The Taliban Didn’t Get Chinese Recognition, but They’re Getting Chinese Help

Multilateral talks in China this week shied from recognizing the Taliban, but Beijing is still playing ball.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
A meeting of foreign ministers of China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan
A meeting of foreign ministers of China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (center) presides over a meeting of foreign ministers of China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in Tunxi, China, on March 30. Zhou Mu/Xinhua via Getty Images

Taliban figures meeting with their neighbors in China this week are not likely to carry home the coveted gift of diplomatic recognition as Afghanistan’s legitimate government, though their ears are likely ringing with promises of investment in transportation, trade, and communications to help rebuild the country and consolidate their hold on power. But countries weary of their excesses and ineptitude are also lecturing the Taliban representatives on human rights, education for women and girls, law and order, regional security, and their ties to terrorist groups.

China is hosting a series of multilateral meetings this week to discuss Afghanistan, where the economy has imploded and millions of people are on the edge of starvation. Since the Taliban won a protracted war and took control last year, an already dire situation has become catastrophic. The foreign ministers of Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan ,and Uzbekistan, as well as the Taliban, are in China for the third meeting of the so-called Foreign Ministers of Neighboring Countries of Afghanistan. Indonesia and Qatar are also present.

This meeting—which the host, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, said aims “to help Afghanistan achieve peace, stability, and development at an early date”—will be followed by another of the so-called extended troika of China, Russia, Pakistan, and the United States. Tom West, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, is scheduled to attend.

Taliban figures meeting with their neighbors in China this week are not likely to carry home the coveted gift of diplomatic recognition as Afghanistan’s legitimate government, though their ears are likely ringing with promises of investment in transportation, trade, and communications to help rebuild the country and consolidate their hold on power. But countries weary of their excesses and ineptitude are also lecturing the Taliban representatives on human rights, education for women and girls, law and order, regional security, and their ties to terrorist groups.

China is hosting a series of multilateral meetings this week to discuss Afghanistan, where the economy has imploded and millions of people are on the edge of starvation. Since the Taliban won a protracted war and took control last year, an already dire situation has become catastrophic. The foreign ministers of Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan ,and Uzbekistan, as well as the Taliban, are in China for the third meeting of the so-called Foreign Ministers of Neighboring Countries of Afghanistan. Indonesia and Qatar are also present.

This meeting—which the host, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, said aims “to help Afghanistan achieve peace, stability, and development at an early date”—will be followed by another of the so-called extended troika of China, Russia, Pakistan, and the United States. Tom West, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, is scheduled to attend.

Afghanistan’s neighbors and the United States will use the meetings to tell the Taliban that they won’t get something for nothing and that’s time to start acting like a responsible government. Tempers flared around the world after Taliban officials last week reversed a decision to allow older girls to go back to school.

“Recognition is an important question and has been for some time. We keep on discussing it with them, but they need more time to settle in,” said an official in Pakistan’s foreign ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Taliban figures see their attendance at international meetings as tacit acknowledgement of their legitimacy as Afghanistan’s government, and they talk privately about “silent recognition.” That’s a stretch, as recent actions by the Islamists have dismayed their neighbors, as well as the Western alliance, and led to retributive action just as the United States and the World Bank were considering easing financial sanctions on the Taliban and bringing Afghanistan back into the international community.

The confabs in Tunxi, in China’s Anhui province, come after the Taliban’s latest series of extreme edicts, including backtracking on girls’ secondary schooling, banning women from traveling alone by air, segregating men and women in public parks, forcing women to wear full-body coverings that cannot even show their feet, and ordering men to stop trimming their beards. Violent repression of dissent continues, with disappearances, detentions, beatings, and extrajudicial killings. There is no internal security or rule of law, and Taliban gunmen face regular firefights in a number of areas of the country.

The meeting “is likely to focus on the development, or lack thereof, of progress since the Taliban takeover,” said a senior advisor to Pakistan’s government, on condition he not be named. He said there will be a focus on the Taliban’s about-face on girls’ education.

“It is too early to be discussing recognition of the Taliban regime in the light of lack of progress on some key fronts,” he said.

While China and other countries may withhold diplomatic recognition for now, Beijing is moving ahead with efforts to boost another sort of recognition. A security source said China has promised to provide the Taliban with surveillance equipment, which Chinese authorities have developed and used with great effect to tighten their grip on authoritarian power, especially in the Xinjiang region, where millions of Muslim Uyghurs have been targeted for “reeducation” in a campaign that has been labeled a genocide.   

China is also reportedly spending $50 million to set up a state-controlled network of radio and television stations, a mirror of Beijing’s own mouthpieces that ensure Chinese people are not exposed to sources of information that are not approved by the central government. In return, the source said, the Taliban have shut down foreign sources of news and information, including the BBC, Voice of America, and others. China will train people to work for the organization, which will possibly be called Voice of Peace, said the source, who could not be named for his own security, he said.

And China, even without recognizing the Taliban regime, is moving to consolidate its economic influence in the country. China has talked about extending its Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure scheme into Afghanistan, the Pakistani government advisor said. Railways are “on the cards and may even be discussed in the talks.” China has made South Asia, and Pakistan in particular, a key node on its trillion-dollar plan to build infrastructure in Eurasia to suit Beijing’s strategic whims.

China also holds a contract for a huge copper deposit near Kabul, but it has done little work on the site since signing a 30-year deal in 2008, citing the danger posed by the Taliban’s presence. The Mes Aynak deposit, the world’s second biggest, is likely more useful as a price hedge for the world’s biggest consumer. And China has also gotten the Taliban to pledge to wipe out a reported al Qaeda-affiliated group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which wants independence for the vast eastern territory of Xinjiang, which shares a small border with Afghanistan. 

For China, “the most important thing is security,” said a European diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “China needs certainty on security, and investment guarantees. There’s a lot of talk about mining, but there is no infrastructure at all, and it will take a lot of money and a lot of time before anything in Afghanistan is viable. But, first and foremost, security.”

The Taliban’s delegation is led by the acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, and includes the interim minister of economy, minister of mines and petroleum, and director-general of communications. During meetings with Wang during his unannounced visit to Kabul last week, Muttaqi gave him assurances on security and stability, and said, “Afghanistan is ready to work with China to take an active part in the Belt and Road Initiative, and enhance cooperation in trade and investment,” Beijing’s Xinhua news agency reported.

But Afghanistan is going to need more than mere self-serving pledges from neighbors—and empty promises from the Taliban—if it is to avoid a catastrophe. Russia’s war in Ukraine and the subsequent disruption of global agricultural markets have pushed an already hungry nation close to the brink. The economy remains in ruins. International aid has withered, despite some support from the United Kingdom and United States.

Far from offering a lifeline to the Taliban, its neighbors have done little but gloat over the demise of the 20-year U.S.-led military and development effort that ended in ignominy last August.

Even since then, the United States has poured half a billion dollars in aid into Afghanistan, compared to around $30 million from China. That hasn’t stopped Wang, the Chinese foreign minister, from saying it’s the United States that should “shoulder the primary responsibility for Afghanistan’s economic reconstruction.”

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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