China and the Taliban

Introduction

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with a nine-member delegation of the Taliban on July 28, 2021. The delegation was led by Abdul Ghani Baradar, who heads the Taliban’s political office in Doha. In July 2021, the Taliban had visited Russia and the Kremlin envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, had met with the delegation. Kabulov said that the Taliban had assured him that the territory of Afghanistan will not be used against Russia or any of its allies in Central Asia.

The meeting between Yi and the Taliban delegation is the first high level public meeting after the Taliban has managed to gain control over a significant portion of Afghanistan’s territory, including Badakshan province, which shares a border with China’s western Xinjiang region (given the changing geopolitical dynamics, Beijing had of course opened its back channels earlier with the Taliban). It would be pertinent to point out that China has previously hosted Taliban delegations in 2015 (Urumqi, Xinjiang) and in 2019 (Beijing).

Significance of meeting

Wang Yi’s meeting with the Taliban delegation is significant for more than one reason; it comes days after Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi had undertaken a two-day visit to China (July 23-July 24, 2021) for a strategic dialogue. During this meeting, both sides had agreed to work jointly to address the security challenges posed by the situation in Afghanistan. Apart from supporting peace talks and reconciliation, China had also made it clear that action needed to be taken against terror groups, which pose a security threat to Beijing, and both Islamabad and Beijing need to work jointly in this direction. In a press release posted on the website of the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi said:

We will work together to combat terrorism and push all major forces in Afghanistan to draw a clear line against terrorism, firmly combat the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and other terrorist forces, and resolutely stop Afghanistan from becoming a hotbed of terrorism.

China believes that the recent terror attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK province), which had resulted in the killing of 13 individuals (including 9 Chinese nationals) in a bus explosion (engineers and staff working on the Dasu Project were in the bus), was a possible handiwork of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Beijing also sent a delegation to Pakistan to be part of an enquiry being conducted by Islamabad into the attack.

Finally, the meeting between Wang Yi and the Taliban delegation took place at a time when US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was in India, and during his discussions with the Indian side Afghanistan was high on the agenda. Blinken had expressed concern about the rise in atrocities committed by the Taliban, and also said that the Taliban could not gain legitimacy by such steps and 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 Taliban’s importance

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, on its part, assured Wang Yi that Taliban will not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against China. Wang Yi’s meeting send outs a strong message that Beijing clearly recognizes the role of the Taliban in resolving the current situation. The Taliban had also assured China earlier that it would ensure the safety of Chinese investments. Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen had, in a media interview in July 2021, 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

The US approach vis-à-vis Afghanistan has been different from that of Beijing. While flagging its concerns, Beijing, realizing the ground realities, has sent out a clear message that it is willing to do business with the Taliban; the statements of Blinken, on the other hand, indicate US hesitancy vis-à-vis the Taliban. What is extremely interesting, however, are Blinken’s remarks during his visit to India stating that China’s involvement in Afghanistan could be positive. Given the fact that numerous commentators have been arguing that China and the US need to find common ground and that a zero-sum approach will not benefit anyone, this is a very interesting remark and should be welcomed since all stakeholders will need to work jointly in order to find a solution.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the situation in Afghanistan is perpetually evolving and requires all stakeholders in the region and outside to adopt a nuanced approach. The priority in the short run is to navigate the turbulence. In the midst of strained ties between Washington and Beijing, the US Secretary of State’s remarks regarding Beijing’s role in Afghanistan need to be welcomed.

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