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China and the Taliban have common interests

Alexander Görlach
Alexander Görlach
August 18, 2021

Not everyone is fleeing the Taliban. Russia and China are already talking with the country's new leaders, Alexander Görlach writes.

Dozens of people pack a plane, many of them sitting on the floor
As Afghans flee and NATO members abandon the country, China is moving inImage: Marc Tessensohn/AP/picture alliance

While Western governments are chaotically trying to fly their staff and citizens out of Afghanistan, the Russian and Chinese embassies remain open. After rapidly recapturing the country, the Taliban have filled the power vacuum left behind by the withdrawal of international troops. Unlike Chinese officials, who took precautions ahead of time and sealed deals with the Taliban, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas failed to see any of it coming. He has also failed to evacuate Afghan allies to Germany.

Alexander Görlach
Alexander GörlachImage: Hong Kiu Cheng

Authoritarians of all stripes have a lot in common: They're united in their hatred of freedom and human rights. The fact that 20 years of stated international commitment to these values are now coming to an end in Afghanistan has autocrats in Beijing, Moscow and in Kabul in a victorious mood.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with a Taliban delegation in July and called the group an important player in the region. Officials in Beijing hope that China's presence in Afghanistan will pacify the border region and China's western Xinjiang province — where more than 1 million Muslim Uyghurs are currently imprisoned and undergoing reeducation programs.

Keeping China safe

After China's government announced that it would invest heavily in the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, the group pledged to not declare war on China from Afghan territory and to reign in individual fighters who might seek retribution for the mistreatment of imprisoned Uyghurs on the other side of the border. Beijing, for now, has bought itself some time and can wait and see how the situation develops.

Two men with massive rifles wave hello on the street, one smiling broadly
Taliban fighters are in a victorious mood Image: Rahmat Gul/AP/picture alliance

The border that Afghanistan shares with China is 76 kilometers (47 miles) long.  Not far away is an important corridor belonging to China's Belt and Road Initiative. This massive infrastructure project aims to give China access and influence throughout the region in exchange for loans dispensed from Beijing. If this corridor were to be jeopardized by instability in Afghanistan, it would pose a lasting threat to China's interests in Pakistan.

But China also has economic interests in Afghanistan. In addition to oil fields, for which Chinese companies have already secured the drilling rights, Afghanistan boasts rare mineral deposits that are essential for such things as smartphones, tablets and LED screens. As far as computer chips are concerned, China currently does not have the technological know-how to compete with Taiwan and South Korea, but  access to up to $1 trillion (€850 billion) in mineral reserves could seriously influence the future of global chip production and ratchet up the pressure on buyers in the United States and Europe.

A high prison wall with guard towers at the Uyghur detention center in western China
Uyghurs are held in massive detention centers in China Image: Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo/picture alliance

These are shameful days for countries that usually pride themselves on defending freedom and human rights. What also has been exposed these days is the epic failure of policymakers in Washington and in Berlin, who are now shamefully abandoning the Afghan people. The events of recent days are also a slap in the face for the families of those who lost their lives in the Hindu Kush.

Afghan families in tents flee from the Taliban
Afghan families flee from the Taliban Image: Sayed Khodaiberdi Sadat/AA/picture alliance

But, in Beijing and Moscow, the champagne corks are popping. The loss of Afghanistan, which some may consider bearable, permanently alters the geopolitical balance between the free and the autocratic worlds. One thing is clear: The interests of dictators, and not of freedom, are now being defended in the Hindu Kush.

Alexander Görlach is a senior fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, a research associate at the Internet Institute of the University of Oxford, and an honorary professor of ethics and theology at Leuphana University. A PhD linguist and theologian by trade, his research includes narratives of identity, the future of democracy, and the foundations of secular societies. After spending time in Taiwan and in Hong Kong,  he is now focusing his efforts on understanding China's rise and what that means for the free world.  He has taught at Harvard University and the University of Cambridge. From 2009-2015, he also served as editor-in-chief of The European magazine, which he founded.


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