Why China Is Slow-Rolling Taliban Cooperation

China’s calculated approach is driven by a deep mistrust that goes back decades.

By , a visiting assistant professor of international relations at St. Lawrence University in New York.
Chinese foreign minister meets with Taliban leader
Chinese foreign minister meets with Taliban leader
Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meet in Tianjin, China, on July 28. Li Ran/Xinhua via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

After the botched U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, many expected Beijing to quickly jump in to fill the power vacuum and recognize and legitimize the Taliban regime in weeks or months. Furthermore, many, including the Taliban themselves, expected China to initiate investment to secure Afghanistan’s untapped natural resources, including its trillion dollars’ worth of mineral deposits such as lithium.

Yet despite maintaining diplomatic relations and a de facto recognition of the Taliban, Beijing has avoided a hasty embrace of the new regime in Kabul and instead adopted a conditioned approach. Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party-owned Global Times explicitly outlined four conditions for the Taliban, including that they take a strict stance against Uyghur militants, form an inclusive government, distance from the United States, and moderate their domestic policies. During the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in September 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated similar conditions.

China’s calculated behavior toward the Taliban is driven by a deep mistrust that has taken shape since Beijing’s initial contact with the group in the 1990s. Back then, while the Taliban’s first emirate was still in its infancy, Uyghur separatists had intensified their militancy in China, carrying out bombings in different regions of the country, including in Beijing. China had linked the violence to Uyghur militant groups—which Beijing collectively labels as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a short-lived movement of the early 2000s—who were operating in Afghanistan in sanctuaries and training camps reportedly established under the direct supervision of al Qaeda.

After the botched U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, many expected Beijing to quickly jump in to fill the power vacuum and recognize and legitimize the Taliban regime in weeks or months. Furthermore, many, including the Taliban themselves, expected China to initiate investment to secure Afghanistan’s untapped natural resources, including its trillion dollars’ worth of mineral deposits such as lithium.

Yet despite maintaining diplomatic relations and a de facto recognition of the Taliban, Beijing has avoided a hasty embrace of the new regime in Kabul and instead adopted a conditioned approach. Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party-owned Global Times explicitly outlined four conditions for the Taliban, including that they take a strict stance against Uyghur militants, form an inclusive government, distance from the United States, and moderate their domestic policies. During the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in September 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated similar conditions.

China’s calculated behavior toward the Taliban is driven by a deep mistrust that has taken shape since Beijing’s initial contact with the group in the 1990s. Back then, while the Taliban’s first emirate was still in its infancy, Uyghur separatists had intensified their militancy in China, carrying out bombings in different regions of the country, including in Beijing. China had linked the violence to Uyghur militant groups—which Beijing collectively labels as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a short-lived movement of the early 2000s—who were operating in Afghanistan in sanctuaries and training camps reportedly established under the direct supervision of al Qaeda.

As it did not have relationships with the Taliban, China reached out to Pakistan—the Taliban’s main patron—to pressure the group to dismantle ETIM training camps. Pakistan promised to help but failed to deliver. ETIM continued its activities in the historic East Turkestan or Xinjiang region, and China further pressed Pakistan, which resulted in Beijing’s first direct engagement with the Taliban. Pakistan took the Chinese ambassador in Islamabad to Kandahar, Afghanistan, to meet the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. Omar assertively denied hosting or harboring Uyghur militants, but the ETIM problem continued.

With the start of the post-9/11 wars and the subsequent collapse of the Taliban’s first emirate, China continued protesting and pressuring Pakistan. In response, Pakistan sporadically killed, arrested, and handed over some Uyghur militants. However, the problem was never resolved perceptibly. Despite their persistent denial, the Taliban’s close ties with Uyghur and other Central Asian militants have been exposed on different occasions. According to Taliban sources, they rehomed hundreds of militants from Central Asia to Afghanistan during the Pakistan Army’s operations in North Waziristan in 2014. Similarly, in 2014, sources within the Taliban acknowledged the existence of around 250 Uyghur militants in eastern Afghanistan.

After ascending to power in August 2021, though, the Taliban again denied the existence of Uyghur militants in Afghanistan, claiming they’d left the country soon after the Doha Agreement was reached with the United States in early 2020. Nevertheless, the Taliban’s claims have continued to fall shy of the truth. Soon after the claim, a Uyghur militant carried out a suicide bombing in northern Afghanistan.

Though it has waged low-intensity warfare against local Islamic State-Khorasan fighters, the Taliban regime has failed to take any meaningful action against foreign militants, including ETIM. Such inaction may have been due to either unwillingness caused by ideological reasons or inability resulting from the Taliban’s effective control over foreign militant groups. Either way, the outcome for China is the same as it has been for the last 25 years—denial of harboring ETIM militants.

In addition to further deepening China’s mistrust of the Taliban, the group’s inaction against ETIM and other Central Asian militants jeopardizes Beijing’s three geostrategic interests associated with Afghanistan: national security, westward expansion, and economic/resource interests.

First, China considers the three evils of ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism to be national security threats. The Xinjiang region is exposed to all these threats. The region’s proximity to a Taliban-governed Afghanistan facilitates a conducive environment for like-minded foreign militant groups to reconstitute. The Taliban’s unwillingness or inability to restrain such groups poses direct security threats to China’s western periphery. Beijing is well aware of the threat and has adequately militarized the Wakhan Corridor. China also recently collaborated with Tajikistan to build outposts for Tajik special forces on the Tajikistan side of the corridor. These measures, however, may not translate to complete immunity from jihadi groups’ physical or virtual penetration.

Second, with Afghanistan geostrategically located in China’s backyard, its security (or lack thereof) is significant for China’s expansion toward Western Asia and the Middle East through Central Asian republics, including its massive energy and infrastructure projects within the Belt and Road Initiative. Southward in Pakistan, militant groups are already targeting China’s Belt and Road projects.

Third, China is best positioned to access and utilize Afghanistan’s untapped natural resources, including copper, lithium, and rare-earth elements. Beijing seems keen to materialize such a unique advantage. Recently, it sent mining industry experts to explore securing mining rights in Afghanistan. Operationalizing the Afghan mining industry would ensure China’s exclusive access to the reserves and bring much-needed revenue to the Taliban for running their government.

However, operationalizing the industry involves many challenges, including insecurity. Providing security to Chinese investment is beyond the Taliban’s tactical and strategic abilities, and the Islamic State-Khorasan’s recent expansion in the country is further testing the Taliban regime’s capacity to provide a conducive investment environment. China cannot blindly expose its interests by investing in mining industries in an unsecured, fragile, and conflict-ridden milieu. Recently, the Chinese Embassy in Kabul discouraged Chinese firms and individuals from investing in Afghanistan.

Unlike some commentators’ projections, mere geopolitical and economic imperatives do not define China’s engagement in post-U.S. Afghanistan. On the contrary, Beijing’s impression of the Taliban regime is as anything but a trustworthy and reliable partner. It is hard for Beijing to buy the new, more pragmatic, less ideological Taliban 2.0 narrative that some Western circles have speculated about. For Beijing, the Taliban’s persistent denial about the existence of Uyghur fighters in Afghanistan is beyond any strategic logic. This stubborn and persistent stance can only stem from the group’s ideological raison d’être.

Beijing will continue to closely assess the Taliban’s stance on these issues, but it is unlikely to officially recognize the Taliban regime in its current form. And although the Taliban desperately need funds to run their government—funds that China could help provide through investment in mining were they willing to address Beijing’s concerns—the Taliban’s internal power dynamics will almost certainly prevent them from adopting radical policy shifts, including on their relationship with Uyghur militants. Taliban officials will not risk internal dissent, mainly by their war commanders and rank and file, over changes to their ideological stance.

Atal Ahmadzai is a visiting assistant professor of international relations at St. Lawrence University in New York. His work focuses on issues related to human (in)securities in South, Central, and Western Asia.

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