Analysis. Despite the fears and risks that China sees in the new Afghan situation, dialogue with the Taliban is proceeding. In fact, it’s accelerating.

Beijing’s complicated challenge in the ‘graveyard of empires’

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told the South China Morning Post’s This Week in Asia on Sunday that “China, our great neighboring country, can have a constructive and positive role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and also in the economic development and prosperity of the people of Afghanistan.”

He also reiterated that “the Taliban are committed to not allowing militant groups to use Afghanistan as a base for attacks.” These statements confirm the Taliban’s quid pro quo approach towards Beijing: requesting economic support in exchange for security, with explicit reference to Xinjiang, while stressing repeatedly that the Taliban have “given a clear message to all that no one can use the soil of Afghanistan against neighboring and other countries.”

These statements echo those of Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, and Yue Xiaoyong, China’s special envoy for Afghan affairs. Despite the significant hesitancy on the part of the Chinese, which only increased after the attack on the Kabul airport, some things seem to be moving. Wang Yi told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken over the weekend that, in essence, they should enter into dialogue with the Taliban and coordinate with them against terrorism. On Sunday, Yue Xiaoyong went quite a bit further, telling the website that the Taliban are “friendly” and “like to exchange ideas and listen to what people say and explain things.”

At the moment, Beijing is also evaluating the possibility of recognizing the new Taliban government; for now, they are primarily looking to Pakistan, a country with which China shares the need for an inclusive government by the new masters of Afghanistan: this was an explicit request delivered to Kabul by Islamabad. Despite these overtures, significant unknowns still remain. Meanwhile, Beijing still has concerns. On the website, Pan Guang from the Chinese National Anti-Terrorism Bureau argued that the Taliban are not at all able to guarantee control of the country’s territory. The Chinese expert also went through the long list of larger or smaller groups which seem like they might be able to defeat Taliban security.

In previous days, several Chinese analysts had argued for more or less the same position: while it’s true that China has considerable economic interests in the Afghan territory, the security issue, especially on the border with Xinjiang, is the number one priority.

As Amanda Hsiao of the International Crisis Group pointed out, Beijing sees both an opportunity and a risk in the new situation: “On one hand, China has always been uneasy about the presence of U.S. military bases so near to its west. The withdrawal also gives China the chance to exert its influence more freely in Central Asia. On the other hand, China is concerned not only about the regional security vacuum left in the wake of the international troops’ departure” but also by the fact that now the U.S. will direct even more attention towards the part of Asia that China considers its backyard.

Finally, there is a fact tied to the public imagination: Afghanistan as the “graveyard of empires” is a much-discussed topic in the Chinese media as well. The Diplomat recalled the loss of part of the territory that today corresponds to the Afghanistan by the Tang Dynasty (one of the most powerful and “global” in Chinese history, between 600 and 900 AD), associating it with the collapse of the Chinese empire: “After losing Afghanistan, China was left in a weak and struggling state for more than a thousand years afterward, reducing it from a great global empire to a country that was constantly seeking to protect itself from encroachment.”

That’s certainly not the end Xi has in mind for the country. At the same time as the Afghan crisis, Beijing is pushing for a series of reforms that will change the face of China forever, in preparation for the final rush to 2022, the year of the 20th Congress of the CCP.

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