Afghanistan looms larger in the mindset of China's leadership than you'd imagine from the countries' mere 47-mile stretch of shared border — a curly line that you'll easily miss if Google Maps is not sufficiently zoomed in.
While China has enjoyed poking its archrival the U.S. in the eye over its humiliation in Afghanistan — with state media even gleefully warning Taiwan that America will similarly desert its friends in Taipei — Beijing also has deep fears about the security risks posed by the Taliban's return to power. No one expects China to rush in and fill the political vacuum.
For China, the nightmare is Islamist terror attacks, plotted across that short border. Before Beijing turned to its more recent draconian policies like internment and forced sterilization against the Uyghur Muslims in the region of Xinjiang, which neighbors Afghanistan, Chinese anti-terrorism officials accused the Taliban of supporting Uyghur militants who they said plotted "thousands" of attacks inside its territory since the 1990s.
China attributed multiple fatal attacks in the 2000s and 2010s — including one outside Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 2013, as well as a train station stabbing case in the southern city of Kunming a year after — to a Uyghur insurgent group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
Beijing has particular concerns that regional instability could reignite Afghan Islamist support for fighters associated with ETIM. Last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the Taliban's co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who's now tipped to be the next Afghan president, to cut ties with ETIM — and do more.
"We hope the Afghan Taliban will make a clean break with all terrorist organizations including the ETIM and resolutely and effectively combat them to remove obstacles, play a positive role and create enabling conditions for security, stability, development and cooperation in the region," Wang said at the meeting in late July.
"We hope that the Afghan Taliban will ... build a positive image and pursue an inclusive policy," Wang added.
"China has figured out pragmatic ways of working with the Taliban, but they still have concerns that Afghanistan will be a permissive environment for Uyghur militants and that the Taliban’s victory will have an emboldening effect on militancy across the region," said Andrew Small, who specializes in China's relations with South Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank.
"Unlike the last time the Taliban took power [in 1996], the Chinese know who they’re dealing with — they’ve been in exchanges with them for over 20 years now," Small said. "That doesn’t mean they find an ideologically rigid Islamist movement committed to establishing a Sharia-ruled state very comfortable to handle."
Not all about the money
While China grabs headlines worldwide for using its deep pockets to build up big commercial projects, that's never really been a priority for Beijing in Afghanistan, where its interests have been relatively modest. Effectively ignoring Afghanistan, Beijing has prioritized big-money infrastructure projects in Pakistan, including the port of Gwadar, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative to connect its exporters to western markets.
Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, stressed security was the No. 1 issue when it came to this neighbor.
"Beijing will continue to play a role, but not a forward one, and will seek to focus single-mindedly on its interests, which are concerns about Uyghur militants using the country as a base against them," Pantucci said.
For now, the two sides are striking a friendly tone.
Indeed, the Taliban have sought to reassure Beijing over its concerns about cross-border militants. "People from other countries who want to use Afghanistan as a site [to launch attacks] against other countries, we have made a commitment that we will not allow them in, whether it’s an individual or entity against any country including China," Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told South China Morning Post in July.
China has also been beefing up security cooperation with Central Asia more widely, most notably with Tajikistan, "in order to maintain domestic security in Tajikistan and to prevent instability from spilling over from Afghanistan into Tajikistan and then into Xinjiang," Dirk van der Kley, a research fellow with the Australian National University, said in a 2019 report. This approach, he said, involves the provision of equipment and facilities to boost Tajikistan’s security capabilities, and conducting joint operations with Tajik and Afghan forces near the border of all three countries.
For now, there is little for China to offer the Taliban, and Afghanistan as a whole, as it's premature to plan large-scale economic projects in the landlocked country where about half of the population of 38 million live under the poverty line.
"They will almost certainly cooperate with a Taliban-led government on economic projects, but the scale and scope of that cooperation remains to be seen," Small said. "It’s not clear that China is ready for large economic commitments until the political and security situation is clearly stable in the long term, and it’s not clear that they want a Taliban-run Afghanistan to be some kind of regional infrastructure hub given what they fear may flow down those roads."
Egg on America's face
If there is one silver lining of the geopolitical uncertainty for Beijing, it is the image of a weakened American presidency — so much so that Wang, the foreign minister, veered into a lecture while speaking on Monday to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was hastily coordinating with international partners.
"Wang expounded China's stance on the situation in Afghanistan, saying that facts have once again proved that mechanically copying an imported foreign model cannot readily be fitted to the use in a country with completely different history, culture and national conditions, and ultimately, is unlikely to establish itself," state media outlet Xinhua reported.
Other state media are also running prominent coverage of the "embarrassing" U.S. operation while casting doubt on Joe Biden's ability to focus on confronting China in the wake of the Afghan fallout.
"The U.S. side cannot, on the one hand, deliberately contain and suppress China and undermine China's legitimate rights and interests, and on the other hand, expects support and cooperation from China," Wang told Blinken. "Such logic never exists in international exchanges."
Despite the barbed rhetoric and the otherwise tense relationship between the U.S. and China, experts say they actually see much in common when it comes to the immediate danger regarding Afghanistan, and few see a meaningful role for China to play to fill the void left by the Americans.
"The Chinese are just as wary of the Taliban and their promises as everyone else, and they have all heard the Graveyard of Empires moniker," Pantucci said.This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service Pro Trade. From transatlantic trade wars to the U.K.’s future trading relationship with the EU and rest of the world, Pro Trade gives you the insight you need to plan your next move. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a complimentary trial.