China’s Engagement with the Taliban: What Now for Afghanistan?

5 August 2021 Tridivesh Singh Maini, FDI Visiting Fellow

The meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and a nine-member Taliban delegation is significant for a number of reasons. While realising the need to engage with the Taliban, Beijing – with an eye towards Xinjiang province – has urged the group to sever any links between it and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

 

Background

Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, met with a nine-member delegation of the Taliban on 28 July. The delegation was led by Abdul Ghani Baradar, who heads the Taliban’s political office in Doha. In July 2021, the Taliban visited Russia and the Kremlin envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, met with the delegates.

The meeting is significant for a number of reasons.

 

Comment

The Timing of the Meeting

This is the first high-level public meeting by Taliban representatives after the group gained control over a significant portion of Afghan territory, including Badakshan province, which shares a border with China’s western Xinjiang region. Given the changing geopolitical dynamics, Beijing previously opened its back channels with the Taliban. It is noteworthy that China has, however, hosted Taliban delegations in 2015 (Urumqi, Xinjiang) and in 2019 (Beijing). While realising the need to engage with the Taliban, Beijing has not hidden its scepticism with regard to the links between the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and them. In fact, during their meeting, China demanded that the Taliban sever its ties to ETIM.

Second, the meeting came days after the Pakistan Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, visited China for a strategic dialogue on 24 July. During that meeting, both sides agreed to work jointly to address the security challenges posed by the situation in Afghanistan. Apart from emphasising talks and reconciliation, China also categorically stated that action needed to be taken against terror groups and both countries would work jointly in that direction.

Third, the meeting between the Taliban delegation and China took place two weeks after a terror attack in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which resulted in the deaths of thirteen individuals, including nine Chinese engineers and other staff working on the Dasu Project, in a bus explosion. China believes that a terror group like ETIM could be responsible for the attack, but Pakistan was initially more cautious in its assessment. Beijing also sent a delegation to Pakistan to join an investigation team into the reasons for the attack. Pakistan has assured China of the quick completion of the inquiry as well as safety of its citizens in Pakistan.

Finally, the meeting takes place at a time when US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was in India and, during his discussions with senior Indian officials, Afghanistan was high on the agenda. Blinken had expressed concern at the rise in atrocities committed by the Taliban, said that it could not gain legitimacy by such measures and that, ultimately:

‘There’s only one path. And that’s at the negotiating table to resolve the conflicts peacefully, and to have an Afghanistan emerge that is governed in a genuinely inclusive way, and that is representative of all its people.’

Beijing’s Recognition of the Taliban’s Importance

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s meeting send outs a strong message that Beijing clearly recognised the role of the Taliban in resolving the current situation. Wang Yi said that he expected the Taliban to:

‘… play an important role in the process of peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan’.

At the same time, Wang Yi was unequivocal in flagging the threat to China from ETIM and asked the Taliban to ‘completely sever ties’ with the group. The Taliban, for its part, assured Wang that they will not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against China. The Taliban had previously assured China that it would ensure safety of Chinese investments. Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen, in a media interview in July, stated,

‘China is a friendly country and we welcome it for reconstruction and developing Afghanistan … if [the Chinese] have investments, of course we will ensure their safety.’

Difference between China-Russia and the US

While conveying its reservations and apprehensions to the Taliban, Beijing has clearly taken a different stance from the US. Beijing has sought to send out a message that it is not patronising the Taliban.

Blinken mentioned dialogue being the only solution, but has been critical of the Taliban’s excesses. Beijing on the other hand has not only recognised the role of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but categorically stated that it would not interfere in the country’s internal affairs. The Taliban, too, seems to be sending out a message that it is willing to do business with China and has been less critical of Beijing than it is of the West, as is evident from the meeting between Wang and the Taliban delegation.

Beijing has been critical of Washington and can blame the latter for the instability in Afghanistan. It may also try to adopt a different posture from US. At the same time, Wang Yi’s meeting with Qureshi, as well as the Taliban, reiterates China’s security concerns.

The Taliban’s meetings with Russia and China also raise the question of whether or not just Russia but Russia and China are more acceptable to the Taliban than the US, and also whether Moscow and Beijing may work jointly to curtail and diminish Washington’s influence in Afghanistan.

It would be important, however, to bear in mind that in spite of China’s criticism of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and strained ties between Beijing and Washington, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken during his visit to India remarked that China’s role in Afghanistan could be positive if Beijing were looking towards an amicable resolution of the conflict and at the formation of a representative and inclusive government. This is an encouraging development, and leaves the door open for a collaborative approach.

In conclusion, the situation in Afghanistan is still evolving, and the geopolitical dynamics of the region are likely to become even more complex in the short-to-mid-term. Secretary of State Blinken’s remarks with regard to China’s role in Afghanistan are important and signal a shift from a pure zero sum approach. It also remains to be seen if all factions of the Taliban are on the same page with regard to negotiations with the outside world.

About the Author

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst and FDI Visiting Fellow.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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