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Afghanistan turmoil

China extends hand to Taliban for rebuilding with eye on Xinjiang

Beijing signals assistance as part of carrot-and-stick approach

An Afghan man receives aid from the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. China fears chaos in Afghanistan would send extremists crossing the border into Xinjiang.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- China's response to the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan has been a mix of offers of engagement with tacit pressure as it seeks to play a role in economic development and tamp down potential instability on Beijing's doorstep.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin confirmed that Ambassador to Afghanistan Wang Yu has had contact with the Taliban, and asserted that Beijing is ready to "play a constructive role in Afghanistan's peace and reconstruction."

While China has not formally recognized the Taliban regime, it has in effect acknowledged the group's control.

The approach is distinctively different from the pressure campaign embraced by the U.S. and Europe. Beijing is wary that an isolated and chaotic Afghanistan would send extremists crossing the border into Xinjiang -- home to China's Uyghur Muslim minority population and already a thorn in Beijing's side.

China invested only about $28.3 million in Afghanistan between 2015 and 2019, according to the Commerce Ministry, but more could be on the way. Asked on Monday about talk that China could be asked to replace funding withdrawn by the U.S., Wang Wenbin said Beijing is willing to help the country "enhance the ability to achieve self-development and improve people's livelihood."

A report last year by the ministry called Afghanistan a poor nation "laying on a gold mine" for its largely undeveloped wealth of natural resources. It cited estimates that the country boasts between $1 trillion and $3 trillion in resource reserves, including iron ore, coal and copper.

Beijing had once distanced itself from the Taliban, but their relationship has deepened in recent years as Chinese relations with the U.S. have deteriorated.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, political chief of Afghanistan's Taliban in China in July.    © Reuters

Senior Taliban officials visited China in 2019, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar last month in Tianjin. Wang said at the time that the group is "an important military and political force in Afghanistan," according to a Foreign Ministry readout of the meeting.

Beijing has pressed the Taliban to rein in or cut ties with its more extreme elements. China's joint military drills with Russia this month featured its homegrown top-of-the-line J-20 stealth fighters along with H-6 bombers -- a show of strength seen as a tacit warning to the Islamist militant group.

But pushing too hard could be risky for China.

Afghanistan borders the Xinjiang region and Beijing worries that the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, a group that has advocated for an independent state in Xinjiang, could cooperate with Afghan extremists to launch attacks in China. The potential for militants to cross through from neighboring Tajikistan is a concern as well.

Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on a call Wednesday to coordinate to keep Islamist militants from spilling out into their countries and other surrounding areas.

Chinese nationals have already been targeted in terrorist attacks in Pakistan, where Beijing has invested heavily through its Belt and Road initiative. The Pakistani Taliban and the Balochistan Liberation Army have claimed responsibility for the attacks, which came amid the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.

Beijing is working to enact a Land Borders Law that would permit the use of weapons against people who cross the border illegally and commit violent acts, as well as allow for border areas to be locked down in emergencies. Beijing has beefed up its military presence at the Afghan border, according to Chinese media.

After the 9/11 attacks, China and the U.S. set their tensions aside in the name of combating terrorism. The stationing of American forces in Afghanistan saved China from having to expand large amounts of capital and military power to maintain order in neighboring countries.

That created a more comfortable environment that freed up Beijing to focus on developing its economy over the next two decades. China joined the World Trade Organization in December 2001, and its stable relationship with the U.S. enabled its meteoric economic growth during the 2000s.

If the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan ends up destabilizing the region, more of the burden risks falling on China, further weighing on its already cooling economy.

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