China wants “friendly” relationship with Taliban

One day after the conquest of Kabul, China has already announced that it recognizes the Taliban as the new rulers. The step has been foreseeable for months, but Beijing is not only pursuing economic goals. The change of power could affect stability in its own country.

China has said it is ready for “friendly relations” with Afghanistan’s new rulers after the Taliban captured Kabul. “China respects the Afghan people’s right to independently decide their own fate and is willing to maintain (…) friendly and cooperative relations with Afghanistan,” Foreign Office spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in Beijing. China and Afghanistan share a 76-kilometer border.

The diplomatic rapprochement between Beijing comes as no surprise. Just a few weeks ago, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi showed up in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin with Taliban representatives. Chinese state media also published photos of him standing shoulder-to-shoulder with representatives of the radical Islamic movement. This is because China’s propaganda machinery had begun preparing the population for the increasingly likely scenario that Beijing would have to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate regime.

In doing so, China is taking a pragmatic approach, but it has its own problems with the Taliban’s victory in its neighboring country. This is because China has a direct border with Afghanistan and fears a radicalization of its own Muslim population in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. Dealing with the Taliban is also widely discussed on social media in China. “Even if they cannot control the whole country, they would be a significant force to reckon with,” an influential social media commentator had written on his WeChat channel as recently as Thursday. “China’s top priority is for the fighting to stop, as chaos fosters religious extremism and terrorism,” said Zhang Li, a professor of South Asian studies at Sichuan University.

Destabilization feared at home

Yet the strengthening of the Taliban in the wake of the withdrawal of U.S. forces is definitely unpleasant for China. This is because Beijing not only sees religious extremism as a destabilizing force in Xinjiang and, but has long feared that separatists could use Taliban-controlled areas as hideouts. This also explains the leadership’s direct contacts in Beijing with the Taliban-which, incidentally, also occurred in 2019. Foreign Minister Wang said after the meeting that he hoped Afghanistan could pursue “moderate Islamist policies.” At the same time, the government has drastically tightened security in Xinjiang in recent years and strengthened border security.

UN experts and human rights groups estimate that at least one million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang have been placed in detention centers, which China calls vocational training centers, to combat Islamist extremism and separatism. The risks of regional instability to China were highlighted last month when a suicide bombing on a bus in Pakistan killed 13 people, including nine Chinese workers.

On the issue of possible recognition of a Taliban government, which is viewed critically internationally, China has a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. In any case, the state media published at least two analytical reports last week highlighting that Afghanistan had been the “graveyard of empires.” China was warned not to interfere.

China does not want to take over U.S. military role

This underscores the message that China has no intention of sending troops to Afghanistan, nor is it under any illusion that it can fill the power vacuum left by the United States. “We are quite pragmatic about it. How they want to govern their country is largely up to them,” argues Lin Minwang, a South Asia expert at Fudan University in Shanghai, for example. “If a major Asian power like China shows that it recognizes the Taliban’s political legitimacy by meeting with them so openly, that’s a great diplomatic success for the Taliban.”

The increasingly powerful superpower may also be able to take advantage of the fact that, unlike Russia or the United States, it has never fought the Taliban. One reason for the rapprochement may also be that China wants to secure its multi-billion investments in raw materials in the neighboring country. Not without reason, Taliban representatives said after their meeting with Foreign Minister Wang that they hoped China could play a greater economic role.

But the course of rapprochement is not without controversy in China either. “Aren’t these the same Taliban who blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan in front of the world media? Shouldn’t we draw a line?” one Chinese Internet user commented on the Twitter-like Weibo under a news clip showing Wang next to a Taliban representative. After all, China had already suspended its relations with Afghanistan once, withdrawing its diplomats in 1993 after the civil war broke out – before the Taliban took power in the country in 1996.