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‘Hedging their bets’: Political experts weigh in on China’s warming ties with the Taliban

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, political chief of Afghanistan’s Taliban, in north China’s Tianjin, July 28, 2021.

Li Ran | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

China was one of the first countries that expressed willingness to engage with Taliban militants diplomatically when they swept to power in Afghanistan — analysts say it’s a pragmatic move, but relations could be “tricky” considering Beijing’s strategic interests.

Beijing has for years been preparing for the possibility of the Taliban’s return to power, according to Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at Rand Corporation.

“Unofficially, they’ve been speaking with the Taliban for many years now, hedging their bets,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Wednesday.

But the relationship between China and the Islamist militant group is “tricky” because Beijing targets what it calls religious extremism among ethnic minority Muslims in Xinjiang, said Ian Johnson of the Council on Foreign Relations.

On the one hand, Beijing … would be willing to work with [the Taliban]. On the other hand, Islamist groups in Xinjiang are such a problem.

Ian Johnson

Council on Foreign Relations

Xinjiang is home to the minority Uyghur Muslims. The United States, the United Kingdom and the United Nations have accused China of human rights abuses including forced labor and large-scale detentions in Xinjiang. Beijing denies those claims.

“If they have an Islamist political party that is … running a neighboring country, that could be, potentially, a problem for China,” said Johnson, who is the CFR’s Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies.

“At least optically, it seems kind of weird that, on the one hand, Beijing … would be willing to work with [the Taliban]. On the other hand, Islamist groups in Xinjiang are such a problem,” he told CNBC.

Fears of extremist attacks

China is worried that Afghanistan will become a haven for an Uyghur extremist group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, according to a Eurasia Group note. Beijing believes the group could launch attacks in response to the “widespread repression of Uyghurs,” analysts wrote.

Chinese authorities may be trying to protect their country from terror attacks by building relations with the Taliban, according to Neil Thomas, China and Northeast Asia analyst at Eurasia Group.

“Beijing hopes that offering economic assistance and possibly diplomatic recognition to the Taliban will persuade them to protect China’s security interests in Afghanistan,” he told CNBC in an email.

Taliban members patrol the streets of Afghan capital Kabul on August 16, 2021, as the Taliban takes control of Afghanistan after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.

Sayed Khodaiberdi | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Hua, the foreign ministry spokesperson, said China has maintained contact and communication with the Taliban “on the basis of fully respecting the sovereignty of Afghanistan and the will of all factions in the country.” The Taliban assured Beijing that it would “never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China,” she added.

“China will try to hold the Taliban to its word but there are unanswered questions about the unity and the level of extremism in the new regime,” Thomas said.

Formal ties with Taliban in question

China has “laid the groundwork” and made preparations to work with the Taliban, but it’s difficult to predict whether Beijing will formally recognize them as Afghanistan’s government, said Johnson of the CFR, adding that Western countries may not want anyone to affirm the Taliban.

“It may take a little bit of time,” he said. Beijing “might want to see assurances that the Taliban is going to be ‘a normal government’ and not … have massacres and massive killings or something like that before they give them formal diplomatic recognition.”

If the Taliban behaves “more or less normally,” China is likely to recognize it “at some point” before Western countries, he added.

Rand Corporation’s Grossman echoed that sentiment, noting that China may think it’s time to start the process of potentially recognizing the Taliban as a “legitimate governing entity.”

“But they’ve also said that they want to make sure that the Taliban is making a ‘clean break’ with terrorist proxies,” he said.

It’s possible that China asked its diplomats to stay in Afghanistan to … try to build trust and diplomatic leverage with the incoming Taliban regime.

The Taliban last week pledged peace at its first press conference since taking Kabul, according to a Reuters report.

For now, unlike many other governments who have moved to evacuate embassy staff from Afghanistan, China’s ambassador remains in Kabul. A spokesman for the Taliban’s political office reportedly said the group would not target diplomatic missions in the country.

It’s smart of China to take this approach, which signals that Beijing is not scared, taking sides or running away from the Taliban, said Johnson.

Eurasia’s Thomas said that could also help in the medium term.

“It’s possible that China asked its diplomats to stay in Afghanistan to present a contrast with evacuating Western missions and try to build trust and diplomatic leverage with the incoming Taliban regime,” he said.

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