In Brief

How Will China Deal With the Taliban?

China could become a crucial supporter of Taliban-led Afghanistan, building Beijing’s influence in South and Central Asia as long as the regime in Kabul does not export extremism.

Even before the Taliban took control of Kabul, China started deepening diplomatic ties with the group, hosting a Taliban delegation in July. Since then, Chinese officials have said that Beijing respects Afghans’ right to decide their future, implying that the Taliban’s victory reflects the people’s will.

What kind of relationship will Beijing have with the Taliban?

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Beijing’s relationship with the Taliban will be twofold. First, it will be mercantilistic. China will seek to revive business ventures inside Afghanistan, which the Taliban is likely to support because investment will provide badly needed revenues. The Afghan economy is fragile and highly dependent on Western donors’ foreign aid, which will almost certainly be cut off. So any sort of investment, especially if it is not accompanied by lectures on human rights, will be welcome.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar stands next to Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
The Taliban’s political chief, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meet in Tianjin in July 2021. Li Ran/Xinhua/Reuters

Second, the relationship will depend on each side not interfering in the other’s internal affairs. For Beijing, that means the Taliban cannot export extremism into China’s troubled Xinjiang region, which shares a tiny border with Afghanistan, or condemn the Chinese government’s abuses against Uyghur Muslims in that region. For the Taliban, it means China will not question the group’s human rights abuses unless Chinese citizens are involved.

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In some ways, Afghanistan under the Taliban is China’s perfect partner: dysfunctional, dependent, and happy with whatever China can do for it.

What are the Chinese government’s interests in Afghanistan?

The economic interests are important but not decisive. At the end of the day, Afghanistan is an insignificant market and has only a few sources of raw materials.

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Much has been made of Chinese projects in Afghanistan, but these have been limited in scope. Even in stable countries, many Chinese projects that are announced, including those through the Belt and Road Initiative, are often not completed. So it is unlikely that China immediately becomes an investing juggernaut in Afghanistan.

Instead, China’s goal is likely to be at least as much political as economic. Beijing aims to head off any potential support for Muslims in Xinjiang that could come from Afghanistan.

And perhaps most importantly, China’s engagement in Afghanistan can show other countries how China supports regimes: with few questions asked as long as they support Chinese interests.

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Does China view the chaotic withdrawal as an example of U.S. decline?

Chinese politics remain opaque, but it is clear that one important faction of the ruling apparatus holds that the United States and the West are in decline. This line of thinking is found in Chinese think tanks, academia, and government. It is not unchallenged, but those who argued, for example, for cooperating with the United States in Afghanistan will be weakened, and those who see the West as in decline will be emboldened.

It will also become easier for China to argue that when push comes to shove, the United States is unreliable—it talks a good talk but will walk away when it loses interest. Those in China who cautioned that the chaos of the past few years was mainly due to one unusually disorganized administration will find their voices weakened. Instead, it will be easier to argue that the United States is in a secular decline.

China pressed the previous Taliban regime to end support for Islamist extremism. Does it have similar concerns now?

China is fighting what it calls a war against extremism in Xinjiang and argues that international extremist groups have aided Islamists there. There is little evidence for this—certainly not in recent years—but China is wed to this story, so leaders will have to push the Taliban not to admit extremists back into Afghanistan and especially not to allow the country to become a haven for extremists, like it was in the late 1990s. The Taliban will likely agree to this because it needs the investment and because China is much more powerful now than it was twenty years ago.

Of course, for China, recognizing the Taliban makes for strange optics: fighting Islamists at home but embracing them abroad. But it shows that China could be the ultimate realpolitik nation.

How likely is it that Beijing and Washington will work together to promote stability in Afghanistan?

In theory, this could work because they both want to fight terrorism. In reality, however, it is hard to see how the United States can now be engaged in any meaningful way in Afghanistan. It just walked away from its best option for promoting stability there, effectively deciding instead to turn the country over to the Taliban (even if the takeover was sooner than expected).

At the same time, the United States is unlikely to pursue business interests there—one can imagine sanctions being imposed after the first human rights abuses are reported. Thus, the United States will basically be absent from Afghanistan’s future, allowing countries such as China and Pakistan to pursue their interests unilaterally.

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