Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Is China in a Hurry to Recognize the Taliban Government in Afghanistan?

Washington, DC – While blood-curdling scenes of war in Ukraine are sending a message across the world of the venality of human arrogance, China is busy quietly removing dust from the files on its Afghanistan strategy. This was clearly seen when Foreign Minister Wang Yi became the first highest level Chinese leader to make an unannounced visit to Kabul on March 24.

This was also the first visit by the Chinese Foreign Minister since the change of government in Afghanistan last year. China’s Foreign Ministry termed it a “significant” visit that will have a “positive effect” on promoting peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan. But it deliberately avoided telling why FM Wang Yi chose this timing to visit Kabul—all this when activities of the Taliban-led interim government in Afghanistan are generating aversions and dislikes across the world. There are reports of detentions, rapes, and summary executions of minorities, women, and people associated with the previous government in Afghanistan.

An atmosphere of uncertainty and chaos prevails in Afghanistan. Moreover, the Taliban-led establishment’s anti-female and non-inclusive attitudes have become the subject of discussions in the UNSC and several other international platforms. Its decision to close down schools for girls has increased international disapproval of the regime, whose members are on the United Nations sanctions list, and the UNSC has yet to decide which steps to take against them.

Still, the Chinese Foreign Minister chose to visit the land-locked nation. Before Wang Yi visited Kabul, Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had landed in the war-torn nation in October 2021, while Qatar Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani had led the first high-level delegation to the country in September 2021. However, Pakistani or Qatari Foreign Ministers’ visit to Afghanistan didn’t draw international attention as much as the Chinese Foreign Minister’s scurried visit to Afghanistan.

It has led to speculation that China, which is opposed to international sanctions on Afghanistan, is preparing a ground for the recognition and legitimation of the Taliban government. China will not be alone in doing so. Russia, Iran, and Pakistan may also recognize the Taliban government. Still, it has to be seen who among the four countries becomes the first to recognize the Taliban-led establishment in Afghanistan.

Acting Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi was quoted by Reuters as saying that on March 30-31, China will host a meeting of foreign ministers of regional countries which have a stake in peace and security in Afghanistan. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his counterparts from Iran, Pakistan, and Central Asian countries will attend the meeting, which is considered crucial since participants will decide on their respective moves toward the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan.

But the question is, why do China and its friends appear to be in a hurry in their approach toward the war-torn country, particularly when America-led NATO countries are doing everything possible to bring a ceasefire in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war?

More than a month has passed since Russia invaded Ukraine, resulting in the killings of thousands of people and untold miseries to Ukrainians. As per the UN, more than 10 million people have been forced to run for their lives, leaving their homes and belongings. Over 6.5 million are displaced inside Ukraine, and 3.7 million people have been forced to flee the country.

This has a cascading effect on international politics. Some experts describe it as a watershed moment in modern history and a turning point comparable in importance to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Some other experts predict more ominously about the global world order following the Ukraine war. They say the war has brought in the open demise of rules-based order. “There is no doubt that in the violent, tumultuous days after February 24, the established international order has been shaken and, in some respects, upended in extraordinary, unexpected and often unwelcome ways,” foreign affairs commentator Simon Tisdall said while writing in the Guardian recently.

Taking advantage of the uncertain and chaotic situation, China wants to secure its frontiers, fulfill its mineral resources requirements and realize its long-held goal for the Belt and Road Initiative. In priority, China’s immediate target is to secure its borders with Afghanistan and keep the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an anti-China terror group, at bay.

Beijing fears that an insecure, uncertain, and unstable Afghanistan could be a home to ETIM. A UN-declared terrorist group, the ETIM is also highly networked with terrorist and Islamist groups worldwide since 2010. It is affiliated with al-Qaeda, ISIS, Uzbekistan’s terrorist outfits, and others. There is a feeling among a section of strategists that without development and investment pouring into the land-locked nation, there will be no money for the Taliban-led regime to implement law and order in Afghanistan.

Besides, China has its eyes on the minerals of Afghanistan, which holds untapped mineral wealth and rare earth material worth US $3 trillion, according to an estimate. Rare earth material is essential for lithium batteries and computer chips that power laptops, mobile phones, GPS systems, precision-guided missiles, drones, satellites, stealth aircraft, and hypersonic weapons.

Hence, recognition of the Taliban regime will open the floodgate of opportunities for China. A glimpse of it can be seen in Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s talks with acting Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in Kabul. As per the Afghanistan Foreign Ministry statement, the two leaders discussed political and economic ties, including starting work in the mining sector and Afghanistan’s possible role in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Undeniably, China is leaving no stone unturned to make things favorable for it. The Middle Kingdom is aware of the US move in the Indo-Pacific region. Following Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the US plans to strengthen its presence in two theaters—Europe and Indo-Pacific. Infrastructure push and security will be critical dimensions of the US approach in the Indo-Pacific region.

China wants to counter such moves of the US and its allies by fixing several fault lines in its neighborhood. But the question is: Will China remain successful in its goal, either in Afghanistan or other parts of its neighborhood where the US and its democratic allies have a sizable influence? In the post-Ukraine war scenario, China will likely face tougher challenges from the US. How Beijing manages to navigate these challenges has to be keenly watched.

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