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China’s approach to the Taliban: A reflection of Realpolitik

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First of all, it is necessary to be aware that the Afghan Taliban should not be confused with the Tehrik-Taliban in Pakistan. Literally speaking, the term of the Taliban refers to students or seekers of Sharia law. As one of the prominent factions emerged during the Afghan civil war after the Soviet withdrawal from the country, the Taliban took power in 1996 and then founded the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in Kandahar which was its capital until 2001.

In foreign affairs where sovereign states react with each other in a diplomatic system, the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was essentially isolated from international system except only three countries recognizing it. China did suspend its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan since the Taliban regime was condemned internationally for the harsh-enforcement of their interpretation of Islamic law which resulted in the brutal treatment of many Afghans including women and children.

In November 2001, after the “9.11 terror attack” upon the United States, the U.S.-led allies decisively toppled the Taliban and forced them to retreat to the border areas but continued fighting against them as the insurgents. When the provisional government was created in 2002, Beijing first restored normal contacts with Kabul, and the bilateral relations between the two sides moved forward steadily with China’s support to Afghanistan financially and politically. Yet during the years of 2002-14, China politically maintained a low profile in Afghanistan even though it had unofficial ties with the Taliban reportedly from the Foreign Ministry of Afghanistan.

By 2014, as the U.S.-led forces began to withdraw from the country, China became “an active and enthusiastic supporter of reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government through working with Pakistan. At first, China’s mediation efforts in Afghanistan began as the Istanbul Process (also known as the Heart of Asia) in Beijing, to reconcile the Afghan government and the Taliban. Since then, China continued its mediations between the warring parties through bilateral and multilateral channels. Some scholars argued that direct mediation between the warring parties in Afghanistan “marks a departure for China since it had previously preferred to exert influence on Afghanistan indirectly through Pakistan.” Now China held talks on peace processes with Afghanistan bilaterally and multilaterally like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

The Taliban’s official visit to Beijing began in late 2014 to explore mutual understandings with each other on the world issues. Later China made a series of efforts to meet with Afghan government officials and the Taliban regularly. In addition, Chinese FM Wang Yi made his debut visit to Kabul in 2015 which was followed by the second visit to Beijing by the Taliban delegates in the same year and the next. As a senior official of the Taliban said “they like to keep China informed of the occupation by invading forces and their atrocities on Afghan people […] expecting the Chinese leadership to help us raise these issues on world forums and assist us to get freedom from occupying forces.”

Meanwhile, China used multilateral institutions to mediate between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Istanbul Process is not the only one case because it followed the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) of which China became a member in 2016 along with Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.S.; Russia–China–Pakistan Trilateral Dialogue and the SCO particularly. All shared the vision that the Afghan peace and reconciliation process must be an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” solution which was initially proposed by China. More changes can be seen later in China’s acting as “the honest broker” between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the first trilateral foreign minister dialogues for Pakistan is the key to address counter-terrorism in the Pakistan–Afghan border regions.

China’s approach to the Afghanistan issue aims to claim four objectives: to advance an “Afghan-led” and “Afghan-owned” reconciliation process; to set up inclusive political reconciliation agenda; to insure counter-terrorism capability and combating extreme terrorist forces; and to maintain communication and coordination with the other major players involving the Afghanistan issue. The Taliban has been regarded by China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran, not mention of some states in the Middle East, as a political and military force in Afghan politics. This is a positive step forward not only in bringing peace and security to Afghanistan, but also securing the stability of the region which is pivotal to CPEC’s success and the entire BRI as well.

On July 28, China offered the Taliban a high-profile public forum in Tianjin, a city close to Beijing, declaring that the group that swiftly took back large parts of Afghanistan would play an “important role in the process of peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction” of the country. During the meeting, Chinese FM Wang Yi met with the visiting delegation led by head of the Afghan Taliban Political Commission Mullah Ghani Baradar in China. There are three key points worth noting.

First, China reiterates that Afghanistan belongs to the Afghan people, and its future should be decided by its own people. Due to this, China holds that the Taliban is an important military and political force in Afghanistan which is expected to play a key role in rebuilding peace, reconciliation and reconstruction of Afghanistan. Second, the Taliban agrees to observe the “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” principle in the peace and reconciliation process, and establish a broad and inclusive political structure that suits Afghanistan’s realities. Third, China warns that in light of the UN Security Council resolutions, the Taliban must make a clean break with all terrorist organizations including the ETIM and play a positive role in advancing common security, stability and development in the region.

Echoing his host’s concerns, Baradar assured China as a reliable friend of the Afghan people and commended China’s positive role in Afghan peaceful reconciliation process. He added that the Taliban have been ready to work with other parties to establish a political framework in Afghanistan, and vowed never to allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China which has been regarded as a key player in future nation-reconstruction and economic development. It concludes that China and the Taliban shared a consensus on a wide range of issues.

Since taking Kabul on August 15, the Taliban have become the most possible master in the post-U.S. Afghanistan. Now people have talked about that “The Taliban is back in power, as it was 20 years ago, but what has changed since then?” For the world generally and its neighbors particularly, a key question remains whether Islamist terrorists will again use Afghanistan as a base in the way al-Qaeda did in preparation for the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. two decades ago?

On August 16, the top diplomats of China and the United States held phone talks on the Afghanistan issues and China-U.S. relations. Both sides agreed that the Taliban must announce a clean break with extremism, opt for an orderly transfer of power and establish an inclusive government. They also admitted that the future of Afghanistan should be decided by its own people, calling on the Taliban to ensure the safety of all those who wish to leave the country. China vowed that it stands ready to have communication and dialogue with the United States along the international society to push for a soft landing of the Afghan issue, indicating a readiness to play a constructive role in securing Afghanistan stability and nation-rebuild peacefully.

China has paid close attention to a new Afghan government to be announced soon since its embassy in Kabul is a key channel for the contacts between China and the Taliban. Along with Russia, Pakistan, Iran and some other members of the SCO, China urges that Afghanistan will form an open and inclusive government framework, adopt moderate and prudent domestic and foreign policies, and severe ties with all terrorist organizations. Yet some western states are being delusional that it is they who will determine Taliban’s “legitimacy”. Recently, the Western countries have reiterated that the international community must see whether the Taliban’s statements about providing peace and security are backed up by action. Or the engagement with the Taliban will depend on the fulfillment of the conditions presented to them. Yet China has worked with Russia to demonstrate common opposition to any external pressures on the Taliban, as President Putin said that the western way of so-called “civilization” of other nations is wrong and its purpose is to control these countries under the pretext of promoting democracy.

In sum, the Taliban has welcomed bilateral friendly relations with China with a view to joining the Belt and Road Initiative. As a Czech scholar Josef Kraus said, it all really depends on the pragmatism within the movement of the Taliban, because they have declare to keep away the world’s jihadists from the Afghani territory. Yet, the issues could potentially rise if the extremists within the Taliban exercise pressure on the leadership for more radical actions. Strategically, China wants good relations with the new government and ensures the Taliban does not offer support to terrorists targeting its Xinjiang Uygur Region. As usual, China may handle the situation in a more diplomatic way than other nations potentially threatened by the rise of the Taliban in the region. Accordingly, China has called on an urgent economic and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, so as to make up for the huge damage done to the country’s social-economic development and people’s well-being for more than five decades.

This is the rationale that since the early 2000s, China has become increasingly active in conflict management and post-conflict reconstruction in several countries.

Wang Li is Professor of International Relations and Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University China.

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South Asia

Taliban and the crisis in Afghanistan

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In 2021, the Afghan Taliban took back control of Afghanistan after fighting a rebellion for twenty years. The Taliban reformed and began regaining territory less than 10 years after the American-led invasion that overthrew the previous regime in 2001. In line with a 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban, they staged a swift assault as the US started to evacuate its last forces from Afghanistan.

Even though they promised to preserve the rights of women and communities of religious and racial minorities, the Taliban have enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The Taliban have failed to provide Afghans with sufficient food supplies and economic possibilities as they have evolved from an insurgent organization to a functioning administration.

Numerous instances of human rights violations have been documented by the UN mission in Afghanistan. Because the Taliban scared off journalists and put limits on press freedom, more than 200 news outlets had to close. Activists and protesters have been tracked and forcefully disappeared, and their government has ruthlessly suppressed protests. They also reinstated the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which was previously in place, and enforced laws against actions judged to be contrary to Islam. They instructed judges to apply their version of sharia in November 2022; in the following weeks, authorities resumed public hangings and floggings.

Women’s rights have been undermined. Due to restrictions put in place by the Taliban, girls are not allowed to go to high school, and women are not allowed to go to college or teach there. The group banned women from working for local and international voluntary groups in December 2022. According to estimates from the UN Development Program (UNDP), limiting women’s employment might cost Afghanistan’s GDP up to 5%. Amnesty International reports a substantial increase in the number of women jailed for defying discriminatory rules, such as those requiring women to cover their whole bodies while in public and to only appear with male chaperones. In addition, there are now more child marriages.

The UNDP says that the Taliban’s rule has also taken away the gains that Afghans made in their living conditions in the 20 years after the US invasion. In a study from October 2022, the organization claimed that practically all Afghans were living in poverty. Since the takeover, the economy has contracted by up to 30%, and there have been an estimated 700,000 job losses. More than 90% of individuals are impacted by food insecurity. The problem is getting worse because several countries and international groups have stopped giving aid, which is vital to the economy and public health.

International observers are nonetheless worried that the Taliban pose a danger to national and international security through their funding of terrorist groups, especially Al-Qaeda. Taliban leadership might convert Afghanistan into a haven for terrorists who could launch attacks against the US and its allies, despite Taliban pledges that the country’s territory wouldn’t be used against the security of any other country. The violence has also increased along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, which has always supported the Taliban. Tehrik-e-Taliban, a terrorist organization commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, has gained strength due to the Taliban’s ascent to power. The organization broke off a cease-fire with the Pakistani government in 2022 and began carrying out assaults throughout the nation. Officials from Pakistan have charged the Afghan Taliban with giving the extremists a safe harbor in their country.

For many years, the Afghan government relied on help from a number of countries; according to 2019 World Bank research, contributions from foreign partners funded 75% of the government’s public expenditures. Many of these countries stopped off aid when the Taliban took control, fueling concerns about potential future economic turmoil. Nevertheless, aid rose in 2022 as donors sent more than $2.6 billion. The US has donated more than $1.1 billion in help since the coup. However, according to UN authorities, the pledges fell short of the nation’s humanitarian requirements.

Many Western countries, most notably the US, shut down their diplomatic posts in Afghanistan when the Taliban took power. Diplomatic relations and recognition have been withheld from the Taliban regime, which refers to Afghanistan as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The UN General Assembly has also postponed a decision on who would indefinitely represent Afghanistan at the UN. The Taliban are now being investigated by the International Criminal Court for suspected atrocities, including crimes against humanity, committed against Afghans.

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South Asia

Decoding Donald Lu’s Visit: A Positive Upward in US-Bangladesh Relations?

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The U.S Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Donald Lu paid a visit from January 12 to 15. During his brief but swarming itinerary the two parties discussed various issues ranging from diplomatic to political. Interestingly, this is the 11th visit of any U.S high-official in the past two years. The frequent swapping of delegations from the both sides pose a critical juncture between the U.S-Bangladesh relationship. Experts believe that recurrent visits from US high-ups are definitely an auspicious sign between the relationship of the two nations. Therefore, the visit of Donald Lu is an offshoot of the “growing reciprocity and renewed engagement” between Dhaka and Washington.

Needless to say, Bangladesh has a long standing and steady relationship with the US since the latter recognized the former shortly after independence on April 04, 1972. Recently the US-Bangladesh celebrated the completion of 50 years of bilateral relationship and US President Joe Biden termed this as “robust partnership”. Amid such backdrop, it goes without saying that the recent visits signal to a significant positive tie-up between the two parties and the visit can be interpreted in the context of international and domestic backdrop of international politics.

The US is the largest market for Bangladesh’s RMG export. Naturally, the issue of GSP reinstatement plays a key role in bilateral camaraderie. Under such circumstances, Lu’s visit is important to hold talks of economic in the context of Bangladesh’s growing needs, especially after the LDC graduation. Moreover, in the annual Global Firepower 2023 Military Strength Ranking, Bangladesh is placed 40th out of 145 nations. On the other hand, Bangladesh came in 12th place on the GFP review’s list of ‘Strengths on the Rise,’ which emphasizes national military powers based on strong growth patterns until 2023. In this context, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Acquisition and Cross-servicing Agreement (ACSA) agreement indicates to a deeper and strategic engagement from the US rationale.

Bangladesh’s stands at the heart of a strategic position of the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which aims to counter the increasing footprint of China in the Indo-Pacific region. However, Bangladesh maintains a neutral position in terms of its foreign relations and has been carefully helming without taking any side of any major powers. Washington’s focus on free and fair election is important to maintain a stability in the greater Bay of Bengal neighborhood- an important feat in it’s IPS. Conversely, Bangladesh values economic partnership to sustain her ongoing upward trend. However, at the same time Bangladesh should be careful not to succumb to any pressure, a case in point when the Foreign Minister announced that the US proposed strategy is being vetted under the lens of economic opportunity.

On the domestic fore, arguably, the U.S has been advocating for a free and fair election, upholding democratic values, and condemning extra judicial excesses. However, continuous engagement between the two parties resulted helping to mitigate tensions and create a more positive atmosphere. The crux of Donald Lu’s visit is to reaffirm democratic ideals in state mechanism, rule based international system and Bangladesh to be part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Accordingly, Bangladesh has committed to hold a fair election and the recent decline of the controversial RAB’s extrajudicial excesses reported by Human Rights Watch as well as peaceful demonstrations of the opposition have been markedly praised by Donald Lu. From Bangladesh’s perspective rescinding of sanctions, reinstatement of GSP, and more support for Rohingya Refugees were reiterated. More importantly, Dhaka’s impartial foreign policy goals align with Washington’s interest in the South Asian region and it will be of American interest to consider Bangladesh as an important ally in the geopolitical chessboard of the Indo-Pacific region.  

However, the visit is also crucial for Donald Lu who is accused of meddling with the internal affairs of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. But, Donald Lu manifested his diplomatic acumen to “manage the fissures of the diplomatic ties’ and “highlight on the areas of convergence” in the recent visit. Evidently, the past year has been tumultuous for South Asian nations, following the collapse of Colombo, the Pakistani Economic Crisis and the revolving debt crisis around the region. Amongst her neighbors, Bangladesh has endured relatively steady political and economic pursuit. Therefore, US needs to formulate a comprehensive South Asian policy to accommodate the interests of the respective nations on its own merit.

Bangladesh’s relationship with the U.S is vital in both economic and political stance. Continued engagement and partnership between the two states is critical for the security of South Asia as well as Bangladesh’s ongoing economic prosperity. On a pragmatic tone, it would take more than just this one visit for Bangladesh to solve these complex geopolitical issues. For now, the visit has symbolized strengthening of U.S-Bangladesh relationship going forward by exonerating the mutual interests to diplomatically resolve pressing bilateral issues and elevation of continuous engagement.

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South Asia

Praiseworthy Development of RAB in the Last Year

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Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) image source: benarnews.org

On December 10th 2021, the United States of America (USA) announced sanctions against Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and its seven current and former officials on allegations of Human Rights violation. Such unilateral decisions of the US on the elite force surprised many. But Bangladesh chose to respond maturely through diplomatic communication. Since then, Bangladesh increased diplomatic engagement with the US, a method lauded by many as ‘prudent’ also.

Since the sanction, Bangladesh enhanced its effort to uphold the Human Rights situation in Bangladesh. RAB as an elite force also acknowledged the sanction and behaved in a more professional way. And it seems after one year, there are significant developments regarding both RAB and government policy. Foreign dignitaries and organizations are also lauding these developments.

Efforts from Bangladesh

After the announcement of the sanctions, Bangladesh immediately contacted the US diplomatic institutions to understand and assess the situation. As a part of the efforts, Bangladesh established Human Rights Cell in the Foreign Ministry under its United Nations wing.

Bangladesh also increased its diplomatic communications with the US, not necessarily because of the sanctions, but also due to growing geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region, and commitment to deepen bilateral relations with the US. In the last two years, both countries undertook 18 bilateral visits of mid and high-level. Bangladesh sent 7 delegations to the US while the US sent 11 delegations including Donald Lu’s latest.

Both countries also hold the bilateral Partnership Dialogue and Security Dialogue in March and April of 2022. In the same year, they also celebrated 50 years of their anniversary. Bangladesh’s foreign minister also met his counterpart in April 2022.

While many rogue states such as North Korea, react to the US sanctions by projecting hard power or test-launching missile, Bangladesh resorted to diplomatic means to raise and provide an update about the agenda to its counterpart. Almost in all diplomatic meetings, Bangladesh raised its concern about the sanction. Bangladesh even gave a ‘non-paper’ dossier to Under-Secretary Victoria Nuland, when Nuland came to Bangladesh in March 2022.

Significant Developments

Since the US sanctions on 10th December 2021, the allegations of extrajudicial killings have gone down in Bangladesh. It has reached zero after one year. There were no new allegations of extrajudicial killing by RAB for the last 13 months. RAB’s name was not also mentioned in any other allegations or negative deeds. Therefore, RAB is maintaining a ‘clean record’ at least for last 13 months or so.

Apart from that, the Human Rights situation also improved in Bangladesh in the meantime as the government gave extra effort to project the situation to the international community. During Under Secretary Nuland’s visit in March, she also acknowledged that the situation has improved.

The US Assistant Secretary Donald Lu also acknowledged the further development regarding the allegations against RAB. Secretary Lu visited Bangladesh on January 14th and 15th. He also acknowledged the falling extrajudicial killing in Bangladesh. He also said that there was ‘tremendous progress’ in reducing extrajudicial killings after the US sanctions.

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Kamal also told the media that the US delegation is satisfied with RAB’s current activities. In another expert talk with The Business Standard, the Home Minister further said that the US also praised the actions of Bangladesh in combating militancy, terrorism, arson, and radicalism.

Apart from the US, global watchdogs are also acknowledging the fact. Human Rights Watch World Human Rights Report 2023 mentioned that there is a ‘drop-in abuse’ in Bangladesh (See Page 68).

Such transformation in the US perspective within only 13 months regarding a sanction is very unique considering the history of sanctions. Bangladesh’s diplomatic efforts and commitment to upholding Human Rights deserve praise in this regard. Till now Bangladesh is dealing with the issue prudently.

Lifting the sanctions in a diplomatic manner will require making it a national security interest for the USA. An elite force with a ‘clean record’ and its die-hard effort in curbing terrorism and militancy, fighting drug and human trafficking, and anti-piracy drive can easily draw US national security interest in this region. And RAB has the ability to become so. Considering the historic relations between the US and Bangladesh, the Sanctions are the only ‘strain’ in this bilateral relationship. Lastly, as there are praiseworthy developments, both countries are likely to pass beyond this issue in the near future if Bangladesh continues to maintain the positive trend.

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