Hamid Karzai’s derailment of this week’s planned U.S. peace talks with the Taliban may have been a disappointment to Washington’s hopes of ending its longest war — but it disappointed Beijing, too. China welcomed the breakthrough in the Qatar process, and sees a political settlement in Afghanistan as increasingly important for its economic and security interests in the region. As a result, China’s support for reconciliation between Kabul and the Taliban has become a fixture of its burgeoning diplomatic activity on Afghanistan’s post-2014 future.
Over the last year, China has been expanding its direct contacts with the Taliban and sounding them out on security issues that range from separatist groups in the Chinese region of Xinjiang to the protection of Chinese resource investments, according to interviews with officials and experts in Beijing, Washington, Kabul, Islamabad and Peshawar. While Beijing would like to see the reconciliation talks succeed in preventing Afghanistan from falling back into civil war, it is not counting on their success, and thus is preparing to deal with whatever constellation of political forces emerges in Afghanistan after the United States withdraws.
While even tentative U.S. and European meetings with the Taliban generate headlines, China’s substantive dealings with them tend to slip under the radar. After the 9/11 attacks and the Taliban’s fall from power, Beijing quietly maintained a relationship with the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s leadership council based across the border in Pakistan. In a conversation, one former Chinese official claimed that besides Pakistan, China was the only country to continue this contact. Over the last 18 months, exchanges have taken place more regularly, and China has started to admit their existence in meetings with U.S. officials, according to people familiar with the matter. The same sources said that Taliban representatives have held meetings with Chinese officials both in Pakistan and in China. Although the possibility of active Chinese support for peace talks has been discussed, it appears the focus has been on a narrower set of Chinese objectives: as one Pakistani expert noted, “it has so far been about mitigating [Chinese] security concerns rather than reconciliation.”
In China’s dealings with the Taliban, the independence movement among China’s Uighur Muslim minority has always been its biggest concern. In the late 1990s, Beijing worried that the Taliban government in Kabul was providing a haven for Uighur militants, who had fled Chinese crackdowns in Xinjiang and set up training camps in Afghanistan. In meetings in December 2000 in Kandahar, the Taliban’s reclusive leader Mohammed Omar assured the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin that the Taliban would not “allow any group to use its territory to conduct any such operations” against China. In exchange, Omar sought two things from China: formal political recognition and protection from U.N. sanctions.
Neither side delivered satisfactory results. The Taliban did not expel Uighur militants from its territory. Though it prohibited them from operating their own camps, it allowed them to embed with other militant groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. At the same time, China moderated its stance at the U.N. Security Council to abstain on sanctions that targeted the Taliban and established trade links that would help mitigate their impact, but it didn’t use its veto power. Beijing deferred its decision on giving the Taliban diplomatic recognition, which Washington’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks soon made moot anyway.
The two sides, however, realized they could do business with each other. The Taliban’s then-ambassador to Pakistan described his Chinese counterpart in Islamabad in the late 1990s as “the only one to maintain a good relationship” with the Taliban. In fact, China was signing economic deals in Kabul the very day of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
Since then, China has forged a good working relationship with the Karzai government, without ever becoming too closely identified with it by the insurgency. Today, China’s priority remains ensuring that any territory under Taliban control won’t function as a base for Uighur militant groups. The small remaining band of Uighur fighters — perhaps as few as 40 men — are primarily located in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan, in remote territory under the influence of a commander with ties to both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. China has been seeking assurances that the sheltering of Uighurs will not take place on a larger scale in Afghanistan itself. It also wants its multi-billion dollar investments in Afghanistan protected from Taliban attacks. Beijing’s largest economic project, the Aynak copper mine, is in territory with a strong presence of the Haqqani network, an insurgent group that is closely allied with the Taliban.
China’s dealings with the Islamist insurgents also hedge against the risk that the Taliban might decide to view Chinese citizens, investments, or even mainland China itself as a legitimate target. Militants blamed China for the Pakistani government’s 2007 decision to launch an assault on the Red Mosque, a pro-Taliban stronghold in Islamabad, and duly retaliated with a series of attacks on Chinese workers in Pakistan. Beijing is also increasingly nervous about how Taliban-linked groups view Chinese policy in Xinjiang. The shooting of a Chinese woman in Peshawar in 2011 was the first (and only) occasion that a Pakistani Taliban spokesman pinned an attack on “revenge for the Chinese government killing our Muslim brothers” in Xinjiang, the region where most Uighurs live.
Nonetheless, sources in Pakistan who have talked to the militant commanders say that senior Taliban leaders are keen not to alienate Beijing — they have enough enemies already. The Afghan Taliban continues to see the benefit of close ties with one of the few countries that can restrain their sometimes-overbearing Pakistani sponsors. As a result, according to Chinese sources who work closely with the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, Taliban interlocutors have provided the same reassurances to China that they gave in the past: they will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base of attacks and want to develop economic relations with the Chinese. But these sources also say that Chinese officials remain apprehensive. They doubt the Taliban’s capacity and willingness to deliver on its promises, particularly on the matter of safe havens for Uighur militants, and they fear a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would destabilize Pakistan and the region. Beijing has therefore been increasingly keen to see a political settlement in Afghanistan that ensures a stable balance of power.
The United States shares this basic objective of a stable Afghanistan, and after years of pushing Beijing to increase its commitment there, U.S. officials told me they are happy that China has become more active in the region. Chinese officials have even mentioned to their U.S. counterparts the possibility of Beijing using its own contacts with the Taliban to help support reconciliation talks, according to sources familiar with the discussions.
So will Beijing play a greater role in the upcoming peace talks among Kabul, the Taliban and the United States? Probably not. Despite tentative support from all three parties, Beijing has been deterred not only by its caution over involvement with a risky process but by Islamabad. Pakistan is clearly uncomfortable with its closest friend’s presence in a policy area that Beijing was previously willing to outsource to them.
China’s stance could prove useful for U.S. negotiators in Doha, however, if the talks move forward. While Beijing still treads carefully in its bilateral relationship with Pakistan, it knows it holds the upper hand, and is willing to exert pressure when important Chinese interests are at stake. China prioritizes stability in Afghanistan over sustaining Pakistani influence in the region; sources in Beijing who follow discussions between the two sides say that officials have made this increasingly clear to Islamabad.
In the 1990s, China paid little attention as Afghanistan slid into civil war and the Taliban seized control of the country. Now, with greater interests at stake, it doesn’t want to see the same story play out after the U.S. withdrawal in 2014. If history were to repeat itself, however, there are no prizes for guessing which country would be the first to send a business delegation to Kandahar after the Taliban’s return.
Andrew Small is a trans-Atlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and the author of a forthcoming book on China-Pakistan relations.