China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi Meets With The Taliban

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By Chris Devonshire-Ellis 

Potential Reconstruction of Afghanistan discussed

China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi met with a Taliban delegation in Tianjin on Sunday to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. The meeting is unusual as the Taliban are not (yet) the official Government in the country and are currently fighting official Afghan forces and Government in the country. The delegation flew in from Doha, Qatar, a supportive state where the group maintain a political office.

The meeting included China’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Deng Xijun, and comes just two weeks after Wang met with Afghanistan’s Official Foreign Minister, Mohammad Hanuf Atmar in Tashkent. Also at the Tashkent meeting, convened to specifically discuss the Afghanistan crisis were the Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers of Russia, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan together with the US Special Envoy for the Afghan Peace Process.

Both Russia and China have stated an opinion that it is impossible to form a stable government in Afghanistan without the inclusion of the Taliban. The Taliban have stated they are prepared to negotiate peace, however at the same time appear unwilling to tolerate any members of the current Afghan Government which they say are puppets of the United States. The US has nearly completed a full withdrawal of its military, along with NATO forces from Afghanistan, leading to a huge surge in Taliban advancement across the country and especially within the south. The key city of Herat is reportedly now in Taliban hands after fierce fighting the past week.

China’s willingness to negotiate with the Taliban is pragmatic and recognizes the situation, although it is highly unorthodox for meetings with both an officially recognized Government and the opposing rebel forces to be treated to such high-level talks in public.

China shares a border with Afghanistan through the Wakhan Corridor which connects with Xinjiang Province close to China’s border with Pakistan. Although that part of Afghanistan has never been under Taliban control, the security situation as concerns the potential for radical Islamic militia to infiltrate Xinjiang and create disturbances has China worried – one reason why China has installed camps in the region and locked down certain aspects of the Uyghur Muslims. The Taliban and the Uyghurs are both Sunni Muslims and share some common cultural and religious traits.

The Taliban are principally an Islamic tribal group, known as the Pashtuns. In Afghanistan, the Pashtuns make up about 60% of the total Afghan population and are its largest ethnic group – however 40% of the population is not Pashtun and resents being subjected to a leadership which has in the past subjected non-Pashtuns to degradation and violence. Pashtuns also make up about 15% of the population of Pakistan, although the Pakistan Taliban is regarded as a separate group with a different agenda, recently responsible for the explosion in Kohistan that killed several Chinese workers two weeks ago.

However, while Pashtun’s have united under the Taliban to fight a perceived common enemy – the United States and other foreign troops it sees as invaders, they are historically divided into further tribal and regional groups from differing areas. This has led to instability, further violence and the prospect of the Taliban being taken over by other, even more extremist yet uniting forces. This is what happened during the previous Taliban regime, which was taken over by Osama bin-Laden and the Al-Qaeda group, which claims authority over all Muslims worldwide. China – and other neighboring Central and South Asian countries do not want to see a repeat of that process.

Consequently, regional powers see support for a Taliban Government as the only viable, if not an ideal solution. To this end, Russia has taken the lead as part of the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organisation security council to provide military assistance to countries sharing a border with Afghanistan, with a concentration of military personnel permanently stationed in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. It has also been training Pakistan’s military. The goal is to impress upon the Taliban that any attempts to infiltrate other Central Asian states will be met with force. Russia has military airbases to the north of Afghanistan.

China’s role is to try and create peace through the development of infrastructure, with Wang apparently offering an advancement of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into Afghanistan and to develop an intra-Afghan network of roads and rail. The intention would be to link Afghanistan’s main cities and additionally have Afghanistan make use of its strategic position within the heart of Central Asia by developing trans-Afghan oil and gas pipeline routes.

There is some hope that this would succeed, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline is already partially operational with the Taliban thus far keeping promises to maintain it – control of such pipelines means access to transit fees. Similar pipelines are planned on a north-south basis from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan across Afghanistan to run south through Pakistan to the Southern Ports at Gwadar and Karachi, freeing up Central Asia’s massive energy deposits to a global market. Planned railways to Kabul from neighboring Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan would further create a trans-Afghan Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure network.

The Taliban subsequently recognize China as having both the financial strength and the motivation to help reconstruct the country.  Afghanistan has significant mineral deposits, with huge unexploited reserves of copper, coal, iron, gas, cobalt, mercury, gold, lithium, and thorium, valued at over US$1 trillion. Lithium is an important component in the next generation of electric batteries.

The Taliban leadership has also provided China with assurances it will not tolerate Uyghur separatists, which appears sustainable given that the Taliban only claim authority over Afghanistan. Potential problems arise when any future Taliban political in-fighting leads to the emergence of groups such as Al-Qaeda who claim sovereignty over all Muslims worldwide.

For now, the Taliban appear content with China. Spokesman Suhail Shaheen stated on Sunday that “China is a friendly country, and we welcome it in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan. If the Chinese have investments, we will ensure their safety.” He also stated that “We are not going to interfere with China’s internal affairs.”

The Global Times, a voice for the Chinese government, also carried some comment on the Taliban issue, stating that “The Taliban are quietly transforming into a political organization focusing on the internal affairs of Afghanistan.”

If true, and assuming a Taliban government can develop internal stability, then Afghanistan may yet be able to live up to its strategic potential in Central Asia – the first time it would have had such an opportunity since war first broke out in 1979.

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