Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made a surprise one-day visit to Afghanistan, where officials said he held wide-ranging talks with Taliban rulers and renewed China’s opposition to international sanctions against the war-torn country.
Wang’s unannounced visit Thursday, his first since the Taliban takeover of the country last August, came a week before Beijing hosts neighbors of Afghanistan for a meeting on how to help the country tackle its worsening humanitarian crisis and economic upheaval.
Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi will also represent Kabul at the meeting, scheduled for March 30-31, and brief participants on the latest situation in Afghanistan.
Shortly after the chief Chinese diplomat ended the trip to Kabul, a senior delegation from Russia landed in the Afghan capital under the leadership of Zamir Kabulov, President Vladimir Putin’s envoy for Afghanistan.
Delegation-level talks between Muttaqi and Wang focused on strengthening bilateral political, economic, and trade ties between them, according to a post-meeting Taliban statement.
Wang was quoted as saying that “China does not interfere in internal Afghan affairs nor does it want to safeguard its interests through such interventions.” The Chinese diplomat opposed the imposition of political and economic sanctions against Afghanistan, said the statement.
Scholarships for Afghan students, visa issues, commencement of work by Chinese investors in the mining sector and Afghanistan’s role in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) also came up in discussions, the statement added.
China hopes Afghanistan would live up to its commitment of not allowing any external forces to use its territory as a tool to oppose neighbors, or harm the security of other nations, a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement quoted Wang as saying in a meeting with Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar.
“Mr. Baradar stressed that Afghanistan's territory will not be used against any country,” said a Taliban statement. “Ensuring peace and security in Afghanistan means peace and stability in the region,” it quoted Baradar as telling Wang.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman while speaking to a regular news conference in Beijing Thursday underscored the importance of next week’s meeting of Afghanistan’s neighbors.
“We are speeding up preparations for the third foreign ministers meeting among the neighboring countries of Afghanistan,” Wang Wenbin told a news conference. “As Afghanistan's neighbor, China stands ready to leverage its strength and contribute to the country’s lasting stability and security,” he said.
Beijing had maintained ties with the Taliban even when they were waging a deadly insurgency against the United States and coalition troops. The hardline group seized power from the now-defunct U.S.-backed Afghan government seven months ago as international forces withdrew from Afghanistan after 20 years of war.
But China has so far not extended diplomatic recognition to the Taliban government nor has the global community at large.
However, Beijing and other neighboring countries, including Pakistan, have kept their embassies open in Kabul since the chaotic withdrawal of Western forces in late August.
Chinese officials insist their engagement with the Islamist group primarily focuses on anti-terrorism and humanitarian issues and any decision to recognize the Taliban government will have to be collectively taken by regional countries.
China and Afghanistan share about 76-kilometers of rugged border.
Chinese officials fear if instability continues in the neighboring country, militants linked to an outlawed anti-China group known as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), could use Afghan soil as staging ground for attacks in Chinese border regions of Xinjiang.
ETIM claims it is fighting for the minority Muslim Uyghur community in Xinjiang allegedly being subjected to massive human rights abuses by Chinese authorities, charges Beijing rejects as Western-led propaganda.
China has invested around $25 billion in massive infrastructure projects in Pakistan under the BRI. Both countries want to extend what is known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC into Afghanistan to help in promoting political and economic stability there.
The Taliban have welcomed the proposal. Pakistani, Chinese and Taliban delegates are also scheduled to hold a tripartite dialogue on the sidelines of next week’s meeting in Beijing to discuss cooperation in economic projects, possibly under CPEC, said officials in Islamabad.
Muttaqi’s office said his meeting with the Russian delegation focused on strengthening political, economic, transit and regional relations as well as fighting drug trafficking from Afghanistan. Moscow also has maintained close contacts with the Taliban even before they seized power.
Humanitarian needs, stemming from years of war and persistent drought, have increased in Afghanistan to record levels since the Taliban takeover in August.
Western countries immediately suspended non-humanitarian assistance to the heavily aid-dependent country, imposed financial sanctions and froze billions of dollars in Afghan foreign cash reserves, mostly held in the U.S.
The United Nations says more than half of Afghanistan’s estimated 40 million people face hunger and around 95% of Afghans could be living in poverty by the middle of this year. The world body has warned around one million Afghan children could die from malnutrition.
Wang traveled to Kabul from Pakistan, where he was invited as a special guest to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) foreign ministers’ conference, which represented China’s first attendance in the history of the Muslim grouping. The Chinese diplomat will visit India Friday.
Thursday’s visits by top officials from China and Russia to Kabul took place amid global condemnation of the Taliban for backtracking on their promise to allow teenage Afghan girls to return to school.
The Islamist group reopened schools across most of Afghanistan on Wednesday but decided against allowing girls from grade seven to 12 to resume their education at the last minute, citing a lack of arrangements for female students in accordance with Sharia or Islamic law.