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The Taliban: China’s Deal With the Devil in Afghanistan

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The Taliban: China’s Deal With the Devil in Afghanistan

The Taliban’s promises cannot be trusted. China knows this, but it has few good options.

The Taliban: China’s Deal With the Devil in Afghanistan

Taliban fighters stand guard in front of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

After a lightning-fast series of advances throughout the country, the Taliban took control of Kabul on August 15. The setting up of a formal government is only a matter of time, and then China will be faced with a seeming nightmare: an extremist Islamic government on its borders.

Yet Beijing has responded to the latest developments with an incongruous optimism. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters on Monday that “we respect the wishes and choices of the Afghan people,” as though the Taliban takeover had been the result of a measured national consensus in Afghanistan.

“The Chinese side noted that yesterday the Afghan Taliban said that the Afghan war has ended and they will negotiate the establishment of an open and inclusive Islamic government and take responsible actions to ensure the safety of Afghan citizens and foreign missions in Afghanistan,” Hua continued. “China hopes that these statements can be implemented to ensure a smooth transition of the situation in Afghanistan, curb all kinds of terrorism and criminal acts, and help the Afghan people avoid war and chaos and rebuild their beautiful homeland.”

She also emphasized that China has already spoken with the Taliban directly and received assurances that the group “will never allow any forces to use Afghan territory to do things that endanger China.” In particular, Beijing is concerned about the possibility for Uyghur-led terrorist groups to conduct attacks or foment violence in Xinjiang, which shares a narrow border with Afghanistan.

In late July, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted Taliban leaders, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Tianjin. At that meeting, the Taliban attempted to persuade Wang that they posed no threat to China’s interests. “The Afghan Taliban will never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China,” Baradar said. “The Afghan Taliban believes that Afghanistan should develop friendly relations with neighboring countries and the international community.” He even invited China to “be more involved in Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation process and play a bigger role in future reconstruction and economic development.”

In exchange, Wang offered the group legitimacy, saying that “the Afghan Taliban is an important military and political force in Afghanistan and is expected to play an important role in the country’s peace, reconciliation and reconstruction process.”

China appears to be putting a lot of stock in the Taliban talking points and their promises for both Afghanistan itself and China. Baradar, for example, told Wang that the Taliban “stands ready to work with other parties to establish a political framework in Afghanistan that is broadly-based, inclusive and accepted by the entire Afghan people and to protect human rights, especially the rights of women and children.” Reports from Taliban-held territory suggest nothing of the sort is happening. Instead, the group is reportedly hunting down its enemies and once again cracking down on women’s freedoms.

The Taliban’s promises not to harbor any militants that might threaten China should be viewed just as skeptically. The spate of recent attacks on Chinese personnel and projects in Pakistan is a flashing warning sign about the impact a Taliban regime in Afghanistan will have on China’s interests in the region. Even if the Taliban keep their promises to China (and that’s no sure thing, given the group’s track record), the quick victory of the Islamic militant group will doubtless inspire similar forces – some of which are not so friendly to Beijing.

China, of course, is well aware of these risks. But faced with no good options, Beijing has made the calculation that embracing the Taliban and attempting to pressure them to make good on their promises is its best bet. Of course, that pressure will only apply to preserving China’s interests; the rights of the Afghan people, including women, under Taliban rule are ultimately of no concern to Beijing, as its repeated emphasis on non-interference highlights.

Meanwhile, China closed consular services at their embassy in Afghanistan effective August 10, though the embassy remains open and staffed. “The Embassy further reminds Chinese citizens in Afghanistan to pay close attention to the security situation, strengthen their own security protection, and not to go out,” the embassy said in a statement after the Taliban entered Kabul.