31. August 2021

Between pragmatism and uncertainty: The Taliban as Beijing’s lesser evil

As the United States and NATO have left Afghanistan, other great regional powers such as China, Russia, Pakistan or Iran are entering negotiations with the new Taliban leadership. Beijing’s diplomacy favours the Taliban as an uncertain but stable partner. It remains open, however, if the pragmatic strategy to cooperate with the extremist group will be the right decision to secure their own national interests.

A Comment by Marius Kretzschmar, Jonas Nitschke and David Weyl


While the world was watching the catastrophic events unfolding at Kabul airport, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi invited the Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin to start negotiations. The surprisingly fast takeover by the radical Islamists following the sudden announcement made by the U.S. President Joe Biden to end their military operation after 20 years, left the rest of the world wondering how China is positioning itself towards the return of the Taliban. One thing is clear, Beijing’s strategy is to pursue a totally different approach at the Hindokush.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping called for non-interference and respect of sovereignty and independence. While this has been a general Chinese position in recent confrontations with the West about sanctions and criticism of developments in Hong Kong, Taiwan or Xinjiang, it also shows Chinese interests in Afghanistan. Especially here in the West, one needs to ask: What will future cooperation between the Chinese government and the Taliban look like? And why is it in China’s interest to recognise the newly formed Taliban government?


China’s pragmatic preparation for the Taliban’s return to power

According to Sean Roberts from the Elliott School of International Affairs, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) was one of the first global powers to start reaching out to the Taliban force in the late 1990’s. In 2000, they met with former Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Derek Grossman, a defense specialist at the RAND Corporation is certain that China has been talking to the Taliban for years, preparing for their potential return to power. 

This pragmatic behaviour can also be seen in the strategic framework of Chinese foreign policy in Africa or Latin America. The leadership in Beijing is always willing to deal with difficult partners as long as it helps them to pursue their own national goals, such as with Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela or Omar al-Bashir in Sudan. The preparation to negotiate with the central government in Kabul as well as the Taliban, and the call for non-interference is pointing towards Beijing’s key interests of regional stability and cooperation with any actor that is beneficial for their agenda.   


China’s fear of an extremist spillover 

One of the main national security interests of the CPC leadership is to keep control of the Xinjiang province (North West China), which has a shared border with Afghanistan through the Wakhan Corridor, and to prevent an extremist spillover to their national territory. The autonomous province of Xinjiang is the homeland of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), fighting for independence of the Muslim Uyghur minority from China. During ethnic tensions in 2014 between the Han Chinese and the ETIM, several attacks in the regional capital Urumqi were declared by the PRC’s Ministry of Information as ‘violent terrorist incidents.’  

We must persist in strengthening the overall planning of war and make preparations for military struggle‚, China’s President Xi warned the military leadership of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at the end of July about the separatist threat in Xinjiang, fearing that Afghanistan is once again becoming a safe haven for religious extremism and terrorist groups. Therefore, it is not surprising that Beijing has asked the Taliban to ‘cut ties completely with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)’, which China considers to be a terrorist organisation

The question is: Are the Taliban going to be able to control groups of foreign fighters with different affiliations in Afghanistan? Concerns of international observers seem to be justified, as the two attacks at the Kabul airport on the 26 August have shown. Nonetheless, the Taliban want to develop and strengthen their relationship rather with Beijing as China could help to officially recognise the group and invest in Afghanistan’s economic re-construction. 


China’s economic interests in Pakistan and Afghanistan 

Afghanistan’s stability is also essential protecting the complex edifice of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the region, especially in neighboring Pakistan. Chinese investments of up to $62 billion within the ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ (CPEC) raise the necessity for Beijing to calm the looming civil war on its doorstep and avoid a destabilised region. Its flexible approach to the situation in Afghanistan is aided by the deep-rooted connections between the Taliban and the Pakistani government. 

Secretly, the Pakistani government were already ardent supporters of the Taliban, which became evident when Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan congratulated the Taliban less than 24 hours after the takover in an interview, stating: ‘just now the Taliban have broken the chains of slavery in Afghanistan.’

Besides the stability of the region, China’s interest (naturally) also lies in the vast natural resources of the country which are nearly untapped. The tentative projections by the US Geological Survey (USGS), based on one-third of the examined Afghan territory, estimate mineral resources worth $1 trillion. Some of the resources, such as lithium, rare earth metals, and copper, are in high demand and necessary in order to produce car batteries or solar panels. 


The interests of a new Afghan government

The Taliban government, which is in dire need of financial resources after the US government froze most of the previous government’s assets, is welcoming Chinese investments. Hence, China has the most beneficial position for cooperation with a new Afghan government. Its economic interest can be seen by the lease of the ‘Mes Aynak’ deposit for 30 years, the world’s second-largest unexploited copper ore deposit, located in Afghanistan, in 2007. 

In order to ensure that their investments have a long-term potential, the CPC needs to support a stable political climate within the Taliban and the country using means like foreign aid and recognition of the new leadership. As the spokeswoman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Hua Chunying emphasised: ‘China hopes the Afghan Taliban can unite with other political parties (regional) and with all ethnic groups (in Afghanistan) and build a political framework.’

A means to those aims could be to allow the new self-proclaimed ‚Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan‘ to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a member state. Previously, the requests of the former government were denied by Beijing, due to the political instability and dependency on Washington. 

This and financial aid could become an instrument for China and other foreign stakeholders to put leverage on the Afghan government. The need for foreign support is also indicated by the Taliban’s request that human rights organisations of the UN and other NGOs remain in Afghanistan, most of which are willing to stay, for now.


A glance into the future…

If China manages to build a stable network of investments, which is grounded within the local communities in Afghanistan, and creates opportunities for employment within the civil society, the risk of radicalisation can be limited

As Fan Hongda, professor of the Shanghai International Studies University said in an interview about the Chinese approach: ‘Through economic infusion we create roads, we create infrastructure, and we make sure everyone has jobs (…) and if everyone goes to work at nine in the morning and comes home at 6 p.m., they don’t have time to think about terrorism.’

Aside from the undeniable catastrophe for Afghanistan, the real danger for the Western power edifice could be damaging the reputation of Western willingness to consequently protect human rights and democracy abroad. Potential conclusions out of that development are prolix, for instance, regarding the future of Taiwan (Taiwan Issue)

The Global Times, a propaganda tabloid of the CPC, already called the American withdrawal from Afghanistan an ‘omen of Taiwan’s future.’ If America is not willing to take the burden of staying in Afghanistan, the financial cost of protecting Taiwan in a war against China would be untranslatable to American voters. The Western world will have to find answers to this question, in Afghanistan and elsewhere.


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Image via pixabay



Marius is currently studying International Political Economy at King’s College London and holds a BSc. in Politics and Economics from the University of Potsdam. Previously, he was a visiting student in Beijing and then completed an internship at the German Institute Taipei for the German Foreign Service. His main interests and research interests are geopolitics, security studies in Asia, and digitalisation. At Polis180, he is co-leader of the connectingAsia programme.

Jonas studies Political Science with a focus on International Politics & Development and Eastern Europe at the University of Vienna. In the context of his research, he is particularly interested in authoritarian developments in governmental systems in Asia and Africa, as well as in the international development policy of the EU. At Polis180, he coordinates the programme connectingAsia together with Marius and focuses on Southeast Asia.

David studies Economics in Maastricht and Berlin. His research interests include Asian and European security policy, as well as the economic integration of Europe. At Polis180, he is a member of the board of directors for the ressort programme coordination and international network. He is also active in the programme connectingAsia.