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China’s engagement with the Taliban will be driven by security interests, says British lawmaker

Taliban fighters in a vehicle patrol the streets of Kabul on August 23, 2021 as in the capital, the Taliban have enforced some sense of calm in a city long marred by violent crime, with their armed forces patrolling the streets and manning checkpoints.

Wakil Kohsar | AFP | Getty Images

China will likely engage with the Taliban to achieve two crucial goals — set up an economic corridor with Afghanistan and ensure stability in its neighborhood, according to Tom Tugendhat, a British Member of Parliament.

“I’m sure Beijing will be looking to open up an economic corridor in a similar way they tried to do in Pakistan,” Tugendhat, leader of the U.K. government’s China Research Group and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told CNBC’s Sri Jegarajah.

“But, the reality is, that they are seeking to secure their ‘near abroad’ as the old Soviets would have put it,” said Tugendhat, who is an MP for the U.K.’s ruling Conservative Party.

The term “near abroad” was reportedly coined by Russia following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was used to refer to a group of independent ex-Soviet states near Russia.

Analysts at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group echoed similar sentiments about Beijing’s goal of maintaining regional security.

“Beyond the immediate safety of Chinese people and organizations in Afghanistan, Beijing’s priority is for it to avoid becoming a source of regional instability, which would damage China’s economic and security interests in Central Asia and South Asia,” they said.

Other analysts have said China could also gain economically from aligning itself with the Taliban.

The vacuum left by the U.S. could be an opportunity for Beijing to offer development aid and other forms of support to Afghanistan — while giving China an opening to exploit the country’s vast reserves of rare earth metals, or push forward investment projects such the Belt and Road Initiative.

China treads with caution

Read more on the developments in Afghanistan:

Tugendhat said the challenge Beijing will now face is how to partner with a country “that is extremely difficult to work with, and particularly now, with a regime that doesn’t really even represent itself.” 

Perception of western decline?

The developments in Afghanistan have caused some to doubt Washington’s commitment to its allies.

Asked if the chaos in Kabul signified a perception that western powers were in a “terminal decline,” Tugendhat pointed out that the West has “the patience to endure and succeed.”

“You only have to look at the U.S. troop commitments, as I said before, to South Korea and Japan,” he said referring to U.S. military presence in the two countries. “You only need to look at the partnership that we’ve had — very deep partnerships that we’ve had – in places in East Africa or indeed in the Caribbean, to see the U.S., or the West if you like, really does have the strategic patience when it can muster it.”

However, he acknowledged that “in somewhere like Afghanistan, it’s rather a shame, to put it politely, that we have not been able to make the case to the president of the United States that this is a moment where we needed to endure.”

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