Why did the U.S. have to withdraw from Afghanistan? Are China’s ambitions for the region growing? How will these geopolitical events impact India? In a new book, The Comrades and the Mullahs: China, Afghanistan and the New Asian Geopolitics, two journalists of The Hindu tell us the story of the little-understood China-Afghanistan relationship and what the American withdrawal means for China’s regional ambitions. An edited excerpt:
The photographs captured the absurdity of moment. On the right stood Wang Yi, China’s suave foreign minister, dressed as he usually is in a sharp suit. On the left was Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, head of the Taliban’s political office in Doha and one of the group’s founders.
The date was July 28, 2021. The location was Tianjin, the booming Chinese port city an hour from Beijing. In the photo, both Wang and Baradar have their arms outstretched, palms open and facing downward, as if to say, ‘How did we get here?’
That meeting in Tianjin was by no means the first time China played host to the Taliban. But it was, without question, the most significant. The fate of Afghanistan hung in the balance. The U.S. was hurtling towards a hastily managed withdrawal: three weeks before that meeting, American forces had abandoned the Bagram airfield, the symbol of U.S. military power in Afghanistan, by ‘slipping away in the night’ and not notifying the Afghan commander that they were leaving. Talks on a political reconciliation had stalled. City after city in the provinces was falling to the Taliban.
Amid this perilous state of flux, here was China making a statement that would reverberate around the world. The message was simple: China saw the Taliban as a legitimate stakeholder in Afghanistan’s future, and when it came to power, Beijing would have its back.
That message was certainly apparent reading between the lines of what Wang told Baradar. China, as Afghanistan’s largest neighbour, he said, ‘has always respected Afghanistan’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, adhered to non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and pursued a friendly policy toward the entire Afghan people’.
The statement of support did come with clear expectations from Beijing on the Taliban’s behaviour. Wang said China hoped the Taliban ‘will make a clean break with all terrorist organisations including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement’. Baradar, for his part, made all the right noises, saying China had ‘always been a reliable friend of the Afghan people’ and expressing the Taliban’s commitment to ‘never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China’.
For all the bonhomie, the Taliban’s rapid seizure of power barely two weeks later would spark a range of reactions in China. For many Chinese, memories of Taliban 1.0 – the destruction of Bamiyan’s Buddhas, the public executions – remained ingrained, as also a wariness of extreme Islamist groups. Truth be told, there was a wariness of any kind of Islam, as viewed in the attitudes of many in China towards the country’s own Muslims in Xinjiang and elsewhere.
That did not, however, stop the state media from doing its best to paint the return of the Taliban as a big win for China, and just as importantly, a humiliation for America. This was a theme emphasised by Chinese nationalists in particular, some of whom even compared the Taliban’s victory to that of Mao’s communist rebels in 1949. Among them was Wang Yiwei, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing and a regular presence in the media, who claimed some among the Taliban were reading Mao’s series of lectures, On Protracted War. ‘It’s stunning to think that among the Taliban today studying Mao Zedong Thought takes precedence over reciting the Quran,’ he claimed on China’s Twitter equivalent Sina Weibo.
While it was true that China was somewhat ahead of the curve in betting on the Taliban’s return, the embrace was, in many senses, wary and reluctant, despite the professed enthusiasm of state propaganda.
Beyond the optics
China had over the years gradually built up relations with the Taliban, taking off on the contacts it had established during the regime’s first innings. This outreach was stepped up in the post-2014 period, coinciding with the accelerating Western exit strategy and Xi Jinping’s new neighbourhood diplomacy. In 2015, China hosted secret talks between Taliban representatives and the Afghan government in Urumqi, reported to have been brokered by Pakistan, while the following year, a Taliban delegation led by Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai visited Beijing. Baradar, who led the July 2021 visit, would visit China in 2019.
If every Chinese engagement with the Taliban, particularly amid the U.S. exit, was framed by breathless headlines in the world’s media as the latest Chinese attempt to take over Afghanistan and all its mineral wealth, China’s motivations, in truth, were a lot more pragmatic. A deteriorating security environment, one that could spill over into Pakistan and affect Chinese projects there, or worse, impact Xinjiang, was the chief concern.
Beyond the optics of the Wang–Baradar meet, two suicide bombings in the months of July and August 2021 would arguably be of greater consequence for Chinese companies. In one of the worst attacks on Chinese personnel abroad, nine Chinese workers, along with four Pakistanis, were killed in July by a bomb attack near the Dasu hydropower project in Pakistan, part of CPEC (the China Pakistan Economic Corridor). The following month, a motorcade carrying Chinese workers for the East Bay Expressway project in Gwadar was attacked by a suicide bomber.
Amid the cheering of the U.S. exit and heralding of a new era in China-Afghan ties, even within China there were calls urging Beijing to continue exercising caution, rather than start believing the hype. Among those calling for restraint was Mei Xinyu, a scholar at a think tank run by China’s Ministry of Commerce. Mei wrote a forthright article that deviated from much of the coverage, saying it was not a time for ‘blind revelry’ about the economic opportunities in Afghanistan. ‘China must not indulge in a dream-like revelry,’ he wrote, ‘Wake up! Learn about the history of this country!’
Where on the spectrum of celebration to caution – amid the cheering of the fall of America and the remaking of the Taliban’s image on the one hand, and the notes of warning from informed observers like Mei on the other – are we likely to find China’s approach to Afghanistan in the new era? Somewhere in the middle: that is the view of those closely following Beijing’s policymaking. China will not repeat the mistakes of the West and pour in billions, let alone set boots on the ground. It is, on the other hand, increasingly inserting itself as a power player, willing to step in to mediate and use its deep pockets to influence outcomes.
Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins