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


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.

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