A different look at the future of Taliban-China relations
Over the past decades, China's foreign policy towards Afghanistan has been largely a kind of reaction to the policies of major powers such as the former Soviet Union, the United States and NATO. Even regarding the security issues, Beijing's policy has been somehow a reaction to the interactions between the Uyghur guerrillas and the Taliban. The only area where China was expected to be active was investment in Afghanistan's mines, which has been hampered by two issues; First, China’s attempt to exploit Afghanistan's crisis in its own favor, which did not happen. Second, the security issues as well as Pakistan’s reluctance to see China’s heavy investment in Afghanistan, which has remained unresolved. Beijing intends to only provide political support for the Taliban as part of its psychological war with the West and NATO. But in terms of economic aid, Beijing only tries to release Afghanistan’s blocked assets in the United States. In terms of security, Beijing is trying to create a kind of barrier between the Taliban and the Uighur fundamentalists by strengthening its political ties with the Taliban - an issue which totally depends on the internal situation of Afghanistan.
By: Abdulrahim Kamel
The establishment of formal diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and the People's Republic of China dates back to 1955. Afghanistan was one of the first countries to recognize the communist regime of Mao Zedong. During the Cold War and before the Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan, Beijing sought to improve its diplomatic and economic ties with Afghanistan. However, the relationship between the two countries did not expand as much as it must to. China shares a border of less than 100 kilometers with Afghanistan and has no ethnic or social relations with Afghanistan, and despite the historical and cultural ties between the two countries, there is no Chinese language spoken in Afghanistan.
After the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Afghanistan, the level of relations between the two countries was limited to the cultural, economic and political fields. In 1965, China and Afghanistan signed a border agreement for the first time, which could be considered as a kind of security dialogue between the two countries. Beijing also provided military assistance for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in 1979, due to its concerns about Moscow's influence in Afghanistan. After the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, China, despite feeling more security concerns from the Afghan border, practically did not help any of the warring sides in Afghanistan, and after the fall of the Mujahideen, China did not recognize the Taliban government.
It was only after the 9/11 incidents that the situation was changed. During this period, China's foreign policy towards Afghanistan became more active than ever, which includes three successive phases. Here, we intend to explain these three steps.
1. China’s direct cooperation with the government of Afghanistan
After the Bonn Conference, China initially showed strong interest towards investment in Afghanistan. Kabul also expected China to invest significantly in Afghanistan's economy and infrastructure. Perhaps we can say that the Chinese public and private sectors also saw Afghanistan as a huge source of raw materials in their neighborhood and had many dreams for these resources. But these dreams did not come true, and very soon the issue of security became the dominant issue, and replaced the economic element in China’s policy towards Afghanistan.
China agreed to cooperate with Kabul in the security sector to prevent the creation of a safe haven for the Uighur insurgents across the Chinese-Afghan border. However, it did not send troops to Afghanistan under the ISAF, because it could be a good excuse for the Taliban and Uighur Muslims. Moreover, since the beginning of its economic development, China has always tried to avoid being directly engaged in military tensions, and this policy may continue for years. Hamid Karzai and Chinese President Hu Jintao signed a joint strategic declaration on June 8, 2012, on the sidelines of the 12th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Following Ashraf Ghani's visit to China in October 2014, Beijing also pledged a 329-billion-yuan in aid to Afghanistan.
After that, the Chinese policymakers put cooperation with the Afghan government on top of their agenda and deemed it in line with the policies of the international community. During Ashraf Ghani's visit to China in 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping raised the fight against the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a major concern of China and called for Afghanistan’s assistance. As a result, Afghanistan extradited the 15 Uighur terrorists it had previously arrested to China in February 2015. By such a measure, Afghanistan wanted to encourage China to put pressure on Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. During Ashraf Ghani's visit to China, the two sides signed four agreements on political and economic fields.
The agreements included lifting visa requirement for the two countries' political passports, giving humanitarian services to Afghanistan, developing technical and economic cooperation, and expanding the relations between Afghanistan’s Chambers of Commerce and the Chinese Federation of Industry and Commerce. And above all, expanding security cooperation, especially the fight against terrorism, drugs and organized crimes, was one of the important and strategic topics of this trip.
After that, the visits of the security officials of the two countries increased and the security issues were discussed more. In November 2014, Chinese Public Security Minister Guo Shengkun visited Afghanistan as the head of a high-level delegation, and during a visit to China by then-Afghan Interior Minister Nur ul-Haq Ulumi on May 17, 2015, the Chinese officials called for security cooperation between Afghanistan and China. After numerous consultations, finally a military agreement was signed between the two countries in October 2015. General Fang Fenghui, a senior member of China's Central Military Commission, visited Kabul on February 29, 2016, and for the first time in the two countries’ history, China agreed to provide 480 million yuan ($73 million) in aid to the Afghan security forces.
Since 2017, China has shown great interest in military and security cooperation with Afghanistan. That is why China requested the establishment of a mountainous military unit in Badakhshan province which is adjacent to China. China has pledged to pay for the unit's logistics and to cooperate fully in terms of intelligence and security.
As far as I know about the talks between the Afghan and Chinese government officials, the issue of establishing this mountainous military base became more serious in 2018, and in the last meetings between the officials of the two countries, they decided to begin the establishment of this mountainous military base in 2019. This suggests that China's foreign policy towards Afghanistan, in terms of security, was more focused on how to restrain Uighur fundamentalists near the border with Afghanistan and prevent them from building a safe haven in the region.
2. China’s alliance with Pakistan
The peace talks between the US government and the representatives of the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, marked the beginning of a significant change in the foreign policy of regional countries towards the republic government in Afghanistan, because they saw that US was ignoring all the values for which it had attacked to Afghanistan. This could provide a politically powerful platform for the Taliban and make the group’s future brighter.
By seeing this point of view as well as Pakistan's testimony, the Chinese government was almost convinced that the Taliban was gaining power. And it was imperative that China, like the United States, enter a dual game over Afghanistan: Beijing’s direct relations with Afghanistan was led by China's special representative for Afghanistan, and its relations with the Taliban was pursued by Pakistan.
China and Pakistan have traditionally had regional strategic cooperation. In the political field as well as fighting the common threat, the Chinese government has common strategic interests with Pakistan. China has territorial disputes with India over a border region in the Himalayas, which even sparked a military war between the two countries in the 1960s. This disputed area is the most important communication route between Tibet and Xinjiang. One of the factors in China's relationship with Pakistan is the two countries' common differences with India. Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhists, spent his life in India. So, the common threat of fundamentalism in the border of Afghanistan - China did not seem for these two governments as dangerous and monstrous as the issue of India.
Therefore, China felt that the Pakistan government was enjoying from an increasing influence on the Taliban, and thus could play a strong role in severing the ties between the Taliban and Uyghur fundamentalists. Pakistan finally managed to reassure the Chinese government by establishing diplomatic direct ties between China and the Taliban. Although the Taliban have done nothing against China since that time, Beijing is note sure about the future, because as the time passes, Pakistan’s control over the Taliban will diminish and the future conditions may change the game in the region. After the fall of Ashraf Ghani's government, China now has a direct and diplomatic relationship with the Taliban.
3. China’s direct interaction with the Taliban
Following the victory of the Taliban, a traditional belief was highlighted which can be called as luck and fortune. The success of the Taliban, rather than being the result of strategic thinking, was the result of the convergence of the group's interests with the interests of the majority of countries in the region. Most of these countries wanted to see the US and NATO forces out of the region, and the Taliban fighters emerged as the front-line soldiers for these common interests.
At first, China objected to the irresponsible withdrawal of the United States and NATO, but finally it was pleased with seeing the US withdrawal and took it as a good omen. Now, even if it does not like the Taliban’s nature, it likes the Taliban’s measures. China is suffering from the presence of Uighur dissidents near the border with Afghanistan as much as it suffered from the shadow of the United States and NATO in its neighborhood. Following the victory of the Taliban, one of these sufferings was eliminated. In recent three months, China has emerged as the Taliban's advocate against the United States and NATO, but the reality is that China is somehow paying a ransom to the Taliban. But, through the same spirit of capitalism, China wants to pay this ransom from the pockets of the countries involved in Afghanistan and even from the pockets of the Afghan people. Now, instead of providing effective aid to Afghanistan, China is trying to release Afghanistan’s blocked assets in the United States and give them to the Taliban. The United States, however, has kept the money as another bargaining chip.
China also magnifies its aid to Afghanistan and the Taliban and has tremendous propaganda power. During the process of the first Chinese medical aid to the Afghan government in the fight against coronavirus, China's special representative for Afghanistan and the country’s ambassador to Kabul made numerous consultations until a high-level delegation headed by the Afghan vice president went to the Kabul airport and received the shipment during an exaggerated ceremony.
I mentioned this to remind that China has not yet paid anything in Afghanistan and that it is benefiting from the costs that other sides have paid. Now that China is trying to have a direct strategic relationship with the Taliban, Beijing’s aid will continue to be in the form of propaganda and political support to start a psychological warfare against NATO and the West. However, expecting China to play a leading role in Afghanistan's security is far from the truth. The reason is that Afghanistan has its own security position and factors that are beyond the maneuvering power of China. The fact is that if the security of a country does not get tied to the regional security network, it will turn into the security and intelligence games instead of a security hub.
Unfortunately, Afghanistan is in a situation that is directly located neither in the territory of the Middle East security hub, nor in the security hub of Central Asia or South Asia. During the republican governments, Afghanistan was gradually becoming part of Central Asia’s economic network, but politically, NATO and the United States still considered the country as part of South Asia. The reason behind this point of view was that Pakistan was a part of Afghanistan’s issue and Afghanistan was also a part of the hostile interactions between Pakistan and India. In this context, China has no direct and effective role in the security hub of South Asia. In the political and security games of South Asia, Pakistan and India play the main roles and the security and political orientations of the region are set along these two countries. The Chinese government has no direct position or role in the region, although it is a major supporter of the Pakistan government against India. China's only domination is its economic domination.
The role of economic factors in China's foreign policy towards the region requires a separate discussion, but it should be noted that China will not even invest in Afghanistan's raw materials unless a suitable and secure environment is provided for the country in Afghanistan. China invested heavily in Afghanistan's largest copper mine, as the region's largest copper resource, but the investment was stalled for years. One of the reasons is the security issues and Pakistan's unwillingness to see China’s investment in Afghanistan, and these obstacles will not be removed any time soon.
Over the past decades, China's foreign policy towards Afghanistan has been largely a kind of reaction to the policies of major powers such as the former Soviet Union, the United States and NATO. Even regarding the security issues, Beijing's policy has been somehow a reaction to the interactions between the Uyghur guerrillas and the Taliban. The only area where China was expected to be active was investment in Afghanistan's mines, which has been hampered by two issues; First, China, attempt to exploit Afghanistan's crisis in its own favor, which did not happen. Second, the security issues as well as Pakistan’s reluctance to see China’s heavy investment in Afghanistan, which has remained unresolved.
In the past, China had been linked to the Taliban more through Pakistan, but now it has a direct relationship with the Taliban and only intends to politically support the group as part of its psychological warfare with the West and NATO. But in terms of economic aid, Beijing only tries to release Afghanistan’s blocked assets in the United States.
China seeks to sever ties between the Taliban and Uyghur fundamentalists by strengthening its political ties with the Taliban, but this will never lead to a Permanent security on the border, unless the Taliban can establish a fully popular government and national army, and abide by the international law.