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Regional Talks Expected to Highlight China’s Interests in Pakistan, Afghanistan

FILE - The flags of China and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan are displayed during a news conference held by officials of the two countries in Kabul, Jan. 5, 2023. Officials from China, Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban will hold talks starting May 5, 2023, in Islamabad.
FILE - The flags of China and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan are displayed during a news conference held by officials of the two countries in Kabul, Jan. 5, 2023. Officials from China, Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban will hold talks starting May 5, 2023, in Islamabad.

Senior officials from China, Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban will hold two days of talks starting Friday in Islamabad, where observers expect to learn more about Beijing’s priorities in the region.

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang and Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi will meet with Pakistani officials. The international community has ostracized the Taliban over hard-line policies targeting Afghan women and others.

Not only has Beijing encouraged the international community to continue to talk to the Taliban, but it also has said it supports encouraging the Taliban to “build an inclusive government, exercise moderate governance, develop friendly relations with its neighbors and firmly fight terrorism.”

Besides participating in the trilateral talks, Qin and Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari will co-chair the fourth round of the China-Pakistan Foreign Ministers' Strategic Dialogue. The Chinese Foreign Ministry described the two countries as “all-weather strategic cooperative partners and ironclad friends.”

China’s Afghan priorities

Beijing’s priorities in Afghanistan are mitigating security threats and looking for economic opportunities, said Zafar Iqbal Yousafzai, author and researcher at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Last month, China said its development plans for the country would depend on improvement in the security situation.

“Security is the foundation and prerequisite of development,” the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in an 11-point policy paper published last month titled China's Position on the Afghan Issue.

A more pressing issue is whether China can pressure the Taliban to form a more inclusive government. In its Afghan policy paper, Beijing said: “We hope the Afghan Interim Government will protect the basic rights and interests of all Afghan people, including women, children and all ethnic groups.”

Yousafzai said there is now substantial international consensus on what should happen in Afghanistan. “The interest of China converges with that of the U.S. and other countries,” he said.

Indeed, China and Russia have joined the international community in pressuring the Taliban.

On April 13, a day after China released its Afghanistan policy, the foreign ministers of China, Russia and five of Afghanistan’s neighbors met in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and demanded that the Taliban form an inclusive government and respect women’s and minorities' rights.

Yousafzai said China wants an inclusive government because “stability is very far-fetched” without such a government in Afghanistan.

"Not in terms of the West to be a stable democracy, but they want Afghanistan to be stable in their own terms,” Yousafzai said.

Development projects

China wants stability in Afghanistan, Yousafzai said, because the country is crucial for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and because of fears it could become “a hotbed for terrorists.”

China’s BRI is a global land and sea infrastructure project that was launched in 2013.

During a meeting in July between China and Afghanistan, Beijing said it hoped to “support the extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan.”

Beyond communication and transportation links, Beijing is also interested in Afghanistan’s mineral and oil reserves.

In January, the Taliban and a Chinese petroleum company signed an agreement to extract and develop oil reserves in northern Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s minister for mines and petroleum, Shahabuddin Delawar, said last month that a Chinese company, Gochin, was interested in investing $10 billion in Afghanistan’s lithium mines.

The main holdup for such development projects appears to be the security situation. In December, China urged citizens to leave Afghanistan after a hotel in Kabul frequented by Chinese nationals was attacked. Beijing is also concerned about the potential spillover of militants from Afghanistan into China’s western Xinjiang region.

Grateful to China

The Taliban remain warm toward Beijing at a time when China is increasingly seen as a possible economic lifeline for Afghanistan. In an April 14 interview with Chinese state-run news outlet CGTN, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said that the Taliban were "grateful" to China.

He said that since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, “China has kept its embassy open and [remained] active diplomatically. It also stays true to its economic projects in Afghanistan and renewed contracts repeatedly.”

He added that China's interest in investment in Afghanistan was "commendable."

Hamidullah Farooqi, a former Afghan minister of transport and civil aviation, told VOA that the Taliban and China mutually benefit from having good relations.

“It is good for propaganda purposes," he said. "The Taliban use this by telling people that things will change as China is going to invest. China also benefits from it, showing that it has a presence in the region and is interested in economic development.”

No recognition

Beijing, however, has not yet recognized the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan.

Shinkai Karokhail, a former member of the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of Afghanistan’s parliament, told VOA that by not recognizing the Taliban, “China wants to show that they share the international community’s concerns.”

China wants to make sure that the Afghan government is “cooperating” in fighting extremism, she said. “Right now, the presence of extremist groups in Afghanistan is the main concern.”

“The only way to fight extremist groups is to have an inclusive government,” Karokhail said.

Analysts will be watching the talks in Pakistan for signs that Beijing is willing to use its economic influence in Afghanistan to encourage the Taliban to adopt reforms broadly backed by the international community.

This report originated in VOA’s Afghan Service.