Article submitted on 18 August 2021.
The recent withdrawal of the U.S. and its ally forces from Afghanistan has been nothing short of being consequential. The ambiguity of Afghanistan’s future has already been deemed a loss for the U.S. thanks to extensive media coverage and the Taliban’s rapid conquest of the nation, despite Secretary of State Antony Blinken declaring it a successful mission. Regardless, it has become clear that Afghanistan remains a graveyard for progress as it was for empires.
Blinken’s public optimism is not wholly derived from the Biden administration’s over-confidence in itself; it is an acknowledgement that the U.S. is not the only stakeholder in Afghanistan’s situation. Nor is this limited to Western allies also involved in Afghanistan’s peacekeeping—some being more outspoken and critical on the issue and calling for immediate, multilateral action. Instead, Blinken himself believes another prominent—yet somewhat unsuspecting—power may generate a more positive and amicable result: China.
Blinken’s comments were not an advocation of handing foreign authority over Afghanistan’s affairs to China, but a response to the negotiations between Taliban and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials in Tianjin last month. The meeting marked the prospect of the unusual relationship between the groups developing further; one consisting of cooperation and mutual interests between the resurrected Islamist state and the Sinic superpower, despite their contradicting values. The Chinese government’s controversial treatment of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang—and their overall distaste for other religions such as the Falun Gong—has taken less precedence than the potential geopolitical gains for the Taliban; the latter going so far as to outlaw Uyghur Muslim fighters to appease China for investments in Afghanistan’s reconstruction. The respective Islamist and Marxist-Leninist fundamentals that sustain both parties and separate them have been put aside for their strategic aims.
China’s history within Afghanistan is hardly infant, especially due to the small yet significant border that connects the two. Located in the narrow Wakhan Corridor in the north-east of Afghanistan, it has been a source of tension not only for Afghanistan’s and China’s previous rulers but for external powers as well, contributing to Afghanistan’s reputation as ‘the graveyard of empires’ and China’s embarrassing experience during its ‘century of humiliation’.
In 1873 during the height of the Great Game, the Russian and British empires established the Granville-Gorchakov Agreement—extending Afghanistan’s territory as neutral ground for the empires to discourage any attempts at imperial expansion in the area. However, the unclear conditions agreed upon—which had failed to delineate the border between Afghanistan and China—caused the British to feel manipulated and that the agreement had favored the Russians. The then Qing empire had also made historical claims to the area.
Spurred on by the British, the Chinese proceeded to acquire it but were subsequently suppressed by Russian and Afghan forces before they could expand westwards beyond Taghdumbash Pamir. In the words of the late Gerald Segal: ‘the lack of Chinese capability and more pressing problems elsewhere in a beleaguered China meant that its power in the area would remain ambiguous’.
The historic claims the Qing once made within Afghanistan matter less to the CCP, but nevertheless shows that the country’s importance to China goes beyond being only economic or geopolitical. The CCP’s inherent concern for China’s borders is one of historical precedence due to its past vulnerability. Afghanistan’s significance is not merely that of a standard bridgehead for China’s developmental and cultural expansion via its Belt and Road Initiative, but a security concern not only for the China’s national security but for the CCP’s very existence. While it is not as great a threat to CCP authority as Taiwan, Afghanistan could become a formal gateway of support for the more extreme elements of the Uyghur rebellion if Sino-Taliban relations proved to be unamicable or unfruitful.
For now, both sides are trying to avoid such a scenario. Despite the Taliban’s past history in accommodating Uyghur separatists and supporting their efforts, the foregone conclusion that they would establish an Afghan government has forced them to already think like a state that needs external support for resources and recognition. Given its reputation for extensive financial aid without humanitarian concessions or obligations attached and its outsider status in Afghanistan’s conflict, China would appear to be the best candidate to fulfil these needs. By accepting it, the Taliban would downplay its campaign for jihad beyond its borders. There are already signs of this happening—the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network has been running operations against its Uyghur co-religionists in Afghanistan on behalf of the Taliban.
The change in the Taliban’s attitudes towards the Uyghurs has been welcomed by China. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized that the ‘Afghan people have an important opportunity to achieve national stability and development’ and credited the Taliban as a ‘decisive military and political force’. Chinese state-sponsored media are also keen to show China’s potential as a development and peacekeeping actor to assist such an opportunity—the Global Times, in reference to Chinese academic and expert opinions, stating that ‘China has already started counter-terrorism cooperation with other countries in the region’ and could ‘participate in the post-war reconstruction and provide investment to help the country’s future development’. China has unofficially recognized Taliban rule—or, at the very least, accepted it as a corrigible force—by already considering such possibilities through cooperation.
Alex Johnson is a Masters student studying International Security Studies at the University of St Andrews.