China rethinking scope of ties with Taliban in Afghanistan
NEW DELHI: After the recent attack on a Kabul hotel popular with Chinese business visitors, Beijing seems to be rethinking its close relationship with the Taliban.
Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the terror attack on December 12 that wounded 5 Chinese nationals was “abominable” and had left Beijing “shocked”. A few days later, China advised its citizens in Afghanistan to leave the country “as soon as possible”.
In August last year, when the Taliban took over Afghanistan as US and Nato forces withdrew from Kabul, China had expressed its readiness to provide friendly cooperation to the landlocked nation. The Chinese foreign ministry had said it intended to play a constructive role in Afghanistan.
In fact, China like Pakistan, Russia, and Iran had emerged as trusted allies of the Taliban regime. The relationship now seems to be in hot water.
A concerted campaign to dent Taliban’s image?
Notably, the attack on the hotel took place a day after the Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan, Wang Yu, met with the Taliban regime’s deputy foreign minister, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, and requested the group to pay more attention to the security of the Chinese embassy in Kabul.
The assault also came less than two weeks after an attack on Pakistan’s embassy in Kabul. In September, a suicide bomber had hit Russia’s mission. All three attacks have been claimed by one of the Taliban’s main rivals, Islamic State.
Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center think tank, said the recent attacks seemed to be part of a campaign “to dent the efforts of the Taliban to gain legitimacy both at home and abroad”.
The Pakistan government was instrumental in supporting the Afghanistan Taliban while US and Nato troops were in control of Kabul. Of all the foreign powers involved in efforts to sustain and manipulate the fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan distinguished itself both by the sweep of its objectives and the scale of its efforts.
But Islamabad has been forced to rethink its relationship with the group in light of renewed terror attacks from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — a separate group from the Taliban even though most of its leaders operate from Afghanistan.
The TTP recently called off a ceasefire agreement with Islamabad and launched a spate of attacks that claimed dozens of lives, especially in areas close to the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Since the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Pakistan has seen 51% rise in number of terrorist attacks, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies.
In 250 attacks during the period (August 15, 2021, to August 14, 2022), 433 people were killed and 719 wounded. This also represents a 47% increase in casualties as compared to the previous year.
In a clear indication that Pakistan may change tactics, foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari in November called for the government to revisit its strategy to deal with the militant outfit. “It is time to review decisions we took or we were made to take with regards to internal security and terrorism,” he had said.
Bilawal maintained there was nothing wrong in admitting that “we were wrong about a few things and right about some other things and re-examine our approach”.
Now, China too seems to be in a similar position to Pakistan.
Chinese investors weigh risks
No country has recognised Afghanistan’s Taliban government, but China, Russia, and Pakistan are among a handful that have maintained their embassies in Kabul.
Chinese business visitors have flocked to the country since the Taliban’s return in pursuit of high-risk but potentially lucrative business deals.
Chinese firms, with strong government backing, have tentatively sought to pursue opportunities in exploiting Afghanistan’s vast, undeveloped resource deposits, especially the Mes Aynak mine that is believed to hold the world’s largest copper deposit.
But a spate of attacks targeting Chinese nationals, has caused uncertainty among investors.
Analysts said most Chinese investors in Kabul had decided to head home ahead of Chinese New Year and “80% are unlikely to return”.
The Chinese advisory to its citizens to leave Kabul immediately, appeared to be a setback for Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers who seek foreign investments in hopes of halting the downward spiral of the Afghan economy since their takeover of the country more than a year ago.
In October, Taliban-appointed government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid had highlighted China as a key part of Afghanistan’s economic development.
China still has significant strategic interests in its neighbour which sits in the centre of a region important to its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.
It shares a rugged 76-kilometre border with Afghanistan and it has long feared Kabul could become a staging point for minority Uyghur separatists in the sensitive border region of Xinjiang.
Security interests were the primary reason that encouraged China to come close to the Afghan Taliban, but the outfit’s indirect support to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the TTP and al-Qaida and other terrorists have shaken Beijing’s faith in it.
The result is that China has seemingly paused its plan to bring big-ticket projects to Afghanistan.
Beijing has not announced any big investment or assistance, except for a few trades in cheap goods. In the name of assistance to Afghanistan, $31 million worth of aid was provided by China last year, which included food supplies and coronavirus vaccines.
This June, China offered $7.5 million worth of humanitarian aid to the landlocked country after an earthquake of 6.1 magnitudes struck it.
With Chinese interests facing attacks, the gulf is widening between Beijing and the Taliban as the former seems to be not ready to commit to its promise of huge investments.
(With inputs from agencies)