China and Afghanistan: Between pragmatism, fear and glee

Status: 08/17/2021 1:46 a.m.

China sees the failure of the military intervention in Afghanistan as evidence of the dwindling power of the USA. At the same time, China is pursuing economic interests there. Dealing with the Taliban is characterized by pragmatism – and fear.

By Ruth Kirchner, for the ARD studio in Beijing

The commentators in the Chinese state media were full of malice. The takeover of power by the Taliban in Afghanistan, the evacuation of Western embassy employees, that was the Americans’ Saigon moment, it was said with reference to the evacuation of the US embassy at the end of the Vietnam War 46 years ago. “The fall of Kabul rings the death knell for the decline of US hegemony,” headlined the state news agency Xinhua.

But despite all the glee – China’s leadership is also worried about Afghanistan. Nobody in Beijing says that out loud: but China has long benefited from the US presence in Afghanistan – it created a minimum of stability. The fact that the Taliban are now taking power is also difficult for Beijing. The common border with Afghanistan is only 76 kilometers long – an inaccessible pass at an extreme height. Nevertheless, Beijing fears that radical Islamists could infiltrate China – into the border region of Xinjiang.

Beijing has good relations with the Taliban

Fan Hongda from the Shanghai University for International Studies warned days ago: “As a neighboring country and an important country in the world, China must help Afghanistan to establish stability and peace – if only because of our own national security interests.” Although China is suppressing Islam in its own country and locking Muslim Uyghurs in re-education camps, Beijing maintains good relations with the Taliban: for example, in July at a meeting between Foreign Minister Wang Yi and a delegation led by Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar.

Also yesterday, China was one of the first countries to offer the new rulers in Kabul “friendly relations”. “China respects the right of the Afghan people to decide their fate and future,” said Foreign Office spokeswoman Hua Chunying. “We are ready to continue to cultivate good neighborly relations with Afghanistan and to play a constructive role in the reconstruction and development of the country”

High risk strategic opportunities

The Taliban, on the other hand, are interested in investments from China and hope that relations with Beijing will give them more international recognition. This opens up new strategic opportunities for China, but these are highly risky. Cooperation with the new rulers in Kabul could bring China infrastructure contracts, secure existing billion-dollar investments and give China’s new Silk Road new impetus. Afghanistan is seen as an important link to the Central Asian states.

But Beijing remains cautious. China expects the Taliban to implement their pledges to ensure a smooth transition in Afghanistan and contain all forms of terrorism and violence, said Foreign Office spokeswoman Hua. The Chinese embassy in Kabul has not yet closed Beijing. But the security measures on the narrow border with Afghanistan were strengthened months ago, according to media reports. It has also been agreed that China does not want to be drawn into military adventures in Afghanistan. State media have been warning for days, no coincidence, that Afghanistan is a “graveyard of empires”.