Beijing is taking full advantage of the U.S. and NATO forces’ imminent departure from Afghanistan.
President Biden announced in early July that U.S. forces will leave Afghanistan by Aug. 31, a deadline moved up from Sept. 11.
The Taliban is rapidly increasing its advances in Afghanistan as the American drawdown nears.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby announced on Aug. 9 that the U.S. forces continue to host conversations with Pakistan, underscoring the role of Pakistan as a key mediator as the conflict continues after the U.S.–NATO departure. Kirby said the U.S. government is deeply concerned about the growing security crisis from the Taliban’s bold onslaught, noting the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.
Anticipating a power shift in the region, the Chinese regime recently hosted a delegation of the Taliban in the city of Tianjin. The regime’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with senior Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and eight other Taliban representatives on July 28, signaling Beijing’s recognition of the group as a legitimate political force in the country.
During the meeting, Wang sought assurances that the Taliban wouldn’t harbor Islamic extremists who may launch attacks in China’s far west Xinjiang region, according to a Beijing foreign ministry statement. Baradar agreed, saying that the Taliban “never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China,” according to the statement.
China shares a 47-mile border with Afghanistan and has long been concerned about a possible Islamic insurgency in Xinjiang, a region housing 13 million Turkic Muslims.
While Beijing has publicly pushed for the Taliban to pursue a peace agreement with the U.S.-backed central government, experts believe the regime is bracing for a Taliban-led Afghanistan to push forward the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) development plans in Central Asia.
“It is becoming increasingly obvious that the Taliban will be back in power—or at least that it will be reestablished as the dominant political force in Afghanistan—very soon after the U.S. withdrawal is completed,” Srdja Trifkovic, a jihadism expert and foreign relations fellow of the Charlemagne Institute, told The Epoch Times.
“Therefore it stands to reason that China should seek to establish some relations with [the Taliban], especially in view of Beijing’s geopolitical interests in the region, first and foremost the Baluchi port of Gwadar, which is a key feature of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor and absolutely essential to the B&R [Belt and Road] initiative.”
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a massive China-facilitated Pakistan infrastructure project that falls under the umbrella of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is a global infrastructure investment project aimed at transforming China’s economy into a superpower.
Gwadar Port in southwestern Pakistan has been called a “super link” to the CPEC by Beijing’s media because of its geographic location. The CPEC project in Gwadar has come under the control of the CPEC Authority and the Center of Excellence CPEC, organizations aimed at getting the project back off the ground after a stalling period. The final project will build a road from China’s Xinjiang region to the seacoast of Pakistan.
“Trying to have a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan favorably disposed to this [the CPEC] and other projects is both prudent and attainable from China’s point of view,” Trifkovic said.
As the U.S. and NATO troops leave the country, regional experts have warned about the consequences of leaving an unsettled, unstable Afghanistan to the Taliban’s political force.
“The void left behind by the U.S. is being filled by China. The Taliban’s direct talks with Beijing signals that China is assuming the duties of peace brokering in war-torn Afghanistan,” said Azeem Qureshi, a lecturer in Middle East-China relations with COMSATS and Quaid-i-Azam Universities Islamabad.
“If Beijing successfully cultivates good ties with the Taliban, gets the trust of the Afghan government, and gets a peace deal done, Beijing will be the biggest winner.”
But Beijing is reliant on Pakistan, with whom it already has close ties, to achieve this.
“The Chinese don’t really understand Afghanistan very much, something that makes them look toward Pakistan,” said Muhammad Shoaib, an assistant professor of international relations with the National Defense University, Islamabad.
For both Islamabad and Beijing, peace and stability in Afghanistan is the main goal.
“Chinese companies investing heavily in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran know the huge potential of business in the region, and peace is their ultimate desire as it equals huge profits. China can get an easier route to CARs via Afghanistan and Pakistan’s CPEC,” Qureshi said, referring to the Central Asia Republics bloc.
Courting the Taliban, however, isn’t a fail-safe strategy for either Beijing or Pakistan. Pakistan has struggled in its recent diplomacy efforts with the Taliban, an unpredictable player in regional politics.
U.S. experts warn that the Taliban, while having promised that it has changed fundamentally, is treacherous. Previous reform agreements with the Taliban leadership have gone sour. Unreliable or unstable Taliban behavior, coupled with the presence of warring militias in the region, leaves the peace process to continue on shaky ground.
The Biden administration has warned that it will isolate the Taliban if the military group takes over Afghanistan by force.
Another overriding priority for Beijing in the Central Asian region is to use its influence to repatriate Uyghur Muslims, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group, back to Xinjiang.
In the region of Xinjiang, the CCP has detained more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in internment camps, where they’re subjected to torture, forced labor, and political indoctrination. Outside of the camps, the region’s Muslim inhabitants face pervasive surveillance through a network of checkpoints, AI-enhanced CCTV cameras, and biometric collection. The repression has been designated a genocide by the U.S. government and other Western legislatures.
But the CCP hasn’t only focused its repression in Xinjiang. Wherever they may be in Central Asia, Beijing’s ultimate goal for the Uyghur diaspora from Xinjiang is to annihilate them; to bring them home and to snuff them out, according to Ethan Gutmann, China Studies Research Fellow with the Victims of Communism Foundation.
“These nations [of Central Asia] are under an extreme amount of pressure from China to give up their Uyghurs. This isn’t a rational policy,” Gutmann said, noting that the pressure to extinguish the Uyghur culture and race has no real bearing on the Belt and Road Initiative.
This maximum pressure campaign on Central Asian nations to deport or return Uyghurs has reached as far as Istanbul, where Turkish President Erdogan was accused of agreeing to deport Uyghurs in exchange for China-made Sinovac CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus vaccines.
“That was a real deal,” Gutmann said. “If not for the pushback of the Uyghur and of Erdogan’s opposition, that would have happened.”
Abduweli Ayup, an Uyghur language specialist who was detained by the Chinese regime in 2013, said that many Uyghurs escape to nearby Central Asia because they believe they’ll be safe among other Muslims.
While in detention, Ayup met several Uyghurs who had been sent back from countries like Kazakhstan and Pakistan.
“We had seen that Turkey deported some Uyghurs first to Tajikistan and then to China. Some Uyghurs that I know were deported to Uzbekistan first and then to China. Those countries have been directly and indirectly cooperating with China on deporting Uyghurs,” Ayup said, noting that these deportees have been sentenced to die since as early as 1997.
In Ayup’s view, this cooperation is shameful under any cultural standard, because in Islamic tradition, betraying other Muslims goes against their beliefs, while the deportation of refugees goes against international law.
“They are committing genocide there,” Ayup said, referring to the Chinese regime’s campaign in Xinjiang.
Gutmann noted that the Taliban’s dialogue with Beijing is mainly about getting backing from a powerful, wealthy ally as the United States leaves the region.
If the Taliban, in an effort to curry favor with Beijing, caves to pressure to send Uyghurs back to China, it’ll likely draw the wrath of Western democracies. But Gutmann noted that there isn’t a large population of Uyghurs living in Afghanistan or Pakistan, because Uyghurs tend to gravitate to areas with large populations of Turkic peoples and make for Istanbul to start a new life free of the Chinese regime.