By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
Even though the chaos didn’t happen that Beijing feared would follow the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the relatively “peaceful transition” to Taliban rule is unlikely to make Beijing flood Afghanistan with investments. While the Taliban may be eager to have China on board, Beijing is unlikely to commit unless it can be sure of reasonable returns. An unstable Afghanistan housing some well-known transnational jihadi networks remains a void for regional states, including China, Russia, Iran, and even Pakistan.
Thus, despite the Taliban’s call to China for financial help, Beijing is so far content with extending a helping hand, doling out small doses of finance. On September 8, China announced US$31 million in aid for Afghanistan, saying the funds were a “necessary step” to restore order and “end anarchy.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China would donate grain, winter supplies, vaccines, and medicines worth RMB200 million (US$31 million) while addressing the Pakistan-hosted first virtual foreign ministers meeting of Afghanistan’s neighbors.
Although the western press carried alarmed headlines at Chinese beneficence, that amount of money is relatively tiny. It stands in marked contrast to the US decision to freeze Afghanistan’s US$9 billion plus currently held in the US, Beijing’s approach, at best, is extremely cautious.
The government the Taliban have created is far from inclusive. Far from including Afghanistan’s various ethnic leaders and non-Taliban leaders, the interim set-up is fairly restricted to the hardliners within the Taliban. The Taliban moderates, led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Bardar have been downgraded, as the hardliners, including from the notorious Haqqani group, have ascended.
For Beijing, this composition is problematic. Specifically, the presence of the hardliners in top posts means that the ruling elite will be far less willing to crackdown on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) than it apparently seems committed to do, or the extent to which the moderates would have been willing to stick to the path.
That’s why, even though Chinese officials had previously indicated that a (Taliban) government could be recognized only after its formation, the interim setup has not so far led to an automatic recognition by any of Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors, including Pakistan.
For Pakistan, China’s closest ally, the post-withdrawal game cannot be played with pre-withdrawal rules. Despite Pakistan’s insistence, the Afghan Taliban have not condemned or promised to crack down on the anti-Pakistan Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). On the contrary, within a day of Taliban’s capture of Kabul, they released hundreds of TTP fighters from prisons across Afghanistan.
For Beijing, Pakistan’s inability to exercise a level of control it once had means that the Taliban may not be willing to commit to control the anti-China ETIM as well.
According to a former official of the Ghani administration, who spoke to Asia Sentinel on the condition of anonymity, “for the Taliban hardliners, who now occupy key positions in the interim set-up, cracking down on non-Taliban jihadi groups, their ‘brother-in-arms’, remains a serious problem, a commitment they are highly unlikely to fulfill in ways that could satisfy Beijing, Moscow, Tehran or even Islamabad.”
According to a recent commentary published in Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, “some of these Taliban senior members are on the UN sanctions list, which remains a major concern for the international community and also increases the difficulty for this interim government to be recognized widely and restore normal international exchanges, said Chinese analysts, adding that China will keep paying attention to the situation and will not change its position of urging the Taliban to keep what was promised.”
An analyst quoted by the paper said, “the Taliban may keep some terrorists in the country as bargaining chips to make deals with other neighboring countries (including China) and major powers worldwide, so it is unrealistic to expect the Taliban to have a clear and absolute cutoff with all terrorists (including the ETIM) in Afghanistan at this moment.”
Thus, while it was earlier expected that Beijing’s recognition of the Taliban rule was “inevitable,” this is clearly far from the case. Even though many US officials were quick to point out that the US withdrawal will turn Afghanistan into Beijing’s stronghold, Beijing appears to be extremely thoughtful in its approach, especially as the Taliban continue to face resistance both from within and without.
For China, the litmus test for their mutual ties remains whether or not the Taliban can practically ensure non-interference in Xinjiang. While Beijing usually does not care whether a given country is democratic, theocracy, or rule by militant groups, in Afghanistan’s case, and given the territorial proximity, Beijing’s concerns are too serious to be overcome by mere rhetorical commitments the Taliban have been making. In fact, as it stands, the constitution of extremely exclusive interim set-up has exposed that their commitments cannot be fully relied on for reasons that include the internal ideological divisions.
A 2016 research conducted by the Center for International Cooperation at New York University found that the numerous groups operating within the Taliban are ideologically too fragmented to develop a coherent worldview beyond a mutual hatred for, or opposition to, the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.
The ideologically fragmented nature of the militant group means that a hardliner group’s ability to completely dominate the moderates could very well see a reversal of the commitments Taliban’s Doha office has been making since the start of negotiations with the US in 2019.
As the UNSC report indicated in May, the Taliban’s commitments notwithstanding, the group remains closely allied with al-Qaeda with no intentions of severing these ties. On the contrary, the fact that hardliners now occupy key positions in Kabul means Beijing is dealing with a group that does not consider itself an outright enemy of al-Qaeda, a group that both supports the ETIM and espouses a transnational jihadi ideology to be exported to the neighboring states, including China.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic and longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel