By Ben MacLeod
Prior to Taliban forces seizing control of Kabul on August 15th 2021, Kabul’s fate appeared to have already been sealed and the world’s attention turned to the desperate plight of those powerless in the face of the Taliban. Western and Chinese media portrayals of the crisis were always polarised along the ideological lines which made Afghanistan’s future so uncertain and contentious. Western correspondents spoke of waning human rights and an impending humanitarian crisis emerging as vengeful militias seek ‘justice’ against supporters of the West. Where Western coverage is dominated by unease, Chinese outlets reveled in another failure of US international ambition. “US loses moral credibility abandoning Afghan forces” is just one of the headlines chastising Washington for their role in the Taliban’s rise published by the Global Times, a mouthpiece for the Chinese government. Ultimately, instead of focussing on the humanitarian impact of the war, the Chinese media has used this catastrophe as a propaganda victory while focusing on China’s future role in stabilizing Afghanistan.
US loses moral credibility abandoning Afghan forces” is just one of the headlines chastising Washington for their role in the Taliban’s rise published by the Global Times, a mouthpiece for the Chinese government.
The manner in which the Chinese media portrayed the situation in Afghanistan could potentially provide us with an outlook into China’s political ambition. Chinese involvement is painted as a source of optimism and the reports of negotiations between Beijing and the Taliban repeatedly remind the reader of how instability in Afghanistan breeds issues at home for Chinese citizens. As Taliban militias capitalized on the absence of a US military force, Taliban-affiliated diplomats looked East for the international support that would legitimize their domestic gains. In late July the Taliban’s co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, met with Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, to discuss what has been termed the "peace, reconciliation and reconstruction process” in what seemed to be an early admission of the impending Taliban victory. A Sino-Afghan relationship is not a shoo-in at this stage as cultural, historical, and geopolitical obstacles make forging such a bond extremely complex. However, it could also be a pivotal moment in global history. In a region that has seen relative stability so rarely, it is hard to predict what the long-term outcomes of a Taliban victory will be. However, China will likely be one of the main protagonists in this transition. This poses the questions: what will this partnership look like and how will these two parties interact?
Politically, the similarities between China and the Taliban are few and far between and yet their political ambitions hinge upon each other’s support. For China, this lies in their geopolitical ambitions. Delicately phrased statements expressing their willingness to cooperate throughout the peace process have outlined the basis of their partnership. It would be in Beijing’s best interests to seek stability in Afghanistan. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an investment strategy employed by President Xi since around 2013, would benefit significantly from stability in Afghanistan. The BRI seeks to aid the development of global infrastructure and in turn, allow China to assume greater jurisdiction over international affairs. Assets and investments lying in their Belt and Road initiative in Pakistan and Central Asia have been continuously threatened by violence spilling over from neighboring Afghanistan, hampering some efforts to expand the project. One only needs to look at news reports by organizations such as Reuters in July 2021 regarding an apparent suicide attack on a bus carrying Chinese construction workers in Northern Pakistan to see the threats Afghan instability breeds for China and its economic allies such as Pakistan. For Beijing, it is imperative that its economic interests in the region are secured. In order to do so, every avenue preventing further instability in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and beyond should be explored to protect their geopolitical interests.
Such a partnership could also benefit Afghanistan. China is aware of the significant material wealth it can reap in Afghanistan and will seek to capitalize on what the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has claimed to be one of the richest reserves of mineable material in the world. If the Taliban, alongside the Chinese, can create some form of peace in Afghanistan, Beijing could seek to integrate Afghanistan into the Belt and Road initiative in a move that could generate extreme wealth for both administrations. Afghanistan’s fortuitous geographic location and unrealized wealth will no doubt entice the sort of investment that China has so frequently provided in strategically important yet politically unstable regions. Chinese investors will need to spend extensively to rebuild and expand upon Afghanistan’s existing infrastructure to make this a viable possibility. However, the opportunity to utilize the road network which the US saw as crucial to their military campaign could fuel China’s political interests and be a win-win for both countries. This is not to suggest that Afghanistan will immediately gain such investment from the Chinese government but instead seeks to highlight how, if nurtured correctly, Afghanistan could become an integral cog in China’s effort to form a hegemony over Asia
If the Taliban, alongside the Chinese, can create some form of peace in Afghanistan, Beijing could seek to integrate Afghanistan into the Belt and Road initiative in a move that could generate extreme wealth for both administrations.
Nonetheless, the caveat to this partnership is one that China shares with the West. Beijing fears the resurgence of extremist groups, namely the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which seeks to undermine China’s authority in the province of Xinjiang. These fears are not without basis. In the 1990s, when the Taliban last held office in Kabul, the ETIM sheltered and conducted their operations in Afghanistan, orchestrating many attacks against Chinese nationals. China, along with the rest of the world, are concerned that the Taliban will support the growth of groups that pose an existential threat to their borders and people. This is where a relationship between the Taliban and China may be at its most fragile. If China is to invest, they will most likely demand assurances that extremism will not be allowed to thrive in Afghanistan or fuel separatist movements in Xinjiang province. It is unclear how possible this may be in the long term but it can be said with certainty that this will feature high on the list of priorities in future negotiations.
If China is to invest, they will most likely demand assurances that extremism will not be allowed to thrive in Afghanistan or fuel separatist movements in Xinjiang province.
However, Western officials see China’s foreign policy as increasingly hawkish and are worried that China will protect their interests no matter the cost; economic or human. They regard Beijing’s track record of protecting human rights to be questionable, often referencing examples in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, fueling fears that Beijing is willing to overlook the Taliban’s draconian measures if it benefits China’s long-term ambitions. They believe that western standards of human rights protection, which a Taliban spokesperson had previously described as “ever-moving goalposts” will quickly disappear. The West has little to no confidence that China will hold the Taliban accountable for displays of excessively punitive force.
However, Western officials see China’s foreign policy as increasingly hawkish and are worried that China will protect their interests no matter the cost; economic or human.
Although the Taliban’s reemergence as the preeminent power in Afghanistan occurred at a speed that surprised almost every administration involved, the next steps will certainly be at a more cautious and restrained pace. The development of the Sino-Afghan relationship will not bring the daily headlines that the Taliban’s rise did but instead quietly emerge in the form of a new highway or new government building. The Taliban may still have a lot of work ahead of them to consolidate their position before diplomatic agreements can be reached and yet, significant Chinese involvement seems almost inevitable. Even if the material benefits of the relationship with Afghanistan are minimal for Beijing, an opportunity to succeed where the US has failed may be the most valuable victory of them all.
Originally written - 10th August 2021 (the week preceding Kabul’s fall to the Taliban)