As the Taliban continues to consolidate its influence, China’s role in Afghanistan draws attention

After the US announced the timeline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, many countries in the region are focusing on what role will China play once the US pulls out of the country. Some experts think as the Taliban is likely going to reclaim control over Afghanistan, China will carefully assess the best strategies to defend its interests in Afghanistan.

After US President Joe Biden announced that the US will withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by August 31, the news was followed by some changes in the country and the surrounding regions. The Tibetan has capitalized on the withdrawal of US troops by launching a series of offensives across the country.

According to AFP, the Taliban is believed to have controlled roughly half of the nation’s 400 districts, several important border crossings, and have laid siege to a string of vital provincial capitals.

On Sunday, the Tablian’s supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada said he favors a political settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan even as the group continues to launch offensives across the country.

At the same time, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was visiting several Central Asian countries over the last week, as countries in the region are paying very close attention to Beijing’s views and strategies about the situation in Afghanistan.

During a joint press conference in Tajikistan with the country’s foreign minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin on July 13, Wang said China supports and expects all parties in Afghanistan to follow the “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led” principle and proceed from the fundamental and long-term interests of Afghanistan to build a political structure that suits Afghanistan’s national conditions.

He said the new order should have the support of the Afghan people through intra-Afghan dialogue and consultation, to jointly open up a new future for the country. Wang said the three most important priorities are to avoid further expansion of the conflict in Afghanistan and in particular, an all-out civil war; restart intra-Afghan negotiation as soon as possible to achieve political reconciliation; prevent all kinds of terrorist forces from taking advantage of the situation to grow in Afghanistan and not allow Afghanistan to again become a gathering ground for terrorists.

“China supports all efforts conducive to the realization of the above goals, and stands ready to communicate and coordinate with all parties, conduct diplomatic mediation and provide necessary facilitation to this end,” Wang said.

Is the rise of the Taliban going to disrupt order in Central Asia?

Even though the timing of Wang Yi’s trip to Central Asia may have made some people wonder about Beijing’s real intention, some experts view the trip as a routine diplomatic visit for Wang. Niva Yau, a researcher at the OSCE Academy in Kyrgyzstan, says one new item on Wang’s agenda is Afghanistan and it is a very nervous situation for Central Asian states.

According to her, Central Asian governments have been reaching out to Chinese ambassadors in the region talking about Afghanistan and the Chinese ambassadors are informed and asked about China’s response.

“Afghanistan is definitely going to be on the agenda and I think what’s really important to keep in mind is Central Asia as a region has benefited in the past 10 to 20 years from the US being in Afghanistan and prolonging the status quo,” said Yau.

As all sides are expecting the Taliban to regain control in Afghanistan once the US withdraws its troops from the country, countries in Central Asia are concerned that a Taliban-led Afghanistan is going to promote extreme Islamic ideas, and Beijing shares the same concern.

“The increase of Islamic ideologies in Central Asia will spread to Xinjiang and this is where China’s interests are most threatened at the moment,” Yau explained.

Additionally, China has also benefited from the US presence in Afghanistan over the last few decades, as it doesn’t have to deal with the threat from the Taliban for many years. Yau says over the last five years, China has opened a lot of different talks and engagements with different groups of Taliban. “So whichever group within the Tablian actually rise up to be the most politically powerful clan in the Taliban-led government, they will somewhat be friendly with China,” she said.

Will the Taliban threaten China’s interests in Afghanistan?

Many experts believe that China will become the most important force in Afghanistan and the neighboring region once the US pulls out of the country. In an article published in the Diplomat in June, Niva Yau and Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, mentioned that over the last few years, China has emerged as an active player in Afghanistan.

Yau and Pantucci point out that China has opened a number of multilateral diplomacy channels around Afghanistan and joined regional talks. Additionally, Beijing has expanded measures to “induce economic incentives for peace” in Afghanistan.

“A bilateral economics and trade committee was set up in 2015 and direct cargo flights between Afghanistan and China opened in late 2018,” they wrote. “Bilateral trade between China and Afghanistan doubled from $338 million in 2013 to $629 million in 2019, according to data from Chinese customs. Beijing has repeatedly spoken about bringing Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative foreign policy vision.”

As a result, some experts think a stable Afghanistan will be in China’s best interest. Nilofar Sakhi, director of policy and diplomacy at McColm & Company, says China’s major interest in Afghanistan is stability and she believes that a stable Afghanistan serves China’s best interests because of Beijing’s ongoing economic projects in the country.

“China has shown interest to include Afghanistan into the Belt and Road initiative if the security situation is getting better,” she said. “With that said, I would see China play a major role after the US withdraws its troops from Afghanistan because China will enhance all activities in Afghanistan that include infrastructure and capacity building, military assistance, and all kinds of diplomatic efforts.”

Niva Yau predicts that China will use infrastructure investment in Afghanistan to negotiate with the Taliban, as they hope the Taliban will ensure that the conflict will not spill over into Central Asia. “China will likely offer very concrete infrastructure investments in the region and that includes roads and railways,” she said.

However, since China’s infrastructure investments in Central Asia have often fueled anti-China sentiment, Yau thinks similar situations could also happen in Afghanistan. “That’s not something that the Taliban can handle lightly because they will be in the process of gaining legitimacy from its own people,” she said.

“Going into Afghanistan with these infrastructure investments, China will have to be a very delicate matter, in which they need to not only collaborate with local Taliban groups but the broader Taliban groups in Afghanistan. It’s very difficult for it to become a problem-free deal,” Yau explained.

Is the Taliban sending friendly signals to China?

In an interview with a magazine affiliated with the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s spokesperson, said China is a friendly country and that the Taliban welcomes Beijing to invest in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. He promised the guarantee Chinese investors and workers’ safety in Afghanistan.

Additionally, Shaheen said the Taliban will not allow any Uyghur “separatist group” to operate in Afghanistan. He said while the Taliban cares about the persecution of Muslims, but they will use political dialogue to support Uyghurs in Xinjiang. He promised not to interfere in China’s internal affairs.

Sakhi thinks the move reflects the Taliban’s wish to can get some kind of political support from regional powers including China. “The Taliban will wait and see what regional players will offer them. It’s a game of politics,” she said. “There will be the assessment from China and the Taliban and assessment of the security situation means the Taliban will see how much they will gain from regional power in terms of either economic or political support.”

Niva Yau says since the Taliban is trying to legitimize their sovereignty in Afghanistan, they have to be diplomatic and they have to have the tone when talking about China and other countries. However, Yau points out that since the Taliban supporters are interested in an extreme Islamic ideology that will govern Afghanistan, even though the Taliban will be very diplomatic when they are dealing with China, the organization’s essence can still threaten China’s domestic security interests.

“It’s very hard to see how China will be happy in any of these scenarios as the US pulls out,” said Yau. “This is the US forcing China’s hand in this region because China really now has to deal with this not just from the Central Asian countries’ perspective, but also for China’s own interests.”

Sakhi says if the Taliban can get some kind of political support from regional powers including China, they probably won’t interfere with China’s domestic affairs in Xinjiang. On the other hand, assurance from the Taliban will be that they will not interfere with China’s domestic affairs and they will not build any relationship with the Uyghur militancy.

“China is waiting to see how the security situation in Afghanistan will develop and Beijing will cement its policy of engagement,” she said.

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.