The Taliban loves China's money, but can it forget its Muslim gulags?
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including "Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan."
On the day two airplanes crashed into New York's World Trade Center in 2001, Chinese officials signed an economic and technical cooperation accord with Afghanistan's then-ruling Taliban, in the latter's capital, Kandahar. The 9/11 attacks led the United States, in partnership with Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, to launch a military campaign that ousted the Taliban regime.
Now, China is again courting the Taliban to further its regional interests, centered primarily on safeguarding its Belt and Road projects, extracting mineral resources in Afghanistan, and preventing a surge of violent jihadism in Xinjiang, where Chinese authorities have detained more than a million Muslims for "re-education" in the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds in the post-World War II period.
The U.S. plan to exit Afghanistan has added greater urgency to China's efforts to cozy up to the Taliban. Chinese officials have stepped up contacts with Taliban representatives as President Donald Trump's administration has steadily cut U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to 8,600 and closed several bases.
Trump, calling the U.S. military involvement in war zones "the single biggest mistake in the history of our country," has said that there would be fewer than 5,000 American troops in Afghanistan by U.S. election day in November. The Pentagon, however, says further troop withdrawals would depend on the Taliban's honoring of its peace deal with the U.S.
In order to win the Taliban's cooperation, China is reportedly offering to build roads in Taliban-controlled territories, as well as a number of energy projects, including generating electricity.
Here's the paradox: Communist China has little in common with the Taliban, a hard-line Islamist militia known for brutal, medieval practices and for demolishing the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan. In fact, China's concern over Islamic extremism has driven it to take unparalleled steps, including the large-scale deprogramming of Islamic identities in a bid to forcibly assimilate its Muslim population into the dominant Han culture.
Yet China has nurtured long-standing ties with the Taliban -- created and armed by Pakistani intelligence -- to help Pakistan call the shots in Afghanistan. While the Taliban was in power, China established economic ties with it and launched flights between Kabul and Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi.
Pakistan, which Beijing considers its client-state, has helped facilitate Chinese-Taliban ties. Indeed, the Taliban's top leadership, as well as its command and control apparatus, have been ensconced in Pakistan since it was ousted from power in 2001. This allowed China, after 9/11, to quietly continue a relationship with the Taliban.
Such long-standing ties with the Taliban, and a strong strategic nexus with Pakistan, have helped China avert any major terrorist strike on its projects in Afghanistan, including the large Aynak copper mine it secured in 2007. By contrast, Indian infrastructure projects and diplomatic missions in Afghanistan have repeatedly come under terrorist attack.
China's latest overtures to the Taliban underscore its concern that the U.S. military withdrawal could foster greater violence and instability in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt, which has long been a terrorism nucleus. Beijing wants to safeguard its heavy investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the supposed crown jewel of its Belt and Road Initiative. It also wants to ensure the Taliban do not aid Uighur militants.
U.S. Marines at Camp Shorab in Afghanistan, pictured in September 2017: the U.S. plan to exit Afghanistan has added greater urgency to China's efforts to cozy up to the Taliban. © Getty Images
America's Faustian bargain with the Taliban was sealed in February with Pakistan's active support. The fact that no counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded when the militants have enjoyed cross-border havens compelled the Trump administration to sue for peace in order to end the longest war in U.S. history.
Less known is that China also played a part in the peace effort by encouraging the Taliban to enter into a deal with the U.S. Indeed, even before Trump took office, Beijing offered to mediate and help revive the stalled talks between the U.S. and the Taliban.
In return, the U.S. last year heeded Beijing's call to designate the Balochistan Liberation Army, the main separatist group in Pakistan's sprawling Balochistan province, as a terrorist organization. The U.S. justified its designation on the grounds that the BLA was striking Chinese targets in Balochistan, which is home to the Chinese-run Gwadar port and a potential Chinese naval base.
Since then, relations between Beijing and Washington have deteriorated to a point approaching a new Cold War. Making matters worse, the U.S.-Taliban agreement appears to be tottering, with Washington accusing the Taliban of repeatedly violating the accord's terms, including by launching rockets last month at two military bases used by American forces and by stepping up terror attacks on Afghan government forces. Hopes of a U.S.-moderated peace settlement in Afghanistan have dimmed.
Against this background, China, despite its ties with the Taliban, is likely to find it difficult to advance its interests in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt.
Several factors threaten to act as spoilers to China's regional ambitions, including sharpening geopolitics, a resurgent Taliban -- some of whose local commanders appear to be operating independently -- and the role of non-Taliban militant groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan that are the nemesis of Pakistani intelligence. Irrespective of the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, a complete American withdrawal from Afghanistan now looks uncertain.
In this conservative region, China's Muslim gulag and other harsh anti-Islamic measures in Xinjiang are likely to fuel grassroots resentment against it, increasing the vulnerability of its projects.