Despite the loss of key foreign aid, a deepening food crisis and a sinking economy, little attention has been paid to the impact of Afghanistan’s current political instability on Taliban international relations. The international community has certainly taken an interest in Afghanistan and has pushed the Taliban for reforms such as political representation of all Afghan ethnic groups and respect for women’s rights, particularly in relation to education and work. For its part, however, China has not allowed such concerns to stand in the way of developing close ties with the Afghan Taliban.
On March 30-31, China will receive the foreign ministers of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries at a meeting that will also be attended by a Taliban delegation. The declared goal of the dialogue organized by Beijing is to discuss the economic and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. The real motive, however, is to give the Afghan Taliban more legitimacy, as Beijing will likely use this meeting to try to persuade foreign ministers to officially cooperate with them. The continued economic and political engagement and appeasement of the Taliban have shaped the policies of China and its allies Pakistan and Russia, much to the detriment of the Afghan people.
The situation in Afghanistan has become extremely dire as Afghans are in dire need of food, medical supplies and cash. In late February, the Biden administration decided to ease sanctions that had crippled the Afghan economy. However, critics found these measures to be flawed. China, for example, has asked the US to release Afghan assets and lift all sanctions. Despite disagreements over how to approach Afghanistan, on March 17 China and the US voted in favor of the UN Security Council resolution to extend the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which is likely to bring much-needed relief.
China has a range of economic, political and security interests in Afghanistan. On the security front, Beijing faces threats from militant groups it has branded as terrorist organizations and believed to be operating out of Afghan territory. Most prominent among them is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an extremist Uyghur separatist group that the Taliban say the Taliban have driven out of the Afghan-Chinese border regions. As for Beijing’s economic interests, Chinese companies have signed deals to extract copper from the Mes Aynak mine and oil from fields in the Amu Darya Basin of northern Faryab and Sari Pul provinces. These projects have both stalled for over a decade due to political instability. Persistent political uncertainty and general non-recognition of the Taliban regime have made things difficult for Beijing. China is keen to include Afghanistan in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its global infrastructure development program, a mission that will be facilitated if the Taliban are widely viewed as legitimate. For the Afghan Taliban, international legitimacy is crucial in their attempts to build a viable state, a cohesive political community and a functioning economy; their current international standing is anathema to them. The Taliban want China to strengthen its international legitimacy and assist in the task of national reconstruction in Afghanistan.
To secure its myriad interests, China needs a stable Afghanistan. For President Xi Jinping, stability is the highest political value. President Xi sees domestic stability as the key to a third term and overseas stability as a means to facilitate Chinese investment. For this reason, Beijing had already begun expanding its engagement with the Taliban before the US pulled out. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi even went so far as to receive a Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in July 2021. Though China is wary of the Taliban’s success for fear of its demonstration impact on Islamism across the region, it still believes only that the Taliban can mobilize the resources to gain nationwide legitimacy and eventually assemble something of a functioning government. Beijing hopes an internationally recognized Taliban regime can be persuaded to act as a counterinsurgency force against ISIS, ETIM and other terrorist groups that run counter to Chinese interests. The Taliban have already — arguably broken — counter-terrorism commitments through the 2020 Doha Accords, which paved the way for US troops to withdraw. Despite Chinese hopes, bringing stability and order to Afghanistan is easier said than done. No external intervention has been able to achieve this goal, earning Afghanistan the nickname “the graveyard of empires”. But now, following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brazen invasion of a neighboring sovereign country, great-power competition is only intensifying. As Ukraine bleeds and a second Cold War looms, the world is witnessing increasing arming of trade and aid – a trend that is bound to affect Afghanistan.
China has often portrayed America’s failure to stabilize Afghanistan as a debacle to the Western governance paradigm. In addition to economic and security policy interests, an important Chinese goal is to impose its own model of government on Afghanistan. If Beijing achieves even a small success in stabilizing Afghanistan and helping the Taliban deal with their economic woes, China’s communist rulers will have won a huge propaganda victory.
China’s influence is significant, but mainly transactional. As American influence continues to wane, the Western democratic model, despite its bloody nose, will remain attractive. The Afghan people have made some commendable if imperfect experiments in building democratic institutions over the past 20 years. These Afghans are looking to the West for help to resist the Taliban’s autocratic impulses and theocratic policies. Beijing, on the other hand, has no real interest in promoting the rule of law, participatory forms of decision-making or sustainable development.
The question of who can exert influence in Afghanistan relates to the larger conundrum of whether the world order will be bipolar or multipolar in nature. China has many allies, Russia foremost among them, but Putin’s Russia has shown an uncanny talent for stirring up trouble and befriending pariah regimes. Since its Ukrainian move, Moscow has had extremely few allies. Maintaining his newfound influence in Afghanistan will be costly, and expanding it even more costly under the weight of Western sanctions.
Increasingly isolated Russia was the only abstention in the recent UN Security Council resolution setting out UNAMA’s new one-year mandate. As Moscow opposed the draft and, like China, denounced its over-emphasis on human rights, the resolution was reworded to address these concerns. China approved the revised version, Russia did not. Russian Ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily A. Nebenzia, explained his country’s position, noting that Moscow had no choice but to abstain as no attempts were being made to obtain the consent of the “host country” (the Taliban regime) for a UN presence. Beijing echoed the Russian narrative and warned about the range of expectations the international community has of the Taliban. Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations Zhang Jun expressed “many doubts” about the tasks set out in the UNAMA mandate and called for more “flexibility” in dealing with the situation – a euphemism for prioritizing economic recovery over human rights concerns Approach that fits China’s ideology Preferences.
Whatever the outcome of the forthcoming foreign ministers’ meeting in Beijing, there should be no doubt that political disagreements will hamper China’s talks with Western countries over the issue of a possible reintegration of the Taliban into the global system. China will not endorse the concessions the West is likely to demand from the Taliban in exchange for recognition of the current regime in Afghanistan, but the brutal trampling of Ukraine has put the protection of democracy at the forefront of international relations, the West said will stick to his demands.
Vinay Kaura, PhD, is a Non-Resident Scholar of the MEI Afghanistan & Pakistan Program, Assistant Professor in the Department of International Affairs and Security Studies at Sardar Patel University of Police, Security, and Criminal Justice in Rajasthan, India, and the Associate Director the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by Li Ran/Xinhua via Getty Images