Taliban Attendance at Beijing Forum Signals China’s Policy of Engagement

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers his opening speech o stage for the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Oct. 18, 2023. Experts say the Taliban’s invitation BRI forum signals the continuation of China’s policy of engagement with the group.

This week, China’s Belt and Road forum in Beijing was not only a chance for Russian President Vladimir Putin to hold meetings with world leaders, it also was a rare opportunity for the Taliban, which has yet to be recognized by any country.

The Taliban’s attendance at the meeting, which marks the 10th anniversary of China’s Belt and Road Initiative or BRI, was the highest-profile multilateral meeting the group has attended since its takeover of Afghanistan in 2021.

Experts say the Taliban’s invitation BRI forum signals the continuation of China’s policy of engagement with the group.

According to Taliban spokesperson Akhundzada Abdul Salam Jawad, acting minister of industry and commerce, Nooruddin Aziz, led the delegation to Beijing to attend the two-day meeting.

“In general, the minister of industry and commerce’s goals are to strengthen economic, trade and transit relations with China,” Jawad said in a video sent to media on the WhatsApp messaging platform on Monday.

In a joint statement in May, China and Pakistan announced that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a flagship of the BRI, would be extended to Afghanistan, a major diplomatic win for the Taliban who took power in August 2021.

SEE ALSO: Extension of China-Pakistan Corridor to Afghanistan Presents Challenges  

Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told VOA that inviting the Taliban to the forum is “a continuation of the Chinese approach to the Taliban.”

“The Chinese have, since the Taliban had taken over, been very forward in their engagement with the Taliban, treating them very much like a sort of government in Afghanistan,” said Pantucci.

‘Close Relationship’

In September, China became the first country to send an ambassador to Afghanistan since the Taliban took power two years ago.

SEE ALSO: China Appoints First Ambassador to Afghanistan Since Taliban Return

However, China has not officially recognized the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan.

“They don’t want to be the first one to do it,” said Pantucci.

No country has yet recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, with most demanding that the group first form a more inclusive government, respect the rights of women, and ensure their territory is not used for attacks on other countries.

Nevertheless, China has a “close relationship with the Taliban,” said Zafar Iqbal Yousafzai, author and researcher at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Yousafzai told VOA that besides economic and security considerations, China’s engagement with the Taliban is motivated in part by its rivalry with the U.S.

The invitation to the forum “is a signal to the U.S. that as the U.S. wants to isolate the Taliban, China wants to build its relationship with them,” said Yousafzai.

‘Boost Morale’

“The Taliban are in isolation at the moment,” Yousafzai added. “So, in such a situation, the Taliban need someone just to engage with them whether it is economically, politically, strategically or in any form.”

Javid Ahmad Qaem, the former Afghan ambassador to China, told VOA that participation in the forum gives Taliban officials a chance to engage not only with Chinese officials but also those from other countries.

“China wants to provide a platform to the Taliban to negotiate with other international players,” said Qaem.

China Investment

The Taliban also wants China to invest in Afghanistan, Qaem said.

Chinese private companies have shown interest in investing in Afghanistan and have signed some contracts with the Taliban in recent months, but Qaem said Beijing has not committed to investing in major infrastructure projects.

He added, if the Taliban can convince China to invest in Afghanistan, “that will be a major achievement.”

“I doubt that,” said Qaem. “There are pledges but I don’t see it on the ground.”

China has voiced concerns over issues related to terrorism in Afghanistan.

“Security is the foundation and prerequisite of development,” stated China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement about its position on Afghanistan.

Noshaba Ashna of VOA's Afghan Service contributed to this story, which originated in VOA's Afghan Service.