Chinese Whispers

Will China become Afghanistan’s new sponsor?

36 min listen

In This Episode

Last month, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi welcomed senior Taliban leaders to Beijing, standing shoulder to shoulder for the photographers. China is carefully watching events unfold in Afghanistan. And while it hasn’t yet recognised the Taliban government, the Beijing meeting was a nod towards a potential alliance.

But replacing America in Afghanistan wouldn’t be without its risks – can Beijing succeed where Washington failed? America’s 20 year mission in the country cost lives and money. And what would a closer alliance mean for China’s Xinjiang policy, considering the close links that the Taliban has historically had with militant Uyghur groups?

I speak to Tom Miller, author of China’s Asian Dream, and Dr Mike Martin, author of An Intimate War and former British Army officer in Helmand. On the podcast, we consider whether the American withdrawal was actually a strategic masterstroke in tempting China into the mires of Afghan politics, in order to have stability on its western frontier. Tom argues that ‘the US has a left a booby trap, or a ticking time bomb, for China to defuse.’ 

On the Uyghur question, Mike points out that the speed of success has meant the Taliban hasn’t thought through many of its policies and positions:

‘The Taliban weren’t expecting to win this quickly. So all of a sudden they’re having to decide what the lineup is in the Cabinet, for example, and that involves a whole series of discussions that they were hoping to defer… What’s our policy on the Uyghurs? What’s our policy on drugs? What’s our plan on women’s rights?’

But for China, a promise that the Taliban will not support separatism in Xinjiang will be the first precondition to any alliance. Except, as Mike points out – things are not so easy considering the fragmentation of what we call ‘the Taliban’. The worst thing China can do would be to assume a promise from the Taliban high command will really be followed throughout its lower ranks across the country.

We also discuss how much the public display of friendship – as shown by the Beijing meeting – can really be banked on. On the one hand, the Afghans are very good at extracting foreign money, as the last few decades have shown; on the other, the Chinese are highly adept at sweetly over-promising, floating future friendship but often delivering on little of the ambition.

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