With the U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan, China says it is ready to move ahead in its relations with the Taliban, but foreign policy experts say Beijing remains apprehensive about what comes next and may not devote a vast security and economic commitment to Afghanistan in the near future.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke Monday with Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi about developments in Afghanistan. The State Department said the two discussed the security situation and the two countries’ respective efforts to bring their citizens to safety.
“China keeps in contact and communication with the Afghan Taliban on the basis of fully respecting Afghanistan’s sovereignty and the will of all parties in the country and has been playing a constructive role in seeking a political solution to the Afghan issue,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday during a briefing.
Hua’s remarks were seen as the latest indication that China is laying the groundwork to endorse the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government.
On July 28, Wang Yi met with Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin. China has said it hoped the Afghan Taliban would “unite with various political parties and ethnic groups to form a broad and inclusive political structure.”
China, one of the countries that neighbors Afghanistan, pulled out its diplomats in 1993 following the civil war in Afghanistan. The Beijing government never established an official relationship with the Taliban after it seized power in 1996.
“I think in the end, China will recognize a Taliban-led government,” said Andrew Small, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The Taliban have said they hope to develop good relations with China in the rebuilding of Afghanistan and will never allow any forces to use Afghanistan’s territory to harm China, according to a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, Hua Chunying during a Monday briefing.
While Beijing welcomes the Taliban’s gestures, it is also worried about the potential negative security and economic impact after the U.S. pullout, according to Small.
“This is an outcome that China had been fearing for some time,” Small told VOA via Skype on Monday. “They still have difficult and tentative and often quite tense relations with the Taliban, and this is not going to transform into some vast level of Chinese influence [or] Chinese economic commitments in the near future. They’re going to proceed quite cautiously, quite apprehensive about what comes next.”
The U.S. along with China, Russia and Pakistan, have said jointly they do not support the establishment in Afghanistan of any government “imposed by force.”
The four countries are members of the so-called Extended Troika on Peaceful Settlement in Afghanistan.
Some regional observers said it is in both Washington’s and Beijing’s interest to have a peaceful political settlement in Afghanistan. Small said it is a rare area that the U.S. and China have been able to "work relatively closely together over the last decade” even as they continue to head into a rival relationship."
Other analysts, including Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, are skeptical about substantial U.S.-China cooperation on Afghanistan as it “sits right in the middle of” Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
“I think it’s going to be very hard for the U.S. to cooperate closely with the Chinese in Afghanistan. Perhaps in a few areas, like on the humanitarian front — there can be collaboration and minimizing civilian impact, including humanitarian atrocities,” Jones told VOA via Skype on Monday.
“But the reality is that the Chinese are trying to move into a vacuum that the U.S. is leaving in Afghanistan,” Jones said.