Stronger China-Taliban Ties Will Concern Washington

This article by Adjunct Professor Amin Saikal from The University of Western Australia’s School of Social Sciences originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 26 February 2024.

In a zero-sum game, America’s defeat in Afghanistan has resulted in China’s gain.

Beijing has moved expediently to embed itself with the Taliban as a terrorist group that the US fought unsuccessfully for two decades, and while the US and its allies focused on countering China’s Indo-Pacific ambitions, Beijing has been working quietly on the other plank of its global strategy: to strengthen its influence in West Asia.

West Asia – stretching from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean – was once under the sway of US-led regional alliances. During the Cold War, the US was a central player in shaping the regional order.

Along with Israel, the oil-rich, pro-Western monarchical Iran and Saudi Arabia formed the pillars of US influence in the region. Although Afghanistan maintained a foreign policy of neutrality, it was well-disposed towards the US, and Washington expected Iran’s monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah, to act as its regional gendarme and keep an eye on Afghanistan.

Yet this is no longer the case. China’s alliance with the “revolutionary” Islamic regime in Iran and its burgeoning ties with the Taliban in Afghanistan have availed Beijing of a strong leverage to boost its influence across the region.

Sino-Iranian camaraderie is nothing new. It has been developing since the Iranian Islamic regime came to power in 1979.

Despite serious ideological differences, economic and trade relations between the parties, involving oil imports from Iran to China and goods and technology exports from China to Iran, have taken a rapid upward trajectory.

China has now begun to follow a similar pattern in its relations with the Taliban. Though initially Beijing consented to Washington’s post-9/11 campaign against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and even found it convenient to have friendly relations with the US-backed Afghan governments, as the US-led intervention faltered in a climate of rising Sino-US competition, Beijing began to question US motives.

When the US and its allies retreated from Afghanistan, enabling the Taliban to return to power, Beijing seized the chance to fill the power vacuum.

While maintaining its embassy in Kabul, the Chinese government reached out to the Taliban for co-operative relations for three main objectives: to tap into Afghanistan’s natural resources, to harness wider regional support for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and to counter US influence in the region.

By befriending the Taliban, it also saw potential to prevent its influence on China’s Muslim Uyghur minority.

The Taliban has keenly reciprocated. They have honoured old agreements and signed new ones with Chinese companies to extract Afghanistan’s mineral resources, and China is now predicted to surpass Pakistan as Afghanistan’s largest trading partner in 2024.

In September 2023, Beijing appointed an ambassador to the court of the Taliban. On January 30, 2024, President Xi Jinping personally received the Taliban ambassador’s credentials. Thus, China became the first country and global power to formally recognise the Taliban regime.

Beijing has quietly accepted the Taliban’s status as a tribal minority and ultra-extremist group, acting in the name of Islam. It has shown no concerns about the group’s refusal to form an inclusive system of governance, its exclusion of women from public life, and its discrimination against other ethnic minorities.

It has ignored the UN’s repeated warnings about the rise of terrorism from Afghanistan.

And in befriending Iran and Afghan theocracies, China has positioned itself to be able to extend its influence across West Asia, given Tehran’s proxy presence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

At a time when the US is trying to counter China in the Indo-Pacific and is engaged in Middle East conflicts, and Russia is entangled in the Ukraine war, China has risen to power in West Asia without firing a single shot. This can only deeply concern Washington.

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