‘China will not get drawn into serious security role in Afghanistan’

A Taliban fighter stands guard at a checkpoint in the Wazir Akbar Khan neibourhood in Kabul on August 22, 2021.

A Taliban fighter stands guard at a checkpoint in the Wazir Akbar Khan neibourhood in Kabul on August 22, 2021.

How is China likely to deal with the Taliban? Despite Beijing’s early positive signalling that it “stands ready” to work with the yet-to-be-formed new government in Kabul and its open celebration of the manner of the U.S. exit, there remain deep apprehensions in China about the Taliban and its links to jihadist groups.

With an “obsessive focus” in Beijing on Afghanistan being “a graveyard of empires”, China will not get drawn into a serious security role and its economic engagement will likely remain calibrated, ultimately depending on whether the new regime can gain international legitimacy, says Andrew Small, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund and author of “The China Pakistan Axis”.

Edited excerpts:

China said on August 16, shortly after the Taliban takeover, that it “stands ready” to work with Afghanistan. What have you made of China's response so far to the events in Kabul?

You already had these signals being given, particularly with the meeting that took place in July between Mullah Baradar and Wang Yi which was this unusually well-publicised interaction between the two sides. China has been preparing for a changeover here in a way that is more serious than had been the case in the preceding period. They've had this long-standing relationship with the Taliban and were one of the few actors to deal with them, even in exile in Pakistan.

They've been willing with this meeting in Tianjin, and some of the statements that you've been hearing from the Foreign Ministry, to send some kind of positive political signals. They want to have a benign relationship with the Taliban. This is something that at this stage they can offer – just this kind of diplomatic signalling for the moment. I don't think it changes a lot of the apprehensions that are there, but it's indicative, particularly keeping the Chinese Embassy in Kabul open in the manner that they did, that they have a certain level of confidence in the way that some of these early dynamics with them will be handled, and to some extent, even how the Taliban were going to handle the situation in Kabul more broadly.

Some of those apprehensions have in the past dominated how China looks at dealing with the Taliban, specifically the presence of jihadist groups that have had links with the Taliban and those that have been active in China's Xinjiang region, including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). In the Chinese state media, there's been a lot of exultation at the U.S. withdrawal and the manner of its exit. Beyond those optics, do you think those concerns and apprehensions still very much remain?

They do. Certainly you have seen this well-prepared propaganda operation on the Chinese side to make the most of the U.S. withdrawal and try to use this to indicate this should be treated as a signal to other U.S. allies. They’ve been preparing for the U.S. withdrawal for some time. I don't think they had anticipated it would be conducted in such a disastrous manner. So there's a certain amount of additional hay that they can make with this, but they didn't want to see this happen. That's very clear. They did not want to see the U.S. withdraw in advance of some kind of a political settlement in Afghanistan.

They wanted to see the Taliban somewhat constrained by the need to reach political agreement with other parties in Afghanistan and to some extent being a little bit more beholden to other international actors as well. They wanted to see them a little bit hemmed in, so that on the issues that China is most concerned about, there would be a bit more leverage over them. The concern now is they're taking power in a maximally-emboldened fashion, that they think they don't really have to make particularly serious moves and concessions on a lot of the issues that China is concerned about. So there's more anxiety about the manner in which this has happened. This is why China had been talking for a while about responsible withdrawals, and it's now talking about an irresponsible withdrawal. They genuinely did not want to see this happen in the manner that it did. Now, they have to make the best of it.

Those concerns that were there all the way back to the late 1990s have not gone away. If you go back and look at the exchanges between Lu Shulin, who was the Chinese Ambassador in Pakistan at the time, with Mullah Omar, and some of the exchanges that we recently saw between Wang Yi and Mullah Baradar, these are the same concerns – about Uighur fighters operating in territory that the Taliban control, that there's a permissive environment for them. Certainly China doesn't expect to have them handed over or killed, or the sorts of things they would expect from most neighbouring governments, but they do expect some kind of a squeeze on their activities, and they never fully got that in the last period of the Taliban's rule. They basically told them to set up in camps with some of the other Central Asian groups and not to run their own autonomous facilities.

This is still going to be a test question between the two sides. If you look at the groups that directly threatened China – not so much the Chinese mainland or Xinjiang itself but particularly soft Chinese targets in the rest of the region – you have the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban, that have conducted operations against Chinese targets. If you have seen the recent developments with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Chinese investments in Pakistan, there's been far more anxiety about the security situation there in the last few months than in the last few years. They are concerned that effectively, Afghanistan could be used as strategic depth for the Pakistani Taliban, and that would have implications for their investments and security interests in the country. The attack that we saw a few weeks ago in Dasu [on July 14 in which 9 Chinese were killed] was probably the largest loss of life you've seen in a terrorist attack on Chinese personnel in Pakistan, full stop.

These are all the residual issues that are still there, and they know that the Taliban are prepared to make political promises on all of these questions. But the question is, what does this actually translate into on the ground? In the period in which they've been raising all of these concerns, they still see Uighur fighters showing up in Haqqani network camps. The question is still going to be for them: what is it that the Taliban are actually willing to do in that regard when they're actually in power? They can make all sorts of excuses in a war context, but there's a different standard if they're the government of the country.

Do you think China's approach to Afghanistan will broadly be more of the same, where they are likely to be mainly only involved in economic projects? Chinese experts in the press have been saying China isn't going to in a big way fill in any security vacuum. Do you expect more continuity or any dramatic change?

On the security front, there is an obsessive focus on the Chinese side on “the graveyard of empires”, that this is a strategic trap. They do not want to be drawn, sucked into a serious security role in the country. So I would see very little change on that front, aside from going into the details on some of the counterterrorism activities, such as what the Chinese were conducting in Badakhshan [which borders Xinjiang] and things like that. I think anything broader would be extremely limited. They will be extremely wary of that.

The question on the economic side is, what kind of economic involvement would China want? If you look at three kinds of issues – mineral extraction, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and then the kind of short-term dimensions of a new government coming to power and needing outright aid and handouts – one of the things China is going to be concerned about is, what level of legitimacy is a new government able to establish? They're not going to get the same kind of financial backing that the last government was able to get from the West.

This is a government that's highly dependent on external revenues and external financing. How are they going to finance themselves as a state? There's a version in which you have a kind of criminal drug economy, which, of course, China would not be very comfortable with seeing in its backyard. If it's going to be economically viable, then you're going to need some of these larger-scale investments, which are long-term, require a lot of infrastructure to be economically viable, and a commitment from the investors that they're going to follow this through for a period of many years. How will the security context be? Will political power really be consolidated? Will this be another round of kind of fictitious calm for a while that gets reversed and you have civil war some ‘x’ number of years down the line? All of these are going to be questions that China has.

I think they can certainly, for a new government, come in with some direct, quick fix assistance. That's entirely feasible. They have given limited aid in financial terms by comparison with any of the other outside actors. They can they can give some small sums of assistance and there would be a certain kind of more modest projects that they could move ahead with. I think they want to be able to dangle the promise of larger scale investments. But I would focus very heavily on what actually happens in practice, because it will suit both a new government and the Chinese to pretend that there's a lot going on there but in practice, we'll have to wait and see.

I think China sees this as stability first, investment later. With the Belt and Road, how comfortable China really is going to be with putting in place an expanded set of infrastructure connections, when they're very worried about this becoming a militant hub in the region, is another major question. There is a reason that China has not constructed serious direct infrastructure links across the border through the Wakhan Corridor. They're quite happy to see Afghanistan kind of contained, and quite happy to see buffers there. I don't think they're going to be moving with such alacrity to build deeper infrastructure connections across the region and make sure that Afghanistan is deeply connected again, until they're confident about the situation that's emerging there. I think we will also get a lot of speculation about Afghanistan and the Belt and Road, but there'll be a level of caution on China's part. They'll give this a bit of time before they're really willing to make these commitments on the ground.

China and Pakistan have for some time now spoken about extending CPEC to Afghanistan. Do you see that as at all feasible?

I think it is possible there will be some kind of modest progress on that. This is where these questions, for instance, of TTP relations with the Afghan Taliban, start to weigh. How free flowing do you want the connections between Afghanistan and Pakistan to be in this context? It was likely that the TTP facilitated the attack on the Chinese workers in Dasu. So if you're thinking about Afghanistan as a sort of rear operating base for the Pakistani Taliban, how much do you want to commit to really deeply building those infrastructure connections? The political signalling around this is strong, but the execution on the ground often lags very, very significantly behind, and for a very good reason on the Chinese side. I would expect to see more political signalling. The political relations are obviously going to be stronger than they were in in the past on this. But I think there'll be continued reasons for the Chinese to be a little tentative about this. Of course, it depends on the projects. It’s a bit easier for road building projects where you don't actually have so many Chinese workers directly on these projects. When you were looking at roads being built through Baluchistan, for instance to connect Gwadar, in a highly insecure environment, it was Pakistanis who were being killed in the process of constructing these roads, it wasn't Chinese workers.

In your view, are China and Pakistan completely in sync and on the same page when it comes to Afghanistan?

These contexts where China becomes quite reliant on Pakistan – they are not on the Chinese side hugely capable of analysing and making judgments on all the subtleties of what's going on within the Taliban, in intra-Afghan politics, etc. Even if you look back at their involvement in the reconciliation process, China was not an actor that was able to play a very kind of direct mediating role. In terms of its involvement in the minutiae, this is not their comfort zone, and this is not an area that they have very much depth on. In a particularly fast moving situation like this, they need the Pakistanis. They don't altogether rely on them. They have their reservations. I don't think they think that their agendas are in perfect sync at all on these questions. But I think over particularly the last decade, they've figured out ways to be relatively joined up on this, a little bit more so than they were. I think they will be working in pretty close coordination on these issues. If you look at some of the statements that have been coming out, there's a lot of mirroring of positions that you're seeing from Pakistan, from China, and also in a certain way from Russia.

The Chinese need the Pakistanis if they want to nudge the Taliban on all of the issues that they're concerned about. There are, of course, direct links, there is leverage, there are incentives that they can offer the Taliban. But ultimately, the reason for this relationship, and the reason that China is able to have a certain quality of relationship with the Taliban, is still, quite heavily, Pakistan. On these kind of wider questions of does the Taliban at least have the semblance of building a government that is a national government, and on the conduct of the Taliban, China talks about them building a positive image. They don’t want to be dealing with 1996 all over again. They don't want a pariah government in their backyard that's operating under sanctions and in any kind of dire economic straits as a result. There are things that they want to see, as being in their strategic interest, that they think the Pakistanis should be willing to help facilitate.

What can we glean from how China engaged with the Taliban regime in the late 1990s? Will it follow an approach of staying out entirely of what happens internally, or are there instances where China might, for example, join with the international community?

I think China cares about this from the perspective, again, of, do you have a government there that's able to establish some kind of international legitimacy? They don't necessarily care about the substance of what the Taliban have been doing. They may find it distasteful, I know that Chinese officials do, but as in so many other contexts, this is something that they would tend to keep out of. But they do know that on a certain scale, it affects the way the rest of the world treats the government there, and so that certainly matters.

If you go back to the turn of the millennium, it was actually the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas that set the relationship between China and the Taliban back by sometime. They lent on them quite hard on that issue and lobbied very actively on this question. You had instances then of the Taliban sending delegations to Beijing and finding all their meetings have been cancelled, and things like that. So I mean, there are steps that the Taliban can take that the Chinese will react to it in that way.

It’s still a fundamental concern that you have in the Taliban, a regime that is kind of in some fundamental way ideologically hostile. They know that the Taliban, also for pragmatic reasons, need to develop a decent working relationship with them. But I think plenty of actors on the Chinese side think that in the end, when it comes to the agenda for Xinjiang, when it comes to the level of support for Islamic militants around the world, that they're quite deeply and fundamentally at odds on some of these questions. This is not a pragmatic secular Muslim government of the sort that they've been used to handling in so many other parts of the world. So I think of course it affects the quality of the relationship that the two sides have. In lots of ways, they don't trust each other. You have these stories of the early Taliban delegations who would come to Beijing and bring their own food, bring their own bread, refuse to come out. It sort of captures a bit of the flavour of these interactions. China will be ruthlessly pragmatic about these things. They're not going to kick up a fuss about anything specific that the Taliban do, unless there's some really direct effect on Chinese interests. But I think they do want to see something that looks quite different from the Taliban's rule last time, even if just for pragmatic reasons, too.

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Printable version | May 14, 2022 11:01:04 am |