China's relations with Taliban-led Afghanistan
By Jacinthe Nourrit | 18 October 2021
The recent turmoil following US withdrawal resulting in Taliban recapture of Kabul and declaration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan portends an array of governance, socioeconomic and humanitarian challenges added to endemic corruption, inter-ethnic fights, food insecurity, droughts and risks of Islamist terrorism spilling regionally. China’s neighbourhood diplomacy makes her a primary stakeholder in Afghanistan’s reconstruction in order to prevent the volcanic chaos to yield uncontrollable spreads and harm her national security and territorial integrity. Beijing’s fundamental aims are to maintain stability on her western border by quelling the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and the defined ‘three evil forces’: terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. Sino-Taliban historical relations, China’s core interests and peace-building efforts in Afghanistan highlight our projections.
The 76 kilometre-long Sino-Afghan sealed border at the Wakhan Corridor was formalised in the 60s, China upholding her foundational principles of neutrality and non-interference in a quintessentially non-interventionist and Westphalian foreign policy. The PRC condemned the Soviet military invasion and armed the Mujahideen resistance, and later maintained contact with the Taliban given rising concerns about approval of ETIM and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) training camps. In 1999, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) agreed to provide low-level military support to the Taliban via Pakistan, in exchange for severing assistance to the Uyghurs. Subsequently, economic and technical cooperation began with Chinese telecommunication firms repairing power grids. Formal Sino-Afghan ties were restored in 2001. Despite supporting the US-led counterinsurgency (COIN) intervention, China refrained from encroachment but conducted mineral extraction to engineer Afghanistan’s energy independence and benefit from natural resources exports. Despite numerous projects stalling due to political instability and security threats by insurgents, China’s peripheral diplomacy became geo-strategically central.
Beijing’s overarching interests
Attracted by Afghanistan’s untapped $1 trillion worth of mineral resources, China’s economic interests directly correlate with security concerns as safe investments require a terrorist-free environment. Afghanistan’s strategic location on the BRI route could make her benefit from the transportation network, auguring endless commercial opportunities. Heretofore reluctant to join the transcontinental project, Taliban-led Afghanistan urgently needs economic and diplomatic partners, heralding new directions.
Strategically, China was against an extended US presence but has condemned the mishandled withdrawal for creating a security vacuum culminating in regional instability. Over the years, with Chinese-funded infrastructure development vowing to sustainably reduce Afghanistan’s reliance on foreign aid alongside poverty, militancy and terrorism, Sino-Afghan links have muted into a constructive engagement for security and peace-building. Beijing’s overriding interests have pivoted from low profile to greater visibility by containing ETIM threats and securing the BRI. The PRC’s stability-first approach to development advances economic growth as a solution to poverty and terrorism whereas the US’s two decades of human rights-first COIN have proven ill-fated. It could be China’s turn to write a chapter in Afghanistan, but not militarily.
China-sponsored peace-building in Afghanistan
The PRC supported an ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned’ settlement to uphold the country’s independence and sovereignty but backed the US invasion for having disrupted ETIM and IMU strongholds. Beijing has been promoting economic prosperity and political reconciliation as conditional for the regional stability necessary to launch Afghanistan’s cross-border commercial integration. To this end, China has been facilitating multilateral peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government since 2012 with the Afghanistan-Pakistan-China trilateral dialogue and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), supporting a ‘six plus two’ model: Afghanistan’s six neighbours alongside America and Russia. In June 2018, China’s brokered ceasefire deal was accepted by the Taliban, climaxing in the 2020 Doha meeting. In July, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi presciently met a Taliban delegation, expressing hopes that the group will enable Afghanistan’s reconstruction by creating a favourable investment terrain and ensuring no one on Afghan soil could engage in acts detrimental to China.
China has contributed to peace-making efforts through a variety of consultative mechanisms, employing her mediatory role to broker peace talks and reach regional consensus. Her preference for multi-actor shuttle diplomacy, strictly excluding military intervention in compatibility with the non-interference doctrine makes her an undeniable ally of the Taliban.
Projections for Sino-Taliban relations
1. China befriending the Taliban for security cooperation in order to:
– transfer the 500 ETIM fighters stationed in Afghanistan to China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS). Beijing is determined to eradicate Uyghur separatism in Xinjiang, starting with the elimination of regional safe havens. But China’s containment of Uyghur militancy via ‘The People’s War on Terror’ is criticised for having enabled a self-fulfilling prophecy of Uyghur radicalisation. The Taliban suppressing ETIM could induce a legitimacy crisis therefore galvanising infighting and factionalism, provoking ETIM’s allegiance shift to the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP).
– manage threats from ISKP and al-Qaeda. Being theologically and ideologically antagonistic to the Taliban, ISKP enlists an estimated 500-1500 fighters. Afghanistan has become a hotspot for IS to regenerate and expand regionally. An ISKP-ETIM rapprochement would weaken security and force China to contain the uprising via the Taliban. The al-Qaeda threat remains tangible as the Haqqani network has been entrusted with Kabul’s security.
2. Beijing pursuing intra-Afghan reconciliation, mediating the relationship between the Afghan population and the new leadership. Comparative advantages lay in her friendly, non-confrontational connections with the Taliban. Not burdened by a negative legacy and enjoying a good positionality to arbitrate conflicts, China has the agency to push for improving the Afghan people’s livelihood and constructively influence the transition to factionally and ethnically inclusive political structures.
3. The PRC becoming the primary aid provider as War on Terror funds evaporate. This would yield mutual benefits as the Taliban urgently need investors to politically and economically consolidate while Chinese high-interest loans are devoid of democratisation conditionality. Building peace through economic development may be more effective in failed states than dented Western-style militarised nation-building. This is an opportunity for China to circumspectly generate loyalties and strategic assets.
4. China reinforcing regional cooperation with Tajikistan. The People’s Armed Police (PAP) is now operating unilateral patrols in the tri-border region from its Tajik base. The new location for PLA military logistics was established in 2016 following the quadrilateral counterterrorism coordination between Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan to jointly strengthen border security and de-risk eastern Afghanistan.
5. Beijing pressuring Islamabad to curb militancy. Pakistan is China’s sponsored security provider in Afghanistan and Xinjiang. The Pakistani army could be asked to repress ETIM sanctuaries and Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) could be pressured to secure the Durand line and CPEC. Nevertheless, Imran Khan’s defence of China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, constantly angering jihadi communities could lead Sindhi and Baluch ethno-separatist guerrilla movements who harbour anti-Chinese perceptions to be presented with countless opportunities to target CPEC and hurt both Islamabad and Beijing.
The Taliban take-over is generating tangible threats to embolden terrorist groups. Focused on eco-security interests, China is establishing pragmatic diplomatic ties with the Taliban. Comparatively, utilitarian foreign policies are employed by Turkey, Iran and Russia, adapting to new realities and attempting to further their own vested interests via soft power expansion and economic means.
Kabul’s new Taliban leadership is precipitating deep-seated vulnerabilities and enmities in China’s immediate vicinity. Economic development in conflict zones may be required for peace-building but resource extraction may foment corruption and conflict. As the PRC lacks experience in resolving foreign civil conflicts, peace constituencies have yet to be fabricated. The selective stand on terrorism: suppressing the Uyghurs though condoning the Taliban may harm China’s international image. Possibilities of Beijing using economic power to establish a regional bloc to avoid accountability at the UN for her ill-favoured domestic and international actions are tangible. A more concerning but far-fetched menace would be Beijing projecting military power in Afghanistan to signal bellicosity.
Deterring terrorist threats remains China’s priority, security being the primary reason for her relations with the Taliban: to discourage any exploitation of Uyghur resentment to jeopardise the Chinese homeland and overseas assets. Now on high alert and entering a crisis management mode to subdue political instability and security spill-overs, Beijing’s regional strategic balancing could effectively alleviate poverty and reduce threats of terrorism. Sino-Taliban convergence of interests constitutes a ‘win-win’ as China craves a regional geo-strategic, geo-economic and geopolitical foothold while Taliban-led Afghanistan is desperate for financial assistance and technical support.
Peace and stability are required to unlock the BRI’s realisation. Beijing’s financial and military clout, her grip on Pakistan and her nascent peace-building experience, although observing strategic patience, strictly abiding by the non-interference doctrine may spawn new perspectives to the Afghan quagmire, representing a key test for China’s ability to navigate international affairs. The engagement with the new Taliban leadership forebodes a novel neighbourhood diplomacy signalling that factually, China cannot afford to remain detached due to direct threats posed to her national interests and commercial expansion goals. Nonetheless, how are the Taliban going to position on the Uyghur issue? Does Pakistan have the capacity to control security in Afghanistan? Is the SCO capable of addressing security challenges? And more importantly, is Beijing’s conservative involvement evolving into a ‘more robust diplomacy with Chinese characteristics’? The upcoming months promise to be eventful and will elucidate these enquiries.
Jacinthe Nourrit is a strategy and public policy consultant, specialising in education, social and foreign policies. Formerly, she has worked in diplomacy at the French embassy in Israel and China. She holds a Masters of English and American Studies from the University of Montpellier / University of Birmingham and a Masters of International Studies and Diplomacy from SOAS.
The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.
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