China abhors an influence vacuum, especially on its borders, and maintaining stability after decades of war in its western neighbour are going to be Beijing’s paramount consideration.
But if stability requires a Taliban-dominated government, an equal concern would be the support such an administration might provide to Muslim separatists in China’s Xinjiang region.
Communist Party leaders in Beijing and therefore the fundamentalist Taliban have little ideological footing, but analysts say shared pragmatism could see mutual self-interest trump sensitive differences. “For China, the danger doesn’t come from who holds the facility in Afghanistan, but from the danger of persistent instability,” Fan Hongda, a Middle East specialist at the Shanghai International Studies University, said.
Afghanistan shares only a little 76-kilometre (47-mile) border with China, at high altitudes and without a road crossing point.
But the frontier may be a big concern because it runs alongside Xinjiang, and Beijing fears its neighbour getting used as a staging ground for Uyghur separatists from the sensitive region.
“China can affect the Taliban… but they still find the Taliban’s religious agenda and motivations inherently discomforting,” said Andrew Small, author of The China-Pakistan Axis.
“They haven’t been sure how willing or able the Taliban really are to enforce agreements on issues like harbouring Uyghur militants.” For Beijing, a stable and cooperative administration in Kabul would pave the thanks to an expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative into Afghanistan and thru the Central Asian republics.
The Taliban would meanwhile consider China an important source of investment and economic support, either directly or via Pakistan. Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said that the insurgents want to “have good relations with all countries of the planet .” “If any country wants to explore our mines, they’re welcome to,” he said. “We will provide an honest opportunity for investment.”
Beijing has already opened dialogue, having hosted a Taliban delegation in 2019, and in the week secretary of state, Wang Yi hosted talks on regional security in Central Asia.
Back-door links with the Taliban through Pakistan have stretched back longer and “allowed China to avoid any major surprise attack on its projects in Afghanistan”, consistent with Thierry Kellner, a politics professor at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles.
These projects include the enormous Aynak mine near Kabul, that a Chinese company secured a potentially lucrative concession in 2007 but where work has long been stalled thanks to conflict.
Since the Aghan government has did not provide security in places where Beijing wanted to form big investments, “it now thinks it doesn’t hurt if they invest within the Taliban and provides them an opportunity,” said social scientist Atta Noori in Kabul.
Beijing has made political capital out of the American troop withdrawal and warned that Afghanistan could again become “the region’s powder keg and a haven for terrorism.” Wang has also stressed the necessity to “bring the Taliban back to the traditional political game” in conversations together with his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts.
Should the Taliban seize Afghanistan, Beijing sees the financial investment as to how to prop up support. “China never wants to possess boots on the bottom but likes to become involved economically, making use of the vast natural resource in Afghanistan,” added Noori.