The severe isolation of Afghanistan since the Taliban captured the country’s capital a year ago has provided China an opportunity to become a major player in the country.
Beijing has joined the international community in urging Kabul’s new rulers to implement reforms, such as forming an inclusive government with representation for all Afghan ethnicities and respect for women’s rights, particularly when it comes to education and work.
But China has also promised the Taliban regime economic and development support in exchange for attention to Chinese security concerns — especially in restraining any Uyghur militant groups in Afghanistan from targeting Chinese interests, particularly Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, in the region.
Before the collapse of the Ashraf Ghani-led government, Beijing had a close working relationship with Kabul, and Afghan security forces helped monitor and target Uyghur militant groups at China’s request. But since the Taliban’s takeover in August last year, Beijing has begun to engage with the new rulers because it does not want terrorism to spill over from Afghanistan into China or target its interests in the region.
Beijing’s ties with Taliban
As no country has yet recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate rulers, the millions of dollars in aid that helped prop up the previous government have vanished, billions in state assets are frozen, and economic sanctions have led to a near-collapse of the country’s economy.
In this situation, the Taliban administration actively courts Chinese investment and financial support.
“China has active diplomacy with the Taliban and has announced a number of initiatives and interests for a post-U.S. Afghanistan,” Kabir Taneja, a fellow with the Strategic Studies program at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, told VOA. “So there is a significant amount of posturing by Beijing, but not enough movement yet. I don’t think … Beijing wants to be in a position where it is seen as mothering the Taliban regime both economically and politically.”
In April, China allowed the Taliban to reopen the Afghan embassy in Beijing, while in recent months officials from the Chinese embassy in Kabul and Chinese state-owned companies met with federal and provincial governments to discuss Chinese investment and reconstruction projects. China has provided assistance worth $8 million to the families affected by the recent earthquake in Afghanistan.
Most recently, China’s special representative for Afghanistan, Yue Xiaoyong, at an international conference on Afghanistan held in Tashkent on July 26, announced that Beijing will financially support the construction of a transnational railway across Afghanistan that would connect Uzbekistan to seaports in Pakistan.
Experts believe that China, like Afghanistan’s other neighbors, is carefully engaging the Taliban regime without offering it formal diplomatic recognition. “Chinese companies continue to explore business opportunities in Afghanistan. But the country lacks the requisite political stability and security to make large-scale extractive industry investments worth the upfront costs,” said Arif Rafiq, president of Vizier Consulting, a political risk advisory company in New York.
Beijing’s security concerns
More than seeking a role in post-U.S. Afghanistan, Beijing is worried about the possibility of attacks planned by militant groups such as the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), a Uyghur militant group that Beijing blames for unrest in its western province of Xinjiang and refers to by its former name, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). The TIP seeks to liberate Xinjiang and the Uyghur people from Chinese government control and carries out attacks on Chinese interests.
The Taliban allowed Uyghur groups to operate in Afghanistan during its rule from 1996 to 2001. The TIP is part of an al-Qaida-led alliance of transnational jihadi groups that helped the Taliban capture most of Afghanistan last year after U.S. withdrawal. Experts believe that Beijing probably understands that new Kabul rulers will not be easily pressured to expel Uyghur fighters.
The Taliban have also been very consistent in their messaging about not allowing Afghanistan to become a haven for international terrorist groups looking to launch attacks against regional states, particularly China. Recently, Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, at the international conference in Tashkent, offered assurances that “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will not allow any of its own members, or any other individual or group, including al-Qaida, to pose a threat to the security of others from the soil of Afghanistan.”
Rafiq told VOA the Taliban’s approach toward Uyghur militants “is similar to how it treats some other foreign jihadists from friendly groups: it refuses to hand them over to their home country but takes quiet measures to restrict or neutralize their external activities.”
There seems to be some evidence of the Taliban moving Uyghur militants from Badakhshan, a province in northeast Afghanistan along the country’s 76-kilometer border with China, to address Beijing’s security concerns.
Since the Taliban captured Kabul last year, the Uyghur militant group has been very careful to minimize media output showing its fighters in Afghanistan and is less publicly bellicose toward China than it was a few years back, experts said.
“One set of markers that can be used is to compare the TIP in the runup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics to its media output during the time of the 2022 Games. In 2008, the TIP was aggressively and loudly threatening attacks on China, while, in 2022, the group has to balance its hostilities towards Beijing with practical considerations involving their Taliban hosts,” said Lucas Webber, a researcher specializing in nonstate actors and militant organizations and an editor of the Militant Wire outlet.
The United Nations Security Council said in a July 15 report that the TIP reportedly “rebuilt several strongholds in Badakhshan province and expanded its area of operations and covertly purchased weapons, with the aim of improving its capabilities for terrorist activities.” But the U.N. body also observed that Taliban efforts to restrain the activities of TIP may be one factor in the group not having launched recent attacks.
Another worry for Beijing has been the growing strength in Afghanistan of the Islamic State’s regional affiliate, known as Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), which is increasingly targeting China.
Leveraging the U.S. withdrawal to position itself as Afghanistan’s last remaining jihadi movement, the ISKP has focused on recruiting new supporters not only from the Taliban but also from other transnational and ethnic separatist movements, particularly the TIP.
“The IS [central organization] declared China an enemy in the mid-2010s and has ramped up its anti-China rhetoric since the Taliban took power in August 2021 with an increasing focus on the Taliban’s relations with Beijing to discredit the new government,” Webber told VOA.
In recent magazines and videos released by the ISKP, visuals of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi bumping elbows with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and receiving a gift of pine nuts from Muttaqi are frequently displayed.
The UNSC report also observed that ISKP has managed to recruit about 50 TIP members by offering higher monthly salaries. The group has approached a TIP operational commander in Badakhshan to join its ranks, but he declined, the report said.
Threats to BRI in Pakistan
Ashraf Ghani’s administration was long been accused of hosting members of Islamist militant groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Baloch ethno-separatist groups, which target BRI-linked development projects and Chinese nationals in Pakistan. Islamabad and Beijing had hoped that threats from Baloch insurgents would subside once the Taliban took control of Afghanistan.
But five days after the Taliban took over Kabul, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), a major ethno-separatist group, carried out, targeted a vehicle carrying Chinese nationals with a suicide bombing attack in the Pakistani coastal town of Gwadar — where China is developing a deep-water port and a transportation network linking Gwadar to China.
To the BLA and other ethno-separatist groups, the BRI-linked development projects put Beijing directly on the side of the exploiters and oppressors. In recent years, many targets of insurgent violence have been Chinese, after four ethno-separatist groups, including BLA, formed an operational alliance.
In late April this year, the BLA claimed responsibility for a suicide attack that killed three Chinese teachers at a state-run university in the port city of Karachi. In the same city, the BLA militants killed four people in 2018 in an attack on the Chinese consulate, and in 2020, the group killed three people in an assault on the Pakistan Stock Exchange, which is 40% owned by Chinese investors.
Following the Gwadar attack, the Taliban detained and expelled a large number of families of separatists from Nangarhar and Nimroz neighboring provinces, according to Baloch separatist groups.
But, because of ideological linkage, the Taliban did not take action against the TTP, a TIP ally, which also targeted Chinese interests in the past. Instead, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s interior minister, brokered talks between the TTP and Islamabad on a condition of an indefinite cease-fire.
The UNSC’s recent report said that TIP recently strengthened its ties with TTP and augmented “its military training on the manufacture and use of improvised explosive devices, focusing on morale and planning to carry out terrorist attacks.”
This story originated in the VOA’s Urdu Service.