The US’s hasty departure from Afghanistan has provided much material for China’s propaganda agencies to discredit Washington’s foreign policy. But Beijing is also treading a careful line in navigating an increasingly uncertain security situation in one of its most volatile neighbours.
On Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, said that while Beijing will “continue developing good-neighbourly, friendly and cooperative relations with Afghanistan”, it also urges the Taliban to “ensure that all kinds of terrorism and crimes can be curbed so that the Afghan people can stay away from war and rebuild their homeland”.
China sees the issue of Afghanistan as a quagmire, where great powers often find themselves entrapped historically – from Britain to the Soviet Union, and now the US. Chinese state media calls Afghanistan a “graveyard of empires”. In other words, Beijing does not want to be mired in “the Great Game” in the centre of the Eurasian continent.
“The truth is that China does not want to play any cards in Afghanistan, nor does it want to seek any geopolitical expansion …” wrote Qian Feng, director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University on Sunday. “China will never intervene in Afghanistan in the way the US has done in the past 20 years.”
In 2008, former British prime minister Gordon Brown said that it was possible China would send troops to participate in the ISAF in Afghanistan. But Beijing swiftly denied the suggestion. Its spokesperson, Qin Gang, who is now the Chinese ambassador to the US, said: “Except United Nations’ peace-keeping operations approved by the UN security council, China never sends troops abroad.”
It is difficult to predict how China will interact with the Taliban now that the latter have taken over the Afghan government again. On 28 July, China invited a high-level Taliban delegation to a meeting with the foreign minister, Wang Yi. Curiously, however, the following day, the Chinese embassy in Kabul urged its citizens to leave the country as soon as possible.
“How you want to rule your country is largely your own business, just don’t let that affect China,” Lin Minwang, a South Asia expert with Shanghai’s Fudan University told Reuters news agency, summarising Beijing’s attitude towards the Taliban and suggesting that China will take a pragmatic approach to the new regime in Kabul. “When a major Asian power like China shows it recognises Taliban’s political legitimacy by meeting them so openly, it is giving the Taliban a big diplomatic win,” Lin said.
In fact, Beijing has had experience in dealing with the Afghan Taliban without recognising it formally in the past. For example, on 11 September 2001, it was announced that a Chinese delegation had signed a memorandum of understanding with Mullah Mohammad Issa Akhund, then the Taliban’s Minister of Mines and Industries, to upgrade economic and technical cooperation.
Yet, despite these headline-making deals, China’s relationship with the Taliban had not been easy during its previous period in power. There had been contentious issues such as China’s far-west Xinjiang Uyghur region, with Beijing demanding that the Taliban refrain from hosting any Uyghur groups on their territory. “It was the primary reason for Beijing to meet Mullah Mohammed Omar in 2000, and it’ll still be on top of China’s concern list after Taliban’s Sunday takeover,” said Andrew Small of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.
Yun Sun, a senior fellow at Stimson Centre, agreed. “If the Taliban continues to support Uyghur militants and provide them with protection, China will be less keen to help legitimise the Taliban regime in return,” she said, “being recognised internationally is what the Taliban will clearly be seeking after it takes power.”
Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace after the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country Photograph: Zabi Karimi/AP
Using economic levers to create stability will also become an important feature in China’s Afghanistan policy, analysts say. Chinese experts are now talking about helping rebuild the war-torn Afghanistan. “What China could do is participate in the postwar reconstruction and provide investment to help the country’s future development,” the Global Times quoted a senior Chinese government expert as saying on Sunday.
This may well be the Taliban’s thinking as well as Washington’s understanding, too. In 2018, almost 80% of Afghanistan’s $11bn public expenditure programme came from donor grants. Now as the Taliban takes over, this is likely to be significantly reduced.
“[The] Taliban may want China to be their economic lifeline, and the US knows it. That’s why even during the Obama years, Washington had encouraged China to move ahead with its investment in the Aynak copper mine because of the scale of revenue it could provide to the Afghan government,” said Small. “In that sense, the US does understand what this could amount to if the Taliban were able to create the conditions for these paper commitments to translate into reality.”
But there is no guarantee this will happen any time soon, said Sun. Despite Beijing’s talk of “belt and road” initiative going through Afghanistan, its actual economic activity in the country has long been limited due to serious security concerns. For example, according to China’s ministry of commerce, Beijing’s foreign direct investment in Afghanistan was $4.4m in total last year. In comparison, it invested $110m in neighbouring Pakistan in the same period.
“The security situation in Afghanistan will continue to be fluid and uncertain,” noted Sun. Although the Taliban has declared the war is over, it’s still unclear whether small-scale conflict will continue across the country, and if the civil war resumes. “This would mean that China will adopt a wait-and-see approach when it comes to economic assistance through investments for the time being. This also means that the ball is in the Taliban’s court now.”