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For China, the Taliban rule in Afghanistan harbors both opportunities and risks

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BEIJING – In public, China has crowned America’s embarrassing exit from Afghanistan, and officials said the chaos highlighted America’s diminished position on the world stage.

A State Department spokeswoman quoted the tragic death of Zaki Anwari, a teenage soccer star who fell to his death while trying to hold on to the landing gear of a departing American C-17.

“American myth down,” said spokeswoman Hua Chunying on August 20th. “More and more people are waking up.”

In private, however, Beijing is more cautious about leaving its rival. While its main concern is security, with fears that Afghanistan will again become fertile ground for extremist groups under the Taliban, Beijing may now also have to face a US suitor who can focus on its main rival: China. There is also a risk of being confiscated.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, political leader of the Taliban on July 28, before the movement took control of Afghanistan.XINHUA / Reuters

“They tend to see Afghanistan as a trap and are wary of assuming too prominent a role there,” said Andrew Small, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a think tank in Washington, DC

Small, who wrote “The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics,” added that the Chinese see “the success of a radical Islamist movement in Afghanistan as inherently threatening.”

“Own national interest”

For much of the past two decades, Beijing has been ambivalent about the massive US military presence in Afghanistan. Placing its main strategic rival in the backyard was a challenge, but China’s leaders also saw the benefit of largely suppressing threats from extremist groups along its western border. The US taking on the security burden made Beijing the lesser of two evils in many ways.

How China is involved in Afghanistan is being closely monitored by the US and other countries. Even before Taliban fighters penetrated Kabul, the high-ranking leaders of the group laid diplomatic foundations with Beijing. Seeking to do so, China received a delegation in July, led by the head of the Taliban’s Political Bureau, Adbul Ghani Baradar, to meet with Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin. The men posed for cameras, albeit awkwardly, in a red-flowered lobby (where Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman had stood with Wang just two days earlier) to signal what Chinese officials called their “friendly relations.”

“China needs to develop relationships with this neighbor,” said Fan Hongda, professor of Middle East Policy at Shanghai International Studies University. “The Taliban have become a political force that cannot be ignored in Afghanistan.”

At these meetings, the Taliban offered security assurances to Chinese officials that they would not allow their fighters to use Afghan territory as a base for attacks within China – a version of the same promise they made to U.S. extremism in its western region of Xinjiang, where it has used the terrorist threat to justify the full detention of Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minority groups – a policy the US has termed “genocide”.

Even before Taliban fighters penetrated Kabul, the high-ranking leaders of the group laid diplomatic foundations with Beijing. Deputy Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images

In the kind of transactional diplomacy Chinese officials are known for, the Taliban left Tianjin with the promise of possibly the support of their wealthiest neighbor.

“China is our most important partner and represents a fundamental and extraordinary opportunity for us,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said recently in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. “She is ready to invest and rebuild our country.”

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So far, neither side has recognized the irony of their partnership: a powerful country using repressive tactics to fight extremism at home while hugging an extremist Islamist group next door.

“No matter what you think of the Taliban, the reality is that the Taliban [an] important force influencing the situation and future of Afghanistan, ”said Qian Feng, research director at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University. “But China definitely has its own national interest.”

In addition to trying to prevent extremism, these interests are also economic in nature.

Much is at stake for China, with potential investments in Afghanistan and the extensive Belt and Road initiative to build roads, ports and other infrastructure to expand Chinese influence into Central and South Asia. The program avoided Afghanistan because of the war; A game with the Taliban could change that. Chinese companies are also looking for a way to resume stalled projects like the Mes Aynak copper mine, which has stalled since the deal was signed in 2008.

Limited control

It remains uncertain whether China (or any other country) can trust the Taliban. While the speed at which the Afghan government and security forces collapsed took much of the world by surprise, the country’s house of cards must have long since been shaken. For years, shadow Taliban governments have thrived in villages and towns far removed from the West-backed government ministries in Kabul, which are widely regarded as bureaucratic and corrupt.

Billions of dollars in foreign aid flowing into the country exacerbated a culture of bribery and bribery at any level and of any scale, including reports of Afghan elites sending cash out of the country to bank accounts and villas in the Persian Gulf.

But while the Taliban took control so quickly that even many militants were surprised, the horrific ISIS-K attack on Kabul airport on August 26, killing more than 100 people, including 13 US soldiers , already uncovered the limits of the Taliban’s absolute influence on the country.

The agreement signed in February 2020 by former President Donald Trump and the Taliban leaders and implemented by President Joe Biden does not contain any provisions to protect women’s rights, education, democracy or any of the projects carried out as part of the reconstruction effort, which cost trillions of dollars and thousands. of life.

“Nobody was able to control Afghanistan from outside,” said Moin ul Haque, the Pakistani ambassador to China, in an interview last week. “So we can only measure them, we can encourage them to naturally meet the expectations of the international community.”

“Last Dawn of the Empire”

While China is concerned about developments in Afghanistan, the propaganda machine here is using the untangling US heritage to declare it the height of American failure. The state-run Xinhua news agency said it was “the last dawn of the empire” and has regularly highlighted international media coverage that questions the US’s credibility among its allies. China’s State Department said it was a “lesson in reckless military adventure” amid days of comparisons with the US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975.

“Wherever the US takes root, be it in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, we see turmoil, divisions, broken families, deaths and other scars,” said Hua, the State Department spokeswoman.

Social media posts and state newspapers, including the nationalist tabloid Global Times, literally trolled the US, joking that the Taliban’s takeover went more smoothly than the transition to US president.

The caption? That the US is in decline and unreliable.

But all of this carries a risk for China, said John Delury, professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea.

“Since 9/11, Washington has been so determined to fight terrorism and win ‘eternal wars’,” he said. “The risk to Beijing is that, despite all the tragedy and humiliation of the withdrawal, the United States will ultimately manage to redirect strategic attention to rivalry with China.”

Pakistan, a close ally of China, is likely to serve as a conduit for Beijing’s business, political or otherwise, in Afghanistan. The country has a long history of Taliban ties, and its relations with the US during the war in Afghanistan have been viewed as ambiguous at best.

A US Air Force aircraft takes off from Kabul airport on August 30.Aamir Qureshi / AFP – Getty Images

“The Taliban’s victory is ultimately the result of Pakistani policies in welcoming and supporting them,” Small said, warning that the “inspirational” effect of a resurgent Afghan Taliban could increase the risk of attacks by militant groups within Pakistan.

At least four people were killed and 20 others injured in a suicide attack on a paramilitary force in the southwestern Balochistan province of Pakistan on Sunday. The militant group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, separated from the Afghan Taliban but recently renewed allegiance to the group, claimed responsibility for the attack.

China is ready to step into the void in Afghanistan, but not necessarily to fill the vacuum left by the US withdrawal. Beijing is ready with economic incentives and “cooperative relationships” to redraw the geopolitical map of the region.

“You have sympathy for your people,” said the Pakistani ambassador ul Haque about the resurgent Taliban, “and now they are a political reality.”

That probably means no Chinese security presence in Afghanistan. The Chinese embassy in Kabul remains open and the ambassador there has met with senior Taliban officials. The Taliban may seek to revive Chinese investment to prop up an economy that, according to the World Bank, relies on foreign aid for nearly half of its gross domestic product.

“Our leadership has a very rational mindset,” said Qian, a professor at Tsinghua University. “So that we don’t follow in the footsteps [of the U.S.] and make the same mistakes. “

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