China Seeks 'Bigger Role' in Afghanistan as Taliban Gains Ground

China Seeks 'Bigger Role' in Afghanistan as Taliban Gains Ground

Chinese state media signaled Beijing could play a major role in talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban on Wednesday as the latter rapidly accumulated territorial gains this week.

The government newspaper Global Times asserted this week in light of another peace meeting in Doha, Qatar, between Afghan government officials and Taliban terrorists, the situation could require Chinese intervention in an article titled in part, “China Could Play ‘Bigger Role’ to Mediate.” The article quoted a former Afghan ambassador to Beijing, Sultan Baheen, urging further Chinese intervention in the country. China and Afghanistan share a border.

“China, as a neighbor, a good friend and a big power, could do something to help mediate between the Taliban and the Afghan government to help them go back to the negotiating table,” the propaganda outlet paraphrased Baheen as saying. “They should echo the voice of Afghanistan that war is not the solution and support an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process. Time is crucial for Afghanistan.”

The Times, and the Chinese government generally, has attempted for months to portray itself as a superior international partner to Afghanistan than the United States in light of America’s scheduled withdrawal from the country at the end of the month. In addition to Kabul officials, the Taliban itself has publicly embraced further Chinese involvement in the country.

“We have been to China many times and we have good relations with them,” Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha, said in July. “China is a friendly country that we welcome for reconstruction and developing Afghanistan.”

Shaheen said then that he hoped to see Chinese financial investment in Afghanistan “as soon as possible.”

Afghanistan is a key target of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its plan to restore the Silk Road trading routes between Asia and western Europe using debt-trap loans to build infrastructure in developing nations. China offers these countries high-interest loans to pay Chinese companies to build the projects, then seizes the buildings when the debtor nation inevitably defaults due to the onerous lending terms. In Afghanistan, Beijing has its sights on the country’s natural mineral wealth, including abundant copper and other raw materials for its factories. Cooperation with Afghanistan would also provide a key BRI link between China and its strategic partner, Iran.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is holding joint drills this week with the Russian military featuring over 10,000 troops, ostensibly to practice anti-terrorism operations. In addition to financial interests, China claims that it needs to secure the region against terrorist activity from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an alleged Uyghur jihadist organization that the U.S. government removed from its list of terror organizations last year due to lack of evidence that it exists. China is currently engaging in a genocide of the majority-Muslim Uyghur people in its Xinjiang region, which borders Afghanistan. While nominally a Muslim group, the Taliban has not objected to the genocide in any public way.

The Taliban seized most of the border territory with China this year, prompting an acceleration of Chinese dialogue with the Sunni Muslim insurgent group. In July, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi insisted the ETIM was a vital national security threat for China and called on the Taliban to disavow the non-existent organization. The Taliban did so without condemning any genocidal activities against Muslims in China.

Representatives for the Taliban, Kabul, China, Russia, Pakistan, and the United States gathered in Doha, Qatar, on Wednesday for an extended meeting on intra-Afghan peace, Chinese state media outlet the Global Timesnoted. The talks come as the Taliban have launched a nationwide offensive and conquered much of the nation’s territory, including at least six provincial capitals as of Monday. The Global Times on Thursday put the figure at nine, while the disputed fall of Ghazni on Thursday would mark the tenth if confirmed, Afghanistan’s Khaama Press reported.

The Associated Press

Taliban fighters and Afghans gather around the body of a member of the security forces who was killed inside the city of Farah, Afghanistan, Wednesday, August 11, 2021. (Mohammad Asif Khan/AP Photo)

Kabul and the Taliban spent much of Wednesday trading barbs at one another over their commitment to the talks, each accusing the other of rejecting mediation. An unnamed member of the Kabul delegation told Al Jazeera that the presence of a mediator was vital to “determine the seriousness of the parties,” a role China has long expressed interest in playing.

Chinese diplomats in Doha expressed optimism that a peaceful resolution to the intra-Afghan conflict remained viable.

“I think both sides always said that a military option is no solution and they both agreed that they want peace and a political settlement,” China’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan Yue Xiaoyong told Doha News after meeting with the Taliban. “We hope all stakeholders seriously stick to respecting Afghanistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in handling their affairs to really realise the Afghan-owned and Afghan-led principle in this process.”

Ben Whedon