Sam E Lewis
The Taliban and the CCP walk into a hotel...
The CCP and the Taliban. One almost sighs and wonders how did it get to this? 20 years after the West went into Afghanistan with the express purpose of getting rid of them.
No sooner had the US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman left Tianjin after tense talks about US China relations, a 9 member delegation from the Taliban rocked up. According to a ‘Karakax list’ revealed early last year, ‘growing a beard, wearing a veil or accidentally visiting a foreign website were among the justifications for sending Uyghurs to China’s notorious detention camps’. Such rules don’t apply to guests of China.
Perhaps it seems quite strange that the Chinese leadership should want to meet the Taliban – after all, the group has links to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a terrorist organisation intent on supporting Uyghur separatists within Xinjiang. Then again, that also means there is no more pressing reason to meet them.
Over the past few months as the US and other allies have withdrawn from Afghanistan, the Taliban have gained huge swathes of territory making a mockery of the Doha agreement they signed last year promising to focus on talks with the Afghan Government rather than allow insurgents free reign. The Taliban now claim they hold 85% of the country, but it is more likely just over half, and mostly rural areas at that. This being said, now that they hold some strategic border crossings with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, Iran and Pakistan, and have almost taken Kandahar, the CCP have taken the view that they are a permanent force in Afghan politics.
And since the CCP struggled for recognition as the true Government of the Chinese mainland for over 20 years during the 50s and 60s, you can’t doubt their ability to empathise.
It doesn’t matter that life under the Taliban means reverting to the dark age. Women’s rights curtailed, banning of music and forcing people to marry off their teenage daughters. So long as a political entity within Afghanistan can bring some form of stability and protect China’s interests, the CCP will work with them. Can this be a surprise given their backing of a murderous regime in North Korea? Another country on their border.
What are China’s interests?
There are three reasons the Chinese have met with the Taliban:
Firstly, they want to make sure there is no space within the future Afghanistan for Uyghur separatists. ‘ETIM is an international terrorist organisation listed by the UN Security Council and poses a direct threat to China’s national security and territorial integrity’ Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared. Given a Taliban spokesman soon after the talks ended tweeted that Afghan territory would not be used to threaten the security of other nations, it seems the Chinese were effective at getting their point across.
Secondly, they want to ensure the safety of Chinese assets within Afghanistan. No doubt rattled by the news that in mid-July, the normally solid ally Pakistan somehow let a terrorist incident slip through the cracks resulting in the death of nine Chinese nationals near the Dasu Hydroelectric Project, the Chinese realise this could happen to assets in Afghanistan too. And given the Chinese are eager to extend the ‘China Pakistan Economic Corridor’ (a US$65 billion investment as part of the One Belt One Road Initiative) into Afghanistan in order to allow Chinese companies access to rare earth mines they believe hold riches, they want to ensure any future Taliban takeover would not put that in danger.
Alas, despite the warm words from the Taliban that any Chinese investments would be safe, this didn’t stop the Chinese embassy in Kabul a few days after the talks recommending its citizens within the country leave if they can.
Finally, China wants to use this as an opportunity to paint itself as the adult within the room. “Look at the US” one can imagine them saying behind closed doors to emerging nations “they are leaving a former ally (Afghan National Government) in the lurch and now the country is collapsing. Only dealing with China will lead to stability and long term growth. We provide the money, no conditions asked”. It’s not so much about exporting Communist revolution as the Soviets attempted, more “trust us, not them”.
Whether these talks lead anywhere is the real question. Chinese diplomats are not stupid. They know the Taliban are not a single entity, rather a rag-tag bunch of different factions with differing goals depending on where they are geographically. If they really can crack down on ETIM or preserve Chinese assets is yet to be seen. The important point is that China has painted itself as someone who will do a deal with the devil in order to maintain Chinese interests. It seems the modern Chinese leadership is perhaps better versed in the statesmanship of Bismarck than their American counterparts. Whether that’s positive, I leave the reader to decide.
One thing is for certain, the Taliban broke the Doha Agreement. Who’s to say they won’t break any future agreement with China?
Image credits: Li Ran/AP