China needs the Taliban as a friend and not as a foe

This is a logical outcome of Beijing’s strategic fears over Islamic militancy at home and abroad

The Taliban’s presence in October to celebrate the 10th anniversary of China’s Belt and Road Initiative was part of Beijing’s regional strategy.

This was one of only a handful of foreign visits made by the Taliban since taking power after NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Interim Minister for Commerce Haji Nooruddin Azizi even talked about the regime’s desire for Afghanistan to join the BRI.

The idea of an Islamist group allying with the nominally secular and communist China might appear surprising. But this is a logical outcome of Beijing’s strategic fears over Islamic militancy at home and abroad.

It is also part of a deepening of ties between China and many Islamic nations in recent years. Historically, Beijing has had no problems working with religious groups or theological-led countries, despite its suspicion of religion at home.

To understand Beijing’s motivations for cementing ties with the Taliban one only needs to look to Afghanistan’s recent history.

With the conclusion of the Soviet-Afghan War in 1989 and the collapse of the Moscow-installed Najibullah government in 1992, the country became a hotbed of Islamic radicalism and a magnet for militants from all over the world.

Communist rival

China had been one of the biggest supporters of the Mujaheddin, the Islamic group, which ran Afghanistan from 1978 to 1992, providing it with training and weaponry.

This was partly motivated by Beijing’s desire to bolster its ties with the United States and to strike a blow against the Soviet Union, its major communist rival.

Beijing is less worried about Russia these days. Not only does it have Russia as an ally, but is the dominant partner in the relationship.

China Factor is not responsible for the content of external sites.

But it was the assistance to the Mujaheddin that provided some of the groundwork for the security challenges that China faces today as it created a breeding ground for extremism, close to its borders.

The threat of Islamic militancy from Afghanistan has posed a very real challenge for Beijing. This was demonstrated by a wave of attacks carried out by Uighur militants in China’s western Xinjiang province throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

It culminated in the 2014 Kunming knife attack, which killed 31 and injured 141 people.

Attacks such as these led to China’s controversial and repressive policies used against Uighurs in Xinjiang. They also reinforced Beijing’s fears of extremism spilling over the borders from Afghanistan.

Central Asia

These would threaten Chinese interests in Central Asia and China’s western border regions, which have become pivotal for the BRI. The presence of the Taliban at the BRI summit can be seen as an example of how China hopes to create an ally to shore up its economic interests.

The Taliban’s presence in Beijing also demonstrates China’s growing ties with the Islamic world, which has drawn notable attention in recent years.

China mediated between Iran and Saudi Arabia over their long-standing rivalry in the region. Beijing was also involved in the agreement to add several Islamic nations to the BRICS partnership of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

More recently, China’s military ties were further underlined by the deployment of Chinese warships as part of a naval exercise with the Saudis.

Afghanistan is keen to join the Belt and Road Initiative. APhoto: File

Muslim nations have been an important source of markets and natural resources for Beijing, with China moving into Middle Eastern markets that had traditionally been dominated by the United States.

There has also been a growth in cultural ties, with interest in learning Mandarin Chinese growing throughout the region.

These developments can also be seen as a wider effort by Beijing to present China as a partner to Muslim nations at a time when the grip of the region’s traditional power bases appears to have weakened.

Such an effort can be seen in the recent tensions over Gaza, where Beijing has taken a more critical tone over Israel’s conduct, which marks a notable change from its more cautious language in the past.

Western nations

This has also been accompanied by a wave of support for Palestine on Chinese social media.

The initial gains from China’s efforts to portray itself as a friend to the Islamic world could be seen in how the United Kingdom-led statement condemning China’s policies in Xinjiang, mainly attracted the support of Western nations, but very few Islamic countries.

This shows the diplomatic influence that China has built in the Muslim world.

Recent developments have shown that Beijing continues to boost its diplomatic clout in the Islamic world, which could pose a further strategic challenge for Western nations.

Tom Harper is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of East London.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.