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Beijing Cautiously Backs Taliban's Hopes Of International Recognition In Afghanistan

Participants listen as Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech via video link during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Dushanbe on September 17.

China is calling for sanctions against Afghanistan to be lifted as part of a wider push by Beijing to gain international political support for the Taliban’s rule in the country.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged his counterparts during talks with G20 ministers on September 23 to unfreeze Afghanistan’s foreign assets and stop exerting “political pressure” on the Taliban following the hard-line Islamist group’s August toppling of the former UN-backed government.

“Economic sanctions on Afghanistan must end,” Wang said during remarks delivered virtually. “The various unilateral sanctions or restrictions on Afghanistan should be lifted as soon as possible.”

Beijing’s international moves to limit the economic and political leverage on the Taliban are set to continue on September 28 when Wang holds official talks with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

Wang Yi speaks at the G20 foreign ministers' meeting via video link in Beijing on June 29.
Wang Yi speaks at the G20 foreign ministers' meeting via video link in Beijing on June 29.

The meeting, via video link, should tackle a variety of topics from human rights abuses in Xinjiang to a frozen trade deal with the bloc.

But how to engage with the Taliban and manage the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan will also factor into the “strategic dialogue” between Beijing and Brussels.

The Taliban has not been officially recognized internationally since it seized power in August amid the withdrawal of U.S.-led NATO forces from Afghanistan. It has since set up an interim government led by hard-liners that has faced international criticism for failing to address the worst fears about its treatment of many Afghans, especially women, and links to terror groups.

China has emerged as a pragmatic backer of the Taliban’s new rule and has longstanding relations with the group focused on protecting Chinese security and counterterrorism concerns.

Since the Taliban’s takeover, Beijing has promised investments into Afghanistan’s economy and pledged to send humanitarian aid to the country. In response, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that China was the group’s closest partner.

Beijing has also begun to press other nations to engage with the group, a strategy that has begun to yield results.

Kyrgyzstan became the first Central Asian country to send delegates to meet with the Taliban in Kabul after Talantbek Masadykov, the deputy chairman of the Kyrgyz Security Council, and another official met with representatives on September 23.

This was followed by a September 26 meeting between the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, and Kazakhstan’s ambassador in Kabul to discuss bilateral trade.

A Reluctant Embrace

Beijing’s calls for greater engagement with the Taliban have been gathering steam in recent weeks and were on display in Dushanbe during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit on September 16 and 17.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit via a video link at his residence outside Moscow on September 17.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit via a video link at his residence outside Moscow on September 17.

The SCO is a China-led political and security bloc that also has India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan as members.

The recent meeting in Tajikistan was focused on Afghanistan and was also the first-ever joint meeting with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led military alliance that does not include China.

Speaking at the summit via video link, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to work together to prevent violence and instability spilling over Afghanistan’s borders into the wider region as they announced plans to share intelligence and hold regular talks about the situation in the country.

“Members of the SCO and CSTO are all neighbors of Afghanistan; it is a community with shared stakes and shared security,” Xi said during remarks at the summit. “At this critical juncture, it is essential to play together and jointly uphold peace and stability. I hope these proposals would contribute to the goals of achieving common shared security in our region.”

Putin also signaled a softening on the Kremlin’s line regarding the Taliban, calling for better coordination across the region toward potentially recognizing the group as the legitimate government in Kabul.

In a calculated dismissal of its 20-year insurgency against the government in Kabul and its UN backers, the Russian leader praised the Taliban for coming to power “without bloodshed” and said that other countries would have to find a way to work with the group.

“As for recognition, we have to align our positions and build a dialogue,” Putin said.

The Kremlin is also in the process of negotiating a visit for a Taliban delegation to Moscow, according to a report from the Russian new agency RIA Novosti.

A similar sentiment was shared by Pakistan, one of the Taliban’s main backers and a key player in the region, which pressed other countries to engage with the group.

Taliban fighters walk past Taliban flags flying on poles along a street in Kabul on September 26.
Taliban fighters walk past Taliban flags flying on poles along a street in Kabul on September 26.

“At the same time, the international community has to realize: What is the alternative? What are the options? This is the reality, and can they turn away from this reality?” Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told the AP during a September 24 interview.

A Difficult Road Ahead

Despite the growing acceptance of Taliban rule among some of Afghanistan’s neighbors, the militants still face a bumpy path in their quest for international recognition.

Tajikistan, which shares a 1,357-kilometer border with Afghanistan, remains opposed to the Taliban’s rule and has allowed exiled politicians and officials from the toppled Afghan government to live in the country, where they are reportedly seeking financial and political support.

Officials in Dushanbe have also raised the alarm about Tajik militants who fought alongside the Taliban potentially making plans to cross the border into Tajikistan, an official at Tajikistan's Border Service told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service.

These moves prompted a strong rebuke from Abdul Ghani Baradar, the acting deputy head of the Taliban’s interim government, who accused Tajikistan of interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs during a September 26 interview with Al Jazeera.

Many Western leaders are also still strongly opposed to the group, and China will need to continue to lobby on the Taliban’s behalf in order to allow access much-needed funds to govern Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has long been dependent on foreign aid, which accounts for approximately 43 percent of the country’s GDP, according to The World Bank.

But access to funds has dried up since the Taliban came to power. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) blocked access to $440 million in assistance due to a lack of recognition of the Taliban regime as a legitimate government. The World Bank and EU also suspended aid.

The push for wider recognition for the Taliban also comes as Afghanistan now finds itself on the brink of economic collapse and a worsening humanitarian crisis.

The United States and various European countries have promised more than $1 billion in emergency aid, but Washington has also frozen the Afghan central bank’s $9.5 billion reserves, which are held in the United States.

This leaves Washington with important leverage over Afghanistan’s economic future, which remains a point of frustration for Beijing as it lobbies other nations to cautiously accept the Taliban's leadership in Kabul.

“Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves are national assets that should belong to and be used by its own people, and not be used as a bargaining chip to exert political pressure on Afghanistan,” Wang said during his G20 remarks.

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is a correspondent in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom and the author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.