban was whether mutual trust could eventually be built.
“The Taliban seems to have sent some positive signals, to give the impression that it is not taking over with pure violence. It has also taken a more pragmatic approach to relations with other countries,” Wu said. “But there are two guarantees that China needs to see from the Taliban to build mutual trust: one is that they must make clear political declarations that they will cut ties with extremists and terrorists; and the second is that their actions will live up to their words. Without these, trust cannot be built.”
Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang think tank in Beijing, said the Chinese army had reinforced its defences several months ago along the narrow Wakhan Corridor which forms a 70km (43.4 miles) border between China and Afghanistan.
Even as the US and its allies scrambled to evacuate their staff from Afghanistan, China’s embassy in Kabul signalled on Sunday that it had been in contact with the Taliban and would be staying put in the country.
“The Chinese embassy has requested various factions in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of Chinese nations, Chinese institutions and Chinese interests,” it said in a statement. “The embassy will take further steps to remind Chinese nationals to closely follow the security situation, increase safety precautions and to refrain from going outside.”
A Taliban spokesman said it had assured “all embassies, diplomatic centres, institutions, places and foreign nationals” in Kabul that they would remain safe, as its sweeping and rapid advances on Sunday left the capital city in disarray.
Harry Kazianis, senior director at the Centre for the National Interest in Washington, said it seemed the Biden administration had not grasped the full weight of its decision to pull US forces from Afghanistan, and that the Taliban regime had “no chance of ever being a legitimate government in any civilised nation’s collective eyes”.
Additional reporting by Minnie Chan and Jun Mai