China is engaging with the Taliban and monitoring developments on the ground as the U.S. exits Afghanistan. It’s a situation America should be closely monitoring.
China‘s interests in Afghanistan are primarily security-related. The stabilization of Afghanistan, with which Beijing shares a short border in a susceptible area (Xinjiang province), is important for China. The security of its borders and this region are at stake. Beijing wants to prevent a surge of violent jihadism in Xinjiang, where Chinese authorities have detained between 1 and 3 million Muslims (Uyghurs, Kazakhs, …) for “re-education” in the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since World War II.
The CCP must avoid threats from Islamic radicalism but also drug trafficking that may emanate from Afghanistan. Beijing also intends to protect its economic interests developed during the 2000s in Central Asia, which are added, under the presidency of Xi Jinping, those linked to the Belt and Road initiative (BRI). In the latter case, given developments in Afghanistan, Beijing particularly wants to preserve its heavy investments in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is supposed to be the flagship of its BRI initiative. It is already encountering numerous difficulties.
Economic interests with Afghanistan are not absent, even if they are more marginal. Trade between China and Afghanistan is admittedly small (about US$600 million in 2020), but Afghanistan’s mineral and energy resources are of interest to the Chinese state companies.
Historically Beijing has had pragmatic contact with the Taliban. In February 1999, five Chinese diplomats visited the Afghan capital. At the end of this meeting, Beijing announced that it accepted the establishment of official commercial relations with the Taliban and direct flights between Kabul and Urumqi.
In December 1999, it was the Taliban‘s turn to visit Beijing. A three-member government delegation went on a four-day mission to China. In November 2000, members of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing, a major government think-tank, visited Kabul. A month later, Beijing‘s ambassador to Islamabad, Lu Shulin, met with Mullah Omar. Two Chinese companies (Huawei Technologies Co. and ZTE) are said to have worked on equipping the cities of Kabul and Kandahar with telecommunications despite a United Nations embargo.
In 2002, Beijing cautiously supported the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and used its position in the UN Security Council to support Resolution 1368 creating ISAF. This positioning has not prevented the PRC from conducting its own cautious diplomacy in Afghanistan. Beijing has developed economic ties and a security partnership with the Afghan government while establishing relations with the Taliban‘s diplomatic mission in Qatar. The U.S. plan to withdraw from Afghanistan has made China‘s efforts to reach out to the Taliban even more urgent. Chinese officials have stepped up contacts with their representatives. Meetings with Taliban delegations were held in September and October 2019, for example.
China is currently courting the Taliban mainly to preserve its security interests - foremost among them security in Xinjiang and along its border - and protect its investments in Central Asia and its Silk Road projects (notably the CPEC with Pakistan). For the time being, on the issue of the Uighurs, the Taliban have given Beijing some assurances. They have pledged not to interfere in China‘s internal affairs and not allow Afghan territory to be used by “anti-Chinese forces.” But some observers point out that the Taliban have hardly kept any other promises (such as disavowing al-Qaeda), and Beijing would do well to remain cautious.
China has reportedly offered to build roads in the territories the Taliban controls and several energy projects, including electricity production. These projects are useful to the Taliban both economically and politically. The Taliban are also looking for legitimacy at the international level. Therefore, talks with Beijing are beneficial because they allow them to present themselves as legitimate and credible interlocutors. The local situation remains open, and there is no indication that the Chinese strategy will ultimately succeed.
The United States should carefully monitor China‘s actions in Afghanistan. It could be a testing ground for the possibility of Sino-American cooperation or, if left alone, could provide Beijing with an opportunity to increase its influence in Central Asia and toward the Indian Ocean and even the Middle East.
• Thierry Kellner is Doctor in International Relations at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. He is Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB). He is associated with several ULB research centres (REPI, EASt, OMAM, CECID, IEE) and the Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security (GRIP, Brussels).