The odd couple: China's deepening relationship with the Taliban

  • Rupert Stone
  • 2 Aug 2019

China's first engaged the Taliban to protect its interests in Afghanistan in the 90s. Decades later, history repeats itself.

A Taliban delegation led by Mullah Baradar visited China recently. ( Reuters )

One is a communist state wary of the threat posed by Islamic extremism, the other a group of religious hardliners with alleged links to Al Qaeda. But, despite their differences, relations between China and the Afghan Taliban go back decades and appear to be strengthening.

Beijing was initially concerned when the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. The group had ties to the anti-Chinese terrorist organisation, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which was to allowed to operate camps in the country. China, therefore, happily supported the first round of UN sanctions against the Taliban regime.

But, driven by a mix of security concerns and economic factors, Beijing eventually sought to improve its ties with the movement. 

In the late 1990s, China came to believe that the best way to manage the potential terrorist threat from Afghanistan was to engage with the Taliban and strike a deal. Diplomatic relations would also open the potential for trade.

In 1999, Chinese officials broke the ice and flew to Kabul, where they opened economic ties and launched flights between Kabul and Urumqi. China’s ambassador in Pakistan sought a meeting with Mullah Omar. A group of Chinese think tank analysts travelled to Kandahar to make preparations.

According to Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Taliban envoy to Pakistan, the Chinese ambassador was the only foreign diplomat to maintain good relations with their mission in Islamabad at this time. Indeed, Zaeef’s comments about China in his memoir are far less vitriolic than his frequent denunciations of long-time backer Pakistan, which detained Zaeef after 9/11.

The Chinese envoy eventually met Mullah Omar in Kandahar in late 2000. Beijing wanted the Taliban to stop harbouring ethnic Uyghur militants allegedly operating in Afghanistan with ETIM. In return, the Taliban hoped that China would recognise their government and oppose further UN sanctions.

But this deal did not materialise. While Omar did restrain ETIM, he did not expel them. And Beijing did not oppose new UN sanctions against the Taliban; it only abstained.

However, Chinese companies expanded their activities in Afghanistan, and, on September 11, 2001, the two sides signed an MoU to enhance economic ties further.

After 9/11 Beijing gave its backing to Washington’s ‘war on terror’ and supported Hamid Karzai’s new government in Kabul. However, it did not commit troops to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, and its economic footprint remained small. China was wary of a long-term American military presence in its backyard.

Beijing, therefore, hedged, supporting the Afghan government while maintaining informal contacts with the Taliban. It may have used the Chinese-run Saindak mine in Pakistan for clandestine meetings with the group, according to Andrew Small in The China-Pakistan Axis.

China and Pakistan were the only states to maintain their ties with the Taliban after 9/11.

The group may even have received Chinese weapons, according to Small, and there were also suspicions that the Taliban intentionally avoided attacking Chinese infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. The copper mine at Aynak, near Kabul, had been untouched by the Haqqani Network since China secured extraction rights in 2007.

Hedge your bets

China’s ambivalent foreign policy behaviour in Afghanistan is analogous to its approach in the Middle East, where it also courts opposing sides in regional disputes. As Jonathan Fulton has shown, Beijing has relations with Israel and the Palestinians, and maintains partnerships with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran, a strategy Fulton describes as “fence-sitting”.

For the first decade of the US war in Afghanistan, China’s involvement with the country was minimal. Economic opportunities were dogged by corruption, insecurity and political instability. However, when the Obama administration announced its intention to withdraw US forces by 2014, Beijing grew concerned by the prospect of instability on its border. 

The risk of terrorist violence haemorrhaging out of Afghanistan encouraged China to engage more deeply with its neighbour. Chinese diplomats became involved in several multilateral initiatives to seek a political settlement with the Taliban, first at Murree in 2015, then via the Quadrilateral Coordination Group with the US, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

China was part of the Kabul Process convened by President Ghani in 2017 and sent its diplomats to attend talks with the Taliban and other Afghan politicians in Moscow in 2018. That year President Xi Jinping resuscitated the Afghanistan Contact Group of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which met again this summer.

There have also been multiple bilateral meetings between Chinese officials and the Taliban in recent years. These discussions were secret and unconfirmed by the Chinese government. But, in June, Beijing publicly announced that it had received a Taliban delegation led by deputy Mullah Baradar (who served eight years in prison in Pakistan before his release in 2018).

China participated in two trilateral events with Russia and the US this year, and in 2017 convened another trilateral forum with long-time foes, Afghanistan and Pakistan, to promote ongoing reconciliation efforts and discuss the possible extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan.

Beijing is concerned that an unstable Afghanistan could provide a safe haven for Uyghur militants, including those currently fighting in Syria. And China is more exposed now due to its massive infrastructure projects in Pakistan and Central Asia, areas especially vulnerable to terrorist spillover from Afghanistan.

Moreover, China’s economic role in Afghanistan has been growing. It is now the country’s biggest foreign investor and appears keen to extend the Belt and Road Initiative there. True, Beijing’s investments in Afghanistan pale in comparison to those in Pakistan, for example, but an end to the war could pave the way for deeper involvement.

A hard bargain

China is well-placed to act as a mediator in Afghanistan. It has decent relations with both sides in the conflict. It is perhaps even better placed to influence the Taliban than Pakistan, which has harassed and detained members of the group since 9/11. Moreover, it has substantial economic incentives to offer.

The Taliban are keen to avoid the isolation they experienced in the 1990s when only three governments (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) recognised their regime. Furthermore, they are alert to the need for foreign investment. They have discussed infrastructure with the Uzbek government, for example, and gave their backing to the TAPI gas pipeline project.

But the Taliban’s interest in exploiting the country’s natural resources goes well beyond gas. The group also profits from the mining of Afghanistan’s vast mineral deposits.

“The Taliban has realised that Afghanistan’s mineral wealth offers opportunities to get rich,” writes Peter Frankopan in his new book, The New Silk Roads.

During a trip to Beijing, Taliban delegates were “visibly moved by technology that they told their hosts was inconceivable in Afghanistan because of war,” the New York Times reported. And economic issues were again discussed on the group’s recent visit to China, according to Rahimullah Yusufzai.

Caution is warranted, though. Beijing’s engagement with the Taliban could fail as it did in the 1990s. Then, as now, the group gave assurances that it would not allow terror groups to use Afghan soil for plots against foreign countries. Then, as now, it wanted better trade with the outside world and an end to international isolation.

That all came crashing down in the carnage of 9/11. If the US leaves Afghanistan without a proper deal, history could repeat itself.

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