It’s been almost a year and the Taliban has managed to stay in power in Afghanistan. The country faces severe isolation from the West, but regional countries, especially China, have embraced the Taliban with open arms.
While busy getting the Taliban fully on-board regarding issues related to Xinjiang, Chinese official statements have been dropping many concerns that were previously raised. For starters, China has come to terms with the fact that no members of the former Afghan government will likely be part of the Taliban’s leadership in Afghanistan. Now, the Chinese side only suggests inclusivity in Afghanistan on the basis of ethnicity and political parties, given regional concern for long-term stability.
Beijing has also stopped making clear statements which asked the Taliban for a less radical Islamic policy in Afghanistan – an intrinsic problem in dealing with the Taliban Chinese scholars viewed as incompatible with Chinese policy on Xinjiang and the Uyghur issue. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke to the Islamic Cooperation Organization summit in March 2022 and in mentioning Afghanistan said that the PRC “supports Islamic countries to use Islamic wisdom to solve current issues.”
The Chinese official perspective on Afghanistan is rather clear now. Highest of all priorities is to secure the Taliban’s facilitation and support on Xinjiang-related issues, and to do this, Beijing must guarantee the Taliban leadership stability domestically in Afghanistan and regionally. Second, Afghanistan presents one of the most powerful soft power opportunities for China to position itself as a peacemaker, meanwhile offering a direct opportunity to compare itself with the United States, placing heavy blame on American foreign policy in Afghanistan for the current situation. Compared to last summer, the PRC has changed its speech completely and no longer asks the U.S. to facilitate efforts to address spill-over effects, it’s now a full blame game.
Updating the Chinese press on the latest developments in Afghanistan in March 2022, Wang Yi praised that “they [Taliban] spent a lot of efforts on stabilizing the situation and tried to provide public goods, there is some success.” Chinese fingerprints are all over this preliminary “success.” After months of direct engagement with the Taliban, as its leadership consolidated, the PRC opened a bilateral working group with the Taliban on humanitarian assistance and economic rebuilding in December 2021. The initiatives discussed at the working group, such as providing more humanitarian aid, facilitating the export of Afghan products to the PRC, the sharing of Chinese economic development lessons with the Taliban, Beijing’s help in restarting mining in Afghanistan, realizing the connectivity potential of Afghanistan, and so on – have by now achieved early outcomes.
On the ground, between April and June 2022, representatives of the Chinese Embassy have held a total of six meetings with various Afghan Ministers of the provisional government to discuss Chinese projects to rebuild the country. The Afghan Embassy in Beijing re-opened in late April 2022, it has since held at least seven meetings with Chinese officials and senior representatives of key Chinese state-owned companies to further finalize plans for Chinese reconstruction projects.
China is also leveraging its good relations with regional countries to create a regional consensus and push for all neighboring countries to support the Taliban in Afghanistan. Chinese officials have been well represented in all of the regional dialogues on Afghanistan since the collapse in August 2021. On September 8, 2021, the first meeting of neighboring countries on Afghanistan was held online. It included the foreign ministers of China, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. This mechanism brings together the countries which share a border with Afghanistan in order to manage consensus and cushion any spill-over. Following a September 17, 2021 informal meeting on Afghanistan between Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran, Russia was included in the second neighboring countries meeting on Afghanistan, despite being the only country which does not actually share a border with Afghanistan.
By the third neighboring countries meeting, press handouts showed a gradual deepening of issues discussed and more indications of practical management. All sides have taken implementation seriously as a result of an agreed-upon scope. A list of 72 deliverables was presented at the third meeting, which included Iran donating 30 rounds of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, Pakistan providing $30 million worth of humanitarian aid, Pakistan assisting the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) in delivering humanitarian aid by air between Islamabad and Kabul, Tajikistan committing to dedicate six cross-border bridges as bridges for passing of humanitarian aid, Turkmenistan prioritizing the supply of electricity to Afghanistan and accepting Afghan students to study in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan agreeing to dedicate parts of the Termez International Transportation and Logistics Center to facilitate humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, and much more.
When Beijing says it seeks to build regional consensus and management of Afghanistan, it does not mean for all countries to work together. Rather it means setting up an agreed list of activities all regional countries should look to implement on their own, given individual capacity differences. For example, by the third meeting, implementation topics mentioned included providing tangible support to economic rebuilding such as increasing capacity of border port; open cooperation with various sectors of the Afghan business community; over nine names of terrorist organizations mentioned as intolerable in Afghanistan; a “security belt” at the Tajik-Afghan border; a mechanism amongst country advisers on Afghanistan; and three working groups on political, economic and security issues.
Beijing has delivered a dozen batches of humanitarian aid to the Taliban, with the latest aid delivered by Chinese military jets crossing the narrow, mountainous Wakhan Corridor. In June 2022, the PRC started its first technical training programs for Taliban officials. In April 2022, the PRC special envoy on Afghanistan briefed the German, European, British, Saudi and Turkish representatives on Afghanistan affairs on the deliverables of the third neighboring countries meeting. It is clear that the PRC is interested in positioning itself as the central player pushing and organizing regional, and soon, global management of Afghanistan affairs.
Chinese interests in expanding its engagement in Afghanistan lies in opportunist thinking. Beijing views this as a chance to present itself to the world as a peacemaker, and frames these engagement activities as key talking points to put further blame on American foreign policy. The most recent batch of aid to Afghanistan, delivered by Chinese military planes, has been used in Chinese propaganda materials contrasted side by side with American military planes. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao remarked on Twitter on June 29: “Two military planes showed up at Kabul airport, one taking life and the other carrying hope. This is perhaps the biggest difference between China and the US.”
Afghanistan’s neighbors have nearly all embraced the prospects of long-term Taliban leadership. While it is important to continuously highlight the human rights problems and terrorism threats that are associated with the Taliban’s leadership, isolating the leadership does not advance those goals in Afghanistan. Instead, Western isolation of Afghanistan has pushed the leadership toward China and alienated regional countries that are looking forward to realizing the potential of Central Asia-South Asia connectivity via Afghanistan.
It’s been a year, Taliban is here to stay and engagement must be possible in some way.