The Taliban says that China has played a constructive role in promoting peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan to end the almost 20-year war. In an interview with the Chinese state media CGTN, Taliban spokesperson Muhammad Suhail Shaheen welcomed Beijing’s further contribution to rebuilding the war-torn country. Shaheen said that China – with its humongous economic capacity — can be a pivotal player in rehabilitating and reconstructing Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Earlier in July, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted a top-level Taliban delegation in Tianjin. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan was anything but ominous and Beijing made early inroads in diplomacy with a country it has coveted for decades for its geo-strategic importance.
This is cheeky, more mature China from the one that refused to recognize the Taliban in 1996 and shut down its embassy for years. The year 2021 is different. Beijing has been among the first to embrace the Taliban’s rule. China sees that – by the look of things – Taliban rule is here to stay. It is better to deepen friendly relations with a regime that Beijing has long deemed to be the primary threat that can back the minority Uyghur separatist movement in the sensitive western Xinjiang region. After the July meet, the Taliban promised that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for militants as they committed in their first press briefing after seizing Kabul. In exchange, China is ready to lend economic support and investment to rebuild Afghanistan and its fledgling economy.
China’s change in policy is down to its swift ascend as a global power, just like the Taliban’s surprisingly rapid march on the Afghan capital. Chinese lure of massive investments on the back of its $14.7 trillion worth economy is its biggest strength and – probably – its weakest link. China’s massive trade-and-infrastructure initiative – that stretches across the Eurasian mainland – under the $50 billion worth Belt and Road Initiative hinges on a stable, more peaceful Afghanistan. Pakistan too remains a key player in the scenario. Islamabad holds a considerable influence in Afghanistan. Moreover, Pakistan provides an overland route to the Indian Ocean through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Beijing hopes to benefit from the Islamabad-Kabul nexus by trying to leverage its enormous financial might and infrastructure projects in exchange for the security and development of its precious trade routes. From the beginning, China’s most pressing issue has been ensuring that Afghanistan doesn’t become a hotbed of extremism. The July meeting featured one major policy demand from the Taliban: to make a ‘clean break’ with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. To be fair, the ETIM has hardly operated in Afghanistan but it clearly underlines Beijing’s shift from its stance back in 1996.
Afghanistan is, quite clearly, China’s biggest test as far as its diplomacy is concerned. Beijing has so far relied on its wealth to spread its influence across the world but the Taliban are the most unpredictable of regimes that China has had to deal with thus far. At least, the Taliban say that their rule will be different from their previous stint in power but who knows. What is more predictable is that Beijing will do everything in its capacity to get a foothold in a stable Afghanistan. The stakes have never been higher.