The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and the seemingly unstoppable march of the Taliban open a strategic door for China which is fraught with both risks and opportunities.
China loathes the power vacuum, especially at its borders, and maintaining stability after decades of war in its western neighbor will be Beijing’s primary consideration.
But if stability requires a government dominated by the Taliban, an equal concern would be the support such an administration could give to Muslim separatists in China’s Xinjiang region.
Communist Party leaders in Beijing and the fundamentalist Taliban have little ideological common ground, but analysts say shared pragmatism could see mutual benefit outweighing sensitive differences.
“For China, the risk does not come from who holds the power in Afghanistan, but from the risk of persistent instability,” Fan Hongda, Middle East specialist at the University of International Studies, told AFP. Shanghai.
Afghanistan shares only a small 76-kilometer (47-mile) border with China, at high altitude and without a road crossing point.
But the border is of great concern as it runs along Xinjiang, and Beijing fears its neighbor may be used as a staging post for Uyghur separatists in the sensitive region.
“China can face the Taliban … but they still find the Taliban’s religious agenda and motivations uncomfortable by nature,” said Andrew Small, author of The China-Pakistan Axis.
“They have never been sure of the Taliban’s willingness or ability to enforce agreements on issues such as housing Uyghur militants. “
For Beijing, a stable and cooperative administration in Kabul would pave the way for an expansion of its Belt and Road initiative in Afghanistan and across the Central Asian republics.
Meanwhile, the Taliban are said to see China as a crucial source of investment and economic support, either directly or through Pakistan – the main regional patron of the insurgents and a close ally of Beijing.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told AFP that the insurgents want “to have good relations with all countries in the world”.
“If a country wishes to explore our mines, it is welcome,” he said. “We will offer a good investment opportunity. “
– “It doesn’t hurt if they invest” –
Beijing has already opened the dialogue, having hosted a Taliban delegation in 2019, and this week Foreign Minister Wang Yi held talks on regional security in Central Asia.
The hijacked links with the Taliban via Pakistan go back a long time and “have allowed China to avoid any major terrorist attack against its projects in Afghanistan”, according to Thierry Kellner, professor of political science at the Free University of Brussels.
Among these projects is the giant Aynak copper mine near Kabul, for which a Chinese company obtained a potentially lucrative concession in 2007 but where work has long been blocked due to conflict.
Since the Afghan government has failed to provide security in places where Beijing wanted to make big investments, “he now thinks it doesn’t hurt if they invest in the Taliban and give them a chance.” , said political scientist Atta Noori in Kabul.
# photo1Pekin has made political capital withdrawals from the US and warned that Afghanistan could once again become “the region’s powder keg and a haven for terrorism”.
Wang also stressed the need to “bring the Taliban back into the normal political game” in conversations with his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts.
Should the Taliban take over Afghanistan, Beijing sees financial investment as a way to bolster its support.
“China never wants to have boots on the ground but likes to get involved economically, using Afghanistan’s vast mineral resources,” Noori added.
– ‘Of course we will talk’ –
This could extend to a deal on Xinjiang, where rights groups say one million Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities have been placed in re-education camps, alongside allegations of forced labor. and sterilization.
China has defiantly responded to a chorus of international condemnations on the camps, which it says are training centers needed to eradicate Islamic extremism.
While Beijing has regularly poured money into its close ally, Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan has been blatantly silent on Xinjiang, which also borders his country.
By signing agreements with the Taliban, Beijing hopes they will also remain publicly neutral on the Uyghur issue.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Shaheen of the Taliban said that “if there are problems with Muslims (in China), of course we will speak with the Chinese government”.
More pressing issues will keep any influx of Chinese capital on hold for now, said Ayesha Siddiqa, an expert on the Pakistani military and its economic investments.
“Is Afghanistan Ready to Invest? The answer is no, ”she told AFP.
“China has been timid so far in pumping money into Afghanistan and will continue to do so until there is a clearer idea of where Afghanistan is heading. “
© 2021 AFP