By Duncan Bartlett
For the Economic Times of India
The chaos in Afghanistan is a severe blow to the reputation of Joe Biden and China wishes to emphasise that point at every opportunity.
As Taliban forces rolled into Kabul, headed for the presidential palace, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi spoke by telephone with his US counterpart, Antony Blinken.
Wang Yi berated the US for trying to impose multi-party parliamentary democracy onto Afghanistan’s society.
According to the Xinhua news agency, he said: “The facts have once again proved that mechanically copying an imported foreign model cannot readily be fitted to the use in a country with completely different history, culture and national conditions.”
Chinese propaganda highlighted Russian claims that Afghanistan’s former president Ashraf Ghani fled the country clutching bundles of American cash.
He denies the slur. “I am accused of taking money with me,” he said via his Facebook page. “But it is all a lie. I left the country in one shirt, turban and shoes and could only take a couple of books in one bag.”
As desperate citizens scramble for evacuation flights, most diplomats, including the Indians, have already left Kabul. However, rather courageously, the Chinese have kept their embassy open for business, even though consular services are shut.
I believe that for pragmatic reasons, the Chinese will be among the first to offer the Taliban recognition as Afghanistan’s new leaders. Wang Yi recently gave the group some legitimacy, when he said that “the Afghan Taliban is an important military and political force in Afghanistan and is expected to play an important role in the country’s peace, reconciliation and reconstruction process.”
Nevertheless, China will be alarmed to see an extremist Islamic government on its borders. It has little faith in the Taliban’s ability to keep the peace. And like everyone else in the region, Chinese citizens are aghast at the Taliban followers’ brutal brand of fundamentalism, especially their abuse of women.
The primary risk to China is an upsurge in terrorism. In particular, Beijing is concerned about a resurgence of violence in Xinjiang, which shares a narrow border with Afghanistan.
An insurgent group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was blamed for a series of attacks in China in the first part of the 21st Century, including an assault on Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 2013. China says that some ETIM members were trained by the Taliban, who supplied them with weapons.
Foreign minister Wang Yi said in July: “We hope the Afghan Taliban will make a clean break with all terrorist organisations, including the ETIM, and play a positive role and create enabling conditions for security, stability, development and cooperation in the region.”
China has already made a costly effort to suppress militancy in Xinjiang, including the construction of detention centres for Uigher Muslims, which have been heavily criticised by human rights groups. The last thing it wants is more unrest, stemming from the instability in Afghanistan.
Some commentators have suggested that China’s relative patience over the situation in Afghanistan is based on its economic ambition. According to such thinking, China hopes that once the Americans have gone, it can freely invest in the country and take advantage of its natural resources.
My view is that while stability in Afghanistan is clearly in China’s economic interest, it has nothing to gain from investment in the short term. Half of Afghanistan’s population of 38 million live under the poverty line. Corruption and crime make doing business there extremely problematic.
Furthermore, the US is attempting to prevent the Taliban from accessing money held in the central bank by freezing nearly $10 billion dollars in assets.
I am sure that a Taliban-led government would welcome Chinese economic investment, especially the kind of large-scale infrastructure projects which are a characteristic of its Belt and Road Initiative and which have been offered to Pakistan. However, the dire security situation in Afghanistan wipes out any incentive from the Chinese side.
If there is one thing that makes me optimistic in this depressing scenario, it is that the US and China are at least still talking, both in bilateral conversations and through the UN Security Council.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that it is important to maintain communication with China during the Afghanistan crisis. He has acknowledged China’s concerns about unrest on its western border and reiterated America’s opposition to all forms of terrorism.
For his part, Wang Yi said that China stands ready to communicate with the United States to “push for a soft landing of the Afghan issue, so that a new civil war or humanitarian disaster will be prevented in Afghanistan and the country will not relapse into a hotbed and shelter for terrorism.”
Neither China or America wished Afghanistan to collapse into a failed state, nor did they want it become an exporter of international terrorism. I hope that there is still an opportunity for creative diplomacy, focussed on the areas in which the two sides have aligned common interests.