China is ready to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate ruler in Afghanistan if the extremist group manages to topple the democratically elected government in Kabul — which would also undermine the Biden administration’s main leverage against the insurgents, according to intelligence sources.
Beijing had previously pressured the Taliban to work toward a peace agreement with President Ashraf Ghani’s government — and joined other countries, including the US, to say they would not recognize any government “imposed through the use of military force.”
However, new Chinese military and intelligence assessments have prompted leaders in Beijing to prepare to formalize their relationship with the Taliban, according to US News & World Report, which cited multiple American and foreign intelligence sources.
Last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi even met with senior Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and his delegation in the city of Tianjin as ties between the two warmed up ahead of the pullout of US forces from Afghanistan.
At the time, Wang stressed Beijing respects Afghan independence and always adheres to non-interference in the country’s internal affairs — while taking a swipe at American intervention.
The foreign minister said the hasty withdrawal of the US and NATO “reveals the failure of America’s policies” and “offers the Afghan people an important opportunity to stabilize and develop their own country.”
But on Friday, the Taliban captured three more provincial capitals in Afghanistan, including Lashkar Gah in Helmand, as the insurgents routed government forces.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment by US News but Tyler Jost, an expert in Chinese national security decision-making, said it is a strategic play by China.
“If you suspect there’s a good possibility that a new government is coming to power, it’s potentially useful to set conditions such that if those folks succeed in taking power, you’re well-positioned to extract a bargaining concession from them,” Jost, a professor at Brown University, told the news outlet.
“In this case, any potential connections between Islamist groups and Xinjiang would likely be front and center in the minds of Chinese decision-makers. It’s such a central priority for them,” he said, referring to the restive province in western China.
“Beijing doesn’t necessarily place the same emphasis on factors the US sees as central to the future of Afghanistan, such as sustaining democratic elections or human rights,” Jost added.
But China’s willingness to recognize the Taliban — should the group topple the Afghan regime — undercuts Washington’s attempts to try to pressure the insurgents to return in good faith to diplomatic talks in Qatar.
US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad returned to Qatar this week for negotiations, US News said.
Meanwhile, Yun Sun, director of the Stimson Center’s China Program, told the outlet that what remains clear from China’s latest move is that the shifting US goals for Afghanistan have failed.
“Fundamentally, what’s implied is that the recognition of the legitimacy of the Taliban equates to the total failure of the 20 years of war by the US in Afghanistan,” Sun told the outlet.