Weeks before he fled his country, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani gave a warning to world leaders: the advancing insurgents were not “the Taliban of the 20th century coming from the isolated Madrasas”—religious schools—“but the manifestation of the nexus between transnational terrorist networks and transnational criminal organization.”
Those words didn’t stop China from welcoming, on the very same day last month, senior Taliban officials in the Chinese port city of Tianjin. Lending the insurgency an air of legitimacy before it seized the country on Sunday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the Taliban “an important military and political force in Afghanistan” expected to play a key role in the country’s peace process.
But Wang was careful to add: “We hope that the Afghan Taliban will put the interests of the country and nation first” and that they will “make a clean break” with terrorist groups, including an Uyghur separatist group that Beijing has blamed for attacks in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. On Monday, hours after the capital Kabul fell, a Chinese official said the country hoped the Taliban would fulfill its promise of building “an open, inclusive Islamic government.”
The Chinese official response to the hardline Islamist movement’s advance and effective return to power speaks to the awkward new reality China faces as Afghanistan’s largest neighbor.
“The Taliban will certainly rewrite geopolitics in South and Central Asia, which of course worries China,” Stanley Rosen, a political science professor at the University of Southern California, told VICE World News.
“Even if the Taliban has provided assurance that its territory will not be used to launch attacks [against China], given the group’s past history, the Communist Party will still be wary. How unified and monolithic will the Taliban be when they take over?”
“The Taliban will certainly rewrite geopolitics in South and Central Asia, which of course worries China.”
China’s interests in Afghanistan are both strategic and economic.
Afghanistan sits on one of the richest mineral troves in the world, valued by the U.S. government at almost $1 trillion. China has limited investment in the country itself, but has invested heavily in neighboring countries in Central and South Asia as part of its Belt and Road initiative. It has funded billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure projects, including a gas pipeline connecting Turkmenistan, China’s biggest natural gas supplier.
But the Taliban’s radical rule in Afghanistan could threaten China’s massive investments in Central Asia, analysts say. “All these projects are worth millions or billions of dollars. For Afghanistan to continue to be such an unpredictable country, all of these investments are at risk,” Niva Yau, a researcher at the OSCE Academy in Kyrgyzstan and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told VICE World News.
Yau said Beijing was counting on Washington to maintain a balance of power in Afghanistan in the past, but now with the U.S. withdrawal, it will need to more actively engage with the Taliban to protect its interests in the region.
“China understood that the longer that the U.S. was there, the longer that the status quo was kept, it kept the region shielded from all the conflicts that are happening in Afghanistan,” Yau said. “China was able to do everything it wanted to do in Central Asia in the past 30 years precisely because of this absence of having to deal with Afghanistan. But now all of this has changed.”
“China was able to do everything it wanted to do in Central Asia in the past 30 years precisely because of this absence of having to deal with Afghanistan. But now all of this has changed.”
Yau said Beijing was worried that Taliban-ruled Afghanistan would turn increasingly conservative and seek to export its radical ideology to other Muslim countries nearby.
Andrew Small, an associate senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that although “Beijing is pragmatic about the power realities in Afghanistan, it has always been uncomfortable with the Taliban’s ideological agenda.”
“China wants to see them hemmed in by compromises with other political forces in the country, not resurgent after a military victory. The Chinese government fears the inspirational effect of their success in Afghanistan for militancy across the region, including the Pakistani Taliban.”
At home, Beijing’s recent meeting with the Taliban—a group closely associated with extremism and terrorism—came as a shock to those who have seen the Chinese authorities zealously justify its repression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang as a campaign against Islamist terrorism.
Chinese state media have sought to frame the Taliban as an enemy of the U.S. that enjoys some degree of popular support. On Monday, the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily shared a one-minute video about the Taliban on Weibo, saying the group had expanded in its early days thanks to its anti-corruption efforts and the support from the poor population. But many Chinese social media users questioned why the official media did not report on the group’s radical ideology and human rights violations.
“I’ve grown up hearing about the Taliban being terrorists, just like East Turkestan,” a Weibo user wrote on Monday, referring to the Uyghur group East Turkestan Independence Movement. “Now suddenly seeing this news, I feel very shocked.”
“There is no mention of fundamentalism,” said one of the top-voted comments under the People’s Daily post on the Taliban. “Rubbish media.”
A hashtag that asks the question “What kind of organization is the Taliban?” was once at the top of Weibo’s trending list as users debated if Chinese people should support the Taliban. But the hashtag was removed by Weibo hours later, after it triggered a wave of condemnation against the new ruler of Afghanistan.