The Taliban and China are keen to deepen their relationship, but there are serious obstacles in the way. This is not about to change soon.
One year after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August 2021, relations between China and Afghanistan have not progressed significantly. The reason being is that the main obstacles to a non-threatening Afghanistan—China’s principal objective—that existed in 2021 are still present today.
China is particularly concerned about the presence of three non-state actors in Afghanistan: the Al-Qaeda-linked East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), now called the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA). Beijing wants the Taliban to shut these actors’ bases down.
China’s Xinjiang region, where the Muslim Uighurs principally live, shares a 90-kilometre border with Afghanistan. Beijing is worried that the return of the Taliban to power will encourage the TIP, which is the main armed Uighur group in Afghanistan, to launch terrorist acts from across the border, despite not having been active recently. Moreover, while the TIP only has a limited presence in Afghanistan, China is concerned that the increasingly international focus on the appalling condition of human rights in Xinjiang will give the TIP a new lease of life. The United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recently issued a damning report on the condition of the Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi gave a public assurance at a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in July 2022 that “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will not allow any of its own members, or any other individual or group, including al-Qaida, to pose a threat to the security of others from the soil of Afghanistan.” However, Beijing remains sceptical. Certainly, the discovery that the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, had been given refuge in Kabul, until his assassination by a United States drone in July 2022, will not have helped matters. While there are suggestions that the Taliban has moved some Uighur fighters from the China-Afghanistan border area, it is important to remember that during their previous rule in 1996-2001, the Taliban allowed the Uighur fighters to operate in the country. Reportedly, TIP fighters participated in the capture of Kabul in 2021—another proof of the ideological affinity between the Taliban and the Uighur group.
Turning to the TTP, this terrorist group is in many ways a much bigger problem for China. While the TIP only has a relatively small number of members, the TTP has a much bigger armed footprint. Some estimates put the number of fighters at about 6,000 to 6,500, others at closer to 4,000. The TTP is the foreign non-state actor that has probably benefited the most from the Taliban takeover in 2021. Moreover, the Taliban and the TTP are very closely allied both ideologically and tribally, with the former having been instrumental in the creation of the TTP almost 15 years ago. TTP and Taliban fighters have gone to battle together over the years, with the TTP having actively participated in the battle for Kabul in 2021. This tight, multi-layered relationship means that it is almost certain that the Taliban will not turn against the TTP and evict them from Afghanistan.
Since the Taliban took over in 2021, the number of TTP terrorist attacks in Pakistan originating from Afghanistan has dramatically increased. According to the Islamabad-based Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), the TTP alone was responsible for 87 attacks that killed 158 people, which was an increase of 84 percent compared with 2020. This is bad news for China because many of the attacks target Chinese citizens and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure projects, even though the Pakistan army has 10,000 military personnel assigned specifically to the protection of Chinese workers. This is making the Chinese very nervous. CPEC is, after all, the jewel in China’s multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) crown.
The BLA is another armed group determined to target Chinese citizens and destroy Chinese-built infrastructure, particularly in the desolate but geostrategically important southwestern province of Balochistan. It has successfully conducted terrorist acts over the last few years in its bid to wrest its independence from Pakistan, a long-standing objective of Baluch insurgents. Gwadar, the multi-billion-dollar deep-sea port facility being built by the Chinese as part of the CPEC project is located in Balochistan and has been the target of several BLA attacks. The BLA and the TTP have operational links.
China and Pakistan, its close ally, have repeatedly demanded that the Taliban government hunt down these three groups. However, the fear is that if the Taliban were to seriously pursue these groups, group members may well defect to the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). The ISKP is a particularly nasty and effective terrorist organisation which has already managed to attract defectors from the Taliban, the TTP, and the TIP. There is evidence the ISKP is increasingly focusing its attention on Chinese interests in the region. Accordingly, a strengthened ISKP would not be good news for regional stability.
The Taliban is eager to deepen its relationship with China, particularly on the trade and investment fronts in order to circumvent Western sanctions. However, if the terrorist-related issues are not resolved and the Taliban does not show a genuine desire to move against these non-state actors, Beijing will be reluctant to commit significantly more to the relationship. Still, building on ties going back to 2014, there have been some slight movements in the bilateral relationship.
Although China has not officially recognised the Taliban (nor has any other country, including Pakistan), it allowed Afghanistan to reopen its embassy in Beijing in April 2022. China was one of the few countries not to close its embassy in Kabul. At the SCO meeting in July 2022, China announced that 98 percent of Afghan goods imported into China would be tariff-free. While symbolically important, this trade liberalisation measure will make virtually no difference given that bilateral trade between the two countries is very limited. A potentially more important announcement, also made at the SCO meeting, was that Beijing would financially support the construction of a transnational railway across Afghanistan that would connect Uzbekistan to seaports in Pakistan.
Notwithstanding all the grand words proclaimed by the Taliban (“China is our most important partner…”) and China (“The Taliban is a pivotal force important to peace…”), as long as the Taliban does not “take resolute measures to crack down” on all terrorists on Afghan soil, the Uzbekistan-Pakistan railway, as well as all the other promises of investments, particularly in the $1-3 trillion worth of unexploited mineral reserves, will remain pipedreams. The ball is very much in the Taliban’s court.
While much uncertainty remains about the future direction of the China-Afghanistan relationship, one thing is certain: China will never be involved politically, let alone militarily, in Afghanistan as previous external players —Britain, Russia, and the US — have in the past. Beijing will have drawn important lessons from those imperial disasters.
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