China is punting substantially on the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan, with a high-risk-high-return approach. While scenes of retreating US troops from Afghanistan may provide optical, rhetorical and political fodder to the Chinese to claim one upmanship in the stressed US-Sino equation, it also brings the extremist Taliban in direct control of the 91-kilometer land border between Afghanistan and China, at the Wakhan Corridor.
Across the Chinese side of the border is the restive Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, home to the separatist Uyghur Muslim minorities, who have been persecuted, targeted and forced into internment camps. Besides, the region hosts insurgent organisations like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and the Salafist Turkistan Islamic Party. Yet both sides are indulging in a very unnatural public display of affection that militates against the logic of fundamentals, history and instincts, that would suggest otherwise. Pertinently, while most countries evacuated their embassy staff from Afghanistan, few like China (and obviously Pakistan), kept their ambassadors in Kabul to pursue engagement with Taliban.
Reassuring and reconciliatory statements from the Chinese such as ‘ready to develop good neighbourliness and friendly cooperation’ with the incoming Taliban regime, has been a first from any nation (even before Islamabad formally worded its ambiguous welcome). The Taliban repaid the Chinese bet with what Beijing is desperate to hear i.e., ‘to grow sound relations with China’ and more importantly, ‘never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China’. The allusion to Uyghur insurgency is unmistakable.
But this mutual expectation is precariously predicated on the Taliban being a reformed, disciplined and monolithic entity that is oblivious to the fate of its beleaguered co-religionists, just across its border. Whether they are playing a game of realpolitik where both sides need each other for lack of an alternative, or they truly believe in the ‘words’ of each other, will be decided by time ~ for now, they will hold each other to their words and afford each other the much-needed priority, legitimacy and joint diplomatic leverage on the chessboard of geopolitics. While Islamabad can open the doors for crucial parleys with the rogue’s gallery in the new power centre within Kabul (already the Pakistani ambassador in Kabul has had a formal meeting with the notorious warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the infamous ‘Butcher of Kabul’, in a sign of the times), the Russians will play the role of a passive midwife to the Chinese, to pursue their own agenda with the Americans.
But the Taliban is inherently an inflexible, dogmatic and puritanical phenomenon that vehemently disallows exceptions, leniencies, and accommodations. For Beijing to genuinely believe that the Taliban in its new avatar will accede to Chinese interests (like Pakistan does), is very unlike and unbecoming of the perennially wary Chinese. The societal and political dynamics within Pakistan and Afghanistan are very different.
If the advent of the Taliban will have an unavoidable impact on the Pakistani narrative (as is widely believed even within Pakistan, for good or worse, depending on whom the question is put to), then the recent auguries for China are clearly unsettling. On 21 August, a suicide bomb attack on a motorcade carrying Chinese personnel took place in Pakistan, where the target was clearly the Chinese (even though two local children were killed). This follows an earlier attack on 28 July, when a Chinese national was shot and wounded in Karachi. A few weeks earlier on 14 July, nine Chinese nationals who were working on a dam project in Pakistan’s Kohistan, were killed in a ‘terrorist attack’.
The back-to-back targeting of Chinese personnel and interests in the hinterland of Pakistan are unlikely to decrease with the change of dispensation from the Ashraf Ghani government to that of the Taliban. For the ordinary Afghan on the street or for the Taliban authority to be more receptive to ‘Communist’ China and its regime known to be brutalizing Uyghurs, is counter intuitive.
Chinese pragmatism and amorality in kowtowing with any pariah regime, if that regime furthers Chinese interests, is well established. But hoping for the same with the Taliban will be a tall ask. The Chinese mouthpiece, Global Times, is repeatedly reiterating the ‘expectations for the Afghan Taliban to follow its commitments to cut off all ties with terrorists, extremists and separatists ~ the Three Evils ~ in the region, and make sure Afghanistan does not become a breeding ground for those forces’. Unbelievably, it is expecting the Taliban to renege on its fundamental anchorage and past antecedents.
That there is an undeniable, ideological, and symbiotic connection between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban), which has brazenly claimed the deadly attack that killed nine Chinese nationals, ought to worry the Chinese. While the Pakistanis were quick to lay the blame on the Indian intelligence agency RAW and managed to get a garbled Chinese reaction to the tune ‘cannot rule out the possibility that some countries in the region are using terrorism for geopolitical purposes’, the Chinese would know better than to believe such statements that are meant only to please its ‘all-weather-friend’ in Pakistan.
Hardnosed Chinese would recognise the practical risks involved in betting on the Taliban, but the potential $1 trillion worth of the world’s largest lithium reserves in Afghanistan may make the risk worth a try. For now, the Chinese are displaying a gambler’s sense and flexibility by insisting, ‘some people stress their distrust for the Afghan Taliban ~ we want to say that nothing is unchanged forever’. This implies that the Chinese are willing to go against the obvious and bet on the Taliban.
The Afghanistan situation has literally forced China to adopt a proactive stance and dirty its hands, more even than it usually does in cross-border dissonances, and so overtly. Seeking to fill the void of a dominating ‘foreign power’ in Afghanistan has been a costly mistake since time immemorial. Yet the Chinese are betting on Taliban (willfully or circumstantially) in an extremely risky maneouver that could go terribly wrong for them.