Why has China recognised Taliban’s envoy to Beijing?

Beijing’s move is being seen as a shot in the arm for an isolated Taliban as it struggles for global recognition amid Western sanctions.

China’s new ambassador to Afghanistan Zhao Sheng shakes hand with Taliban Prime Minister Mohammad Hasan Akhund, left, during the recognition ceremony at the Presidential Palace, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, September 13, 2023. In early February, Beijing in turn recognised the Taliban’s ambassador to China [Courtesy Taliban Prime Minister Media Office via AP]By Ruchi KumarPublished On 14 Feb 202414 Feb 2024

At an official ceremony held by the Chinese government in Beijing on January 30, a queue of foreign diplomats lined up to present their credentials to President Xi Jinping. Among the 309 diplomats was an unlikely participant.

After over two years of negotiations, China recognised Bilal Karimi, a former Taliban spokesman, as an official envoy to Beijing, making Xi’s government the first in the world to do so since the group seized power in Afghanistan in 2021.

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China has been making inroads into Afghanistan through investments and projects since the United States withdrew forces from the country in 2021, triggering a collapse of the Western-backed Afghan government and paving the way for the Taliban to return to power.

But as the news of Beijing’s formal acceptance of the Taliban on January 30 spread, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs was quick to issue a statement, clarifying that the acceptance of diplomatic credentials did not signal Beijing’s official recognition of Afghanistan’s current rulers.

It was too late.

By then, Beijing’s move had already secured a major diplomatic win for the Taliban which has been struggling for global recognition for its government, say analysts. Since taking power, the group has remained isolated on the international front, mainly owing to allegations of supporting armed groups and for its strict interpretation of Islamic laws to impose restrictions on the rights and freedoms of women. Sanctions by the West on the Taliban have in turn had a crippling impact on the Afghan economy.

But why did China recognise Karimi as the Taliban envoy to Beijing — and what does it mean for the group?

China’s deep interests in Afghanistan

At a time when Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers are treated as outcasts by much of the world, China has stepped up engagement with the group.

In 2023, several Chinese companies signed multiple business deals with the Taliban government. The most prominent among them was a 25-year-long, multimillion-dollar oil extraction contract with an estimated investment value of $150m in the first year, and up to $540m over the next three years.

There’s a history to that relationship, said Jiayi Zhou, researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

“The Taliban are not an unknown entity to the Chinese government, which reached out to them when they were a pariah government in the late 1990s and continued to maintain a working relationship with the Taliban as an insurgency group,” she told Al Jazeera.

Beijing’s decades-long pragmatic relationship with the Taliban, Zhou said, is a “natural consequence” of a number of factors, most prominently security.

“As a direct neighbour of Afghanistan, China’s own security depends on the Taliban. It can ill-afford to alienate or antagonise them, and certainly has no interest in doing so over values,” she said,

And Beijing isn’t alone in seeking such a pragmatic relationship with the group.

“Most of Afghanistan’s neighbours hold the same position as China: that the Taliban need to be engaged with, rather than isolated,” she said. “China’s [acceptance of the Taliban ambassador] is very much indicative of a China that has become comfortable being a first mover in the foreign policy domain.”

‘Realism and opportunity’

Many regional countries had taken a critical stance against the Taliban when it was in power in Afghanistan during the 1900s. However, “realism and opportunity” have overtaken as prime motivators in geopolitics since its 2021 takeover, said Gautam Mukhopadhaya, senior visiting fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research and former Indian ambassador to Kabul, told Al Jazeera.

“Realism in the sense that for the moment, it looks like the Taliban in the only game in town,” he said. “Despite the unpopularity of the Taliban and its repressive measures, resistance [against them], civic as well as military, is almost crushed… Today, the US has made it clear it has no compelling geopolitical interests, stomach or desire to commit resources to Afghanistan.”

While China is the first country to recognise a Taliban ambassador, several other countries including Russia, Iran, Turkey and India have made efforts to engage with the Taliban, not only on humanitarian projects but also by reopening their diplomatic missions in Kabul.

An International Crisis Group (ICG) report released last month, examining the Taliban’s relationship with its neighbours, observed similar patterns of engagement. “They are convinced that the best way to secure their countries’ interests and moderate the Taliban’s behaviour in the long term is patient deliberation with Kabul, rather than ostracism,” said the report.

“The world will not stop and wait for Western sentiment to shift in favour of the Taliban. We are here on the frontlines,” a regional diplomat is quoted as saying in the ICG report.

What does the Taliban gain?

The West’s antagonism, especially in the form of sanctions, has had severe effects on aid-dependent Afghanistan. There is widespread unemployment and starvation, with an estimated 23.7 million people requiring humanitarian assistance in 2024.

According to data gathered by multiple international agencies, more than 13 million people – nearly 30 percent of the country’s population – are facing extreme food insecurity. That figure is projected to rise to 15.8 million by March.

Similarly, an estimate by the International Labour Organization in 2022 observed a 35 percent drop in Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) since the Taliban takeover, resulting in more than 900,00 job losses since 2021 and causing widespread unemployment.

Faced with these crises, the Taliban needed partners. It now has one, said Mukhopadhyaya. “It can now count on a major power more or less on its side,” the former Indian diplomat said.

“Ideally, the Taliban would’ve wanted strong relations with major global powers such as the US and China, and regional powerhouses like Russia and India for various reasons,” Ibraheem Bahiss, analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG), told Al Jazeera.

With the US unwilling to play ball, China becomes even more important for the Taliban, he said.

A cautious Taliban

Deeper ties with China could “come with a cost” for the Taliban, warned Bahissin the form of “falling into the Chinese grip that other countries have discovered to their chagrin.

“But for now, both sides seem willing to play that game.”

The ICG analyst, however, said the Taliban, despite being starved for recognition, may still be cautious about how much to engage with Beijing.

“The Taliban are still trying to keep their relationship with China somewhat in check because they seem to be aware that the more they gravitate towards Beijing, the more regional powers like Russia and India will hesitate to expand relations with Kabul, thereby prompting the very dilemma of singularity of foreign patrons that the Taliban are so desperate to avoid,” he said.

“China, for obvious reasons, has emerged as a key driver of the region’s outreach and engagement with the Taliban,” Bahiss added.

All this, however, seems to have created a spiral where the more isolated the Taliban becomes, the more they turn to China to replace the diplomatic weight the US previously provided.”

Source: Al Jazeera