The Taliban and China have been intensely courting each other publicly in recent weeks, with representatives from both sides declaring that they look forward to cooperating on various issues. In an interview with the Italian newspaper “La Repubblica,” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid called China’s relationship critical to Afghanistan.
“China is our most important partner and represents a fundamental and extraordinary opportunity for us, because it is ready to invest and rebuild our country… [There are] rich copper mines in the country, which, thanks to the Chinese, can be put back into operation and modernized. In addition, China is our pass to markets all over the world,” the Taliban spokesperson said in the interview.
Mujahid added that the Taliban held the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in high regard. The BRI is a Chinese infrastructure initiative that seeks to expand Beijing’s influence through the construction of international trade routes. Afghanistan had signed a BRI memorandum of understanding with Beijing back in 2016. However, no projects have been initiated as part of the plan.
In a Sep. 2 call with Chinese foreign minister Wu Jianghao, a senior member of the Taliban called the Chinese regime “Afghanistan’s trustworthy friend.” The Taliban member, Abdul Salam Hanafi, stated that they would “actively support and participate” in the BRI initiative as it would contribute to “the region’s prosperity.” Hanafi promised that the Taliban would “absolutely not allow any forces to threaten Chinese interests.”
Another spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen, announced that Beijing promised the militant group that it would keep its embassy in Kabul open and “beef up” bilateral ties. At a recent press conference, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin termed the Taliban rule in Afghanistan a “new page” in history. He said that Beijing would “continue to provide utmost assistance to Afghanistan.”
In an interview with The Epoch Times, Frank Lehberger, a sinologist and a senior research fellow with the India-based Usanas Foundation said that the relationship between China and the Taliban will be one of convenience. However, Beijing will try to portray it as a strategic partnership.
Lehberger believes that the Taliban will be “nice” to China as long as Beijing keeps investing in the country’s infrastructure and does not interfere in the export of illicit narcotics to Europe. In such a scenario, the Taliban will turn a blind eye to Beijing’s suppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and even chase away Uyghurs who are already residing in Afghanistan.
“But if the CCP is unwilling or unable to provide the expected finances in time, or if China does anything that does not please the Taliban, then the Taliban will very fast bite the Chinese hands that feed them,” Lehberger said.
According to Andrew Small, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Beijing is trying to “proceed cautiously” with regard to the Taliban. Both sides continue to have “tentative and quite tense relations,” something which is not going to transform into a “vast level of Chinese influence” in the near future. As to the question of whether Washington will cooperate with Beijing in Afghanistan, not everyone is optimistic.
“I think it’s going to be very hard for the U.S. to cooperate closely with the Chinese in Afghanistan. Perhaps in a few areas, like on the humanitarian front — there can be collaboration and minimizing civilian impact, including humanitarian atrocities… But the reality is that the Chinese are trying to move into a vacuum that the U.S. is leaving in Afghanistan,” Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said to VOA.
There is also the issue of China arming the Taliban. Reporting for Fox News, China expert Gordon Chang pointed out that Beijing has supplied weapons to the militant group for decades, which former American presidents have ignored. The relationship goes back even prior to 9/11. Chinese company Huawei is believed to have supplied surveillance equipment to Afghanistan. After 9/11, Beijing supplied the Taliban with landmines, anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles, and other weapons.
“Should the Taliban once again allow Afghanistan to be used as a staging ground for terrorist attacks, Washington will have to hold accountable not only the Taliban but also the Taliban’s big-power sponsors. That means, first and foremost, its most important backer, the People’s Republic of China,” Chang wrote.