Amid the US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban continues making gains on the ground. Since August 6, the group has captured six provincial capitals: Aibak, Kunduz, Sar-e-Pol, Sheberghan, Taloqan, and Zaranj. All regional states are preparing for the country to fall into a bloody civil war while the possibility of the Taliban taking Kabul must be considered. China is one neighboring country with high stakes in Afghanistan.

Situated between China, Tajikistan, and Pakistan, Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor has been stable and peaceful since 2001. Yet, beginning last month the Taliban has taken control of Badakhshan Province’s settled areas, and sent some envoys into the Wakhan Corridor albeit without using force. It is possible that the Taliban will carry out a future military operation(s) to capture the entire Wakhan corridor, which would put the resurgent group in control of the western side of Afghanistan and China’s 28-mile-long border.

Today, Beijing seeks to play a stabilizing role in Afghanistan, largely driven by China’s own economic and security interests in the deeply divided and chaotic country and the greater region. To achieve their goals in Afghanistan, officials in Beijing are working to improve their relationship with the Taliban. And considering the Taliban’s need to approach neighboring countries strategically (not ideologically), there is good reason to expect more warming of relations with China.

Despite a working relationship with Afghanistan’s UN-recognized government, China has hedged between Kabul and the Taliban. Building on China-Taliban peace talks held in Beijing in 2019, Chinese officials want to cooperate with the Taliban in post-US Afghanistan. Notwithstanding perceived grievances and a history of highly problematic relations, both parties are currently approaching the new era pragmatically as they realize that having a working relationship would best serve China and the Taliban’s interests.

Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper, has implied that Western media outlets were attempting to undermine China-Taliban relations by bringing up Xinjiang-related issues. As one opinion piece put it: “The West did not really care about Xinjiang Uyghurs’ human rights. It instead hoped to sow discord between Beijing and the Taliban.”

The Chinese are making it clear that they will work with Afghanistan regardless of whether its UN-recognized government or the Taliban is in control.

Consistent with their foreign policy principle of non-interference, the Chinese are making it clear that they will work with Afghanistan regardless of whether its UN-recognized government or the Taliban is in control, or whether there is a power-sharing agreement. As top Chinese officials have emphasized, Afghanistan’s fate should be “in the hands of the Afghan people.” When President Xi Jinping spoke to his Afghan counterpart Ashraf Ghani last month, he urged the government of Afghanistan to work toward “an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” solution.

Still, in the interest of Afghan stability, China would like the Taliban to moderate its conduct and make compromises with other factions in Afghanistan to resolve the conflict. Beijing is worried about the Taliban pursuing a military victory which could only exacerbate Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation. “China hopes that all Afghan factions, including the Taliban, will sit down and negotiate as soon as possible and establish a broad and inclusive political structure,” Cheng Wang, a nonresident Fellow for Gulf Arab States Research Center, Beijing Foreign Studies University, told Inside Arabia. “The Taliban have been more moderate recently, and their attitudes have sharply changed not only in protecting the security of foreign missions, but also on issues such as women, students, and education. These statements are very positive. China welcomes this, but also hopes that these statements will not stay in words but be implemented into concrete actions as soon as possible,” Cheng Wang added.

China Taliban

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, left, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for a photo during their meeting in Tianjin, China, July 28, 2021. Wang met with a delegation of high-level Taliban officials as ties between them warm ahead of the US pullout from Afghanistan. (Li Ran/Xinhua via AP)

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Beijing is deeply concerned not so much about chaos in Afghanistan spilling into China. Rather officials in Beijing are mostly worried about Afghanistan’s violence having destabilizing impacts on its Central Asia neighbors—Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—plus Pakistan. Considering past episodes in Pakistan of Chinese nationals, building sites, and symbols being targeted by Salafist-jihadist insurgents who oppose China’s growing footprint in greater Central Asia, China is always concerned about the threat of violent jihadist groups in Afghanistan and nearby countries. Ties between such forces in greater Central Asia and militant Uighurs from Xinjiang has long been a concern for Beijing. Whereas from 2001 until this year the Chinese were able to rely on US military forces in Afghanistan to combat extremists, the possibility of new power vacuums giving fresh opportunities to such militant groups unsettles Beijing.

China wants to see to it that Afghanistan does not become a breeding ground for transnational terrorist organizations that could threaten Chinese nationals and interests throughout Greater Central Asia—a region that is vital to the success of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The Chinese want Afghanistan to be a piece in the BRI puzzle. With largescale investments throughout greater Central Asia, China is eyeing Afghanistan as a country where the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) can expand. Beijing is playing the long game while remaining flexible vis-à-vis Afghanistan’s political situation. Yet if the Taliban is a force to contend with for the long-haul, the Chinese will want to have a partnership with the group to advance the Asian giant’s economic and security interests.

“Afghanistan is an important node for achieving the interconnection between East Asia, Central Asia, and South Asia.”

“Afghanistan is an important node for achieving the interconnection between East Asia, Central Asia, and South Asia,” explained Cheng Wang. “Beijing has paid close attention to the development of the situation in Afghanistan and recently appointed a new special envoy for that. We believe that military means cannot solve the problem, and dialogue and negotiation are the only way out. The top priority is to try our best to avoid the outbreak of civil war. Once Kabul and other major cities are being attacked in coming weeks, Afghanistan will face a severe risk of civil war.”

The Taliban understands that if it rules Afghanistan again, it would be critical to have working relations with neighboring powers. Developing an understanding and a fruitful relationship with China would bode well for the Taliban’s own interests with respect to governing Afghanistan and its standing before the international community. The Taliban has also been clear that it welcomes Chinese investment in Afghanistan’s reconstruction, promising to guarantee the safety of all Chinese investors and workers. Within this context, it was not surprising when the Taliban told South China Morning Post last month that the group considers China a “welcome friend.”

Mushahid Hussain, a Pakistani senator who chairs the Pakistan-China Institute, maintains that the Taliban has become more “chastened and pragmatic” compared to the 1990s and early 2000s. The group sees China as a “credible stakeholder” in Afghanistan. If back in power, the Taliban “would need Chinese support for Afghanistan’s stability and reconstruction,” said Hussain. “Annoying China is a recipe for disaster for the Taliban.”

The Taliban has promised Beijing that it will not support any militancy on Chinese soil. East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is a Muslim separatist force from Xinjiang, which, according to the Chinese government, worked with al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the 1990s and 2000s. Those alleged links between al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and ETIM in Xinjiang were a key factor pushing China to quietly support US military operations in Afghanistan back in 2001.

Two decades later, can China trust the Taliban when it vows to never cooperate with Xinjiang-based groups? “In combating international terrorism, we believe that the Taliban must draw a clear line with all international terrorist organizations such as the Islamic state, al-Qaida and the [ETIM],” Cheng Wang told Inside Arabia. “Only in this way can the Taliban be regarded and accepted by all parties as a responsible political force that can shoulder the task of Afghanistan’s future development, and then return to the mainstream of Afghan politics,” Cheng Wang said.

The odds are good that China will continue seeking warmer ties with the Taliban as it rapidly expands its presence in Afghanistan.

Hence, the odds are good that China will continue seeking warmer ties with the Taliban as it rapidly expands its presence in Afghanistan. The well-publicized July 28 meeting in Tianjin between Beijing’s chief diplomat and senior Taliban leaders underscored Beijing’s interests in better relations with the group. While discussing Afghanistan’s future in the northern coastal Chinese city, Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed China’s expectations that the Taliban play a role in the “peace, reconciliation, and reconstruction process.”

Whereas for the past two decades the US overshadowed Beijing in the war-ravaged country, the withdrawal of US/NATO forces will present China with an opportunity to step up as a mediator and play a more influential role as a diplomatic player. For Beijing, a major test in Afghanistan will be its ability to help the government in Kabul and the Taliban reach a settlement.