China Sees Risks in Stepping Into Afghanistan After U.S. Withdrawal

China Sees Risks in Stepping Into Afghanistan After U.S. Withdrawal

11:49 - Beijing worries Taliban rule could be destabilizing for its restive Xinjiang region but is wary of getting tangled up in a volatile situation

Chinese state media has mocked the U.S.’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan as the latest sign of America’s declining global prestige, but China is approaching its own plans for engaging with the country under Taliban rule with caution.

On Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry cited portrayals in U.S. media of a new “Saigon moment.” China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency the day before tweeted side-by-side photos of helicopters evacuating U.S. government employees from Saigon and Kabul with the words “history repeats itself.”

Still, after largely being a bystander during two decades of heavy U.S. presence in its Western neighbor, China’s leadership appears to be wary of stepping into a volatile political situation where it has little experience, experts say.

Beijing’s biggest concern is potential ripple effects of Taliban rule, with its history of Islamic extremism, in China, where authorities have used tight border controls and draconian measures to control the minority Muslim Uyghur population in the northwestern Xinjiang region.

“China would really prefer not to be dealing with any of this,” said Andrew Small, a senior fellow specializing in Chinese foreign policy at the German Marshall Fund, a Washington-based think tank. As it watches the uncertainty clouding Afghanistan’s future, Beijing is “wary of being sucked in,” Mr. Small said.

Even so, China has spent much of the past few weeks engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity, sending representatives to meet with the U.S., Russia, Pakistan and other countries in Qatar, and hosting Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar for high-level talks with Foreign Minister Wang Yi in the eastern Chinese city of Tianjin.

On Monday, China sent its newly-appointed special envoy for Afghanistan, Yue Xiaoyong, to Tehran for meetings with outgoing Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, while Mr. Wang spoke by telephone with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and separately with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The meetings, say experts, don’t appear to show Beijing taking on a leading role in managing the crisis in Afghanistan, though Beijing appears to be laying the groundwork for an approach that will depart from Washington’s.

Beijing sees potential benefits to aligning itself with the Taliban and could formally acknowledge a Taliban-led government, which would ultimately put itself in a position to benefit from an eventual reconstruction of Afghanistan or opportunities to have more influence in the region.

“It seems they’re trying to distance themselves from the American initiative,” said Barnett R. Rubin, a former State Department official and Afghanistan scholar at New York University. Beijing will prefer to coordinate its relations with other countries in the region rather than follow the U.S.’s bilateral approach, he said.

Cooperation between China and the U.S. on Afghanistan issues isn’t impossible. The Biden administration has repeatedly pointed to Afghanistan as one of a few issues, along with climate change, on which the two countries have shared interests and can potentially collaborate.

Still, the State Department’s description of Messrs. Blinken and Wang’s Monday phone call was terse, while China’s more detailed version offered few signals of cooperation, instead focusing on Washington’s missteps in Afghanistan and urging the U.S. to ensure what it called a “soft landing” in the country that would prevent a new civil war or humanitarian disaster.

Unlike the U.S., which has a range of concerns, including the Taliban’s treatment of women and Afghans aligned with the former government, as well as the group’s potential support for al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, Beijing has signaled a narrow focus on its own security interests.

Chinese authorities are concerned about the Taliban’s historic ties to Uyghur militants, particularly the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a largely defunct Uyghur separatist group that Beijing partly blames for ethnic tensions in Xinjiang.

Geng Shuang, China’s envoy to the United Nations, said at an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Monday that ensuring Afghanistan doesn’t become a haven for terrorists was the overriding priority for China, and urged the Taliban to deliver on pledges that it has made to Beijing to prevent international terrorists from basing themselves in Afghanistan.

Though there is scant evidence of Uyghurs training abroad and returning to China to stage terrorist attacks, Chinese authorities have raised the existence of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement to justify its suppression of ethnic Uyghurs. In recent years, the government set up internment camps in Xinjiang to detain more than one million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.

The U.S. in 2002 listed East Turkestan Islamic Movement on a list that prohibited members of groups from entering or remaining in the U.S., and the following year Pakistan said it killed the group’s leader in a drone attack. Last year, Washington delisted the group, arguing there was no credible evidence of its existence for more than a decade—a move that Beijing protested.

When it comes to potential collaboration with the U.S., Beijing will want to know whether Washington is a reliable counterterrorism partner, including what its stance is on East Turkestan Islamic Movement, said NYU’s Mr. Rubin. But with the U.S. withdrawing from Afghanistan, China could naturally be working more closely with regional players to secure common security interests.

“They will want to coordinate their policies. China, Russia and Iran and to some extent Pakistan probably feel like they can magnify their effect together better,” Mr. Rubin said.

Unlike the U.S. and other Western embassies that have rushed to evacuate personnel, the four countries have kept their embassies open, signaling an intent to keep the lines of communication open with the Taliban. On Sunday, the Chinese Embassy in Kabul said it had asked various factions in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of Chinese citizens.

In the days since the Taliban captured Kabul on Sunday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying has referred to the situation in dispassionate terms, describing the Afghan government’s collapse as a “major change” for the country and citing the Taliban’s pledges to set up an “open and inclusive” Islamic government.

On Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry criticized the U.S. role in Afghanistan as destructive and noted that President Biden recently argued that the U.S. mission in the country wasn’t nation building. Still, Ms. Hua gave no hint that Beijing was eager to step into such a role.

China’s Communist Party-controlled tabloid Global Times on Monday rejected speculation that China sought to fill the power vacuum by sending in its own troops. “The most China can do is to evacuate Chinese nationals if a massive humanitarian crisis occurs, or to contribute to postwar reconstruction and development,” it said.