BEIJING: China is ready to deepen “friendly and cooperative” relations with Afghanistan, a government spokeswoman said on Monday, after Taliban seized control of the country.

Beijing has sought to maintain unofficial ties with the Taliban throughout the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which spurred an advance by the militants across the country that saw them capture the capital Kabul on Sunday.

China shares a rugged 76-kilometre border with Afghanistan.

Beijing has long feared Afghanistan could become a staging point for minority Uyghur separatists in the sensitive border region of Xinjiang.

Russia establishes working contacts with Taliban

But a top-level Taliban delegation met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin last month, promising that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militants.

In exchange, China offered economic support and investment for Afghanistan’s reconstruction.

On Monday, China said it “welcomed” the chance to deepen ties with Afghanistan, a country that has for generations been coveted for its geo-strategic importance by bigger powers.

“The Taliban have repeatedly expressed their hope to develop good relations with China, and that they look forward to China’s participation in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters.

“We welcome this. China respects the right of the Afghan people to independently determine their own destiny and is willing to continue to develop... friendly and cooperative relations with Afghanistan.” Hua called on the Taliban to “ensure a smooth transition” of power and keep its promises to negotiate the establishment of an “open and inclusive Islamic government” and ensure the safety of Afghans and foreign citizens.

China’s embassy in Kabul remains operational, Hua said, although Beijing began evacuating Chinese citizens from the country months ago amid the deteriorating security situation.

In a statement on Monday, the embassy told Chinese citizens remaining in Afghanistan to “pay close attention to the security situation” and stay indoors.

US President Joe Biden promised a complete withdrawal of US troops by Sept 11, marking an end to two decades of war.

But Washington was left shocked by the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and the Taliban’s sweeping advance.

China has repeatedly criticised what it sees as the US hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan as a failure of leadership.

Stability and business

The Taliban’s takeover opens a strategic door to China laden with both risk and opportunity.

Maintaining stability after decades of war in its western neighbour will be Beijing’s main consideration, as it seeks to secure its borders and strategic infrastructure investments in Pakistan.

For Beijing, a stable and cooperative administration in Kabul would pave the way for an expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative into Afghanistan and through the Central Asian republics, analysts say.

The Taliban meanwhile may consider China a crucial source of investment and economic support, either directly or via Pakistan -- the insurgents’ chief regional patron and a close Beijing ally.

China has so far stopped short of officially recognising the Taliban as the new leaders of Afghanistan, but Wang Yi called them a “decisive military and political force” during last month’s meeting in Tianjin.

Meanwhile, the Russian foreign ministry said the situation in Kabul “is stabilising” and claimed that the militants have started to “restore public order”.

Russia, whose ambassador is due to meet the Taliban on Tuesday, claimed the militants had vowed to “guarantee the safety of local people”.

In the statement issued in Moscow, the foreign ministry confirmed it had “established working contacts with representatives of the new authorities”. Russia’s ambassador in Kabul is due to meet the Taliban on Tuesday, the country said earlier.

Unlike Western countries — which scrambled to get their diplomats out of the country as the Taliban completed its military takeover of the country this weekend — Russia has said its embassy in Kabul will stay open.

Published in Dawn, August 17th, 2021

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