As the last US troops leave Kabul, Beijing finds itself at a crossroads with a country its policymakers have long termed the “graveyard of empires”. For the past two decades, China has been able to maintain a healthy distance from Afghanistan’s internal struggles, relying on US military presence to provide a certain level of stability across its western neighbour. Now, the US withdrawal is in equal parts blessing and curse, providing welcome propaganda fodder at home but threatening to draw Beijing one step closer into the "Great Game" it has been so keen to avoid.
In Beijing’s eyes, stability is paramount. The country's senior leadership fears a resurgence of Islamic militancy on China’s doorstep, and worries about what the fallout of conflict in Afghanistan could mean for its broader interests in the region. This means that while China’s primary opposition to the Taliban may not be ideological, both China and the US share an uncommon, overlapping interest in facilitating a stable political settlement.
In fact, Chinese leaders have already expressed an unusual level of willingness to engage with the US and its allies, and have publicly called on the Taliban to adopt a "moderate" platform of governance. China’s lack of political baggage and close relations with Pakistan, a key ally of the Afghan Taliban, afford it routes of influence otherwise inaccessible to the US. This means capitalising on a show of goodwill will be crucial – not least because the same factors that make China a valuable ally to the US could just as well make it a powerful alternative pole for a Taliban government.
Indeed, a firm pivot towards the Taliban is by no means out of the question. Unlike the US, China has never harboured intentions to reshape Afghanistan in its own image. Instead, its primary goal is securing its own bilateral interests – irrelevant of who holds the levers of power. This means that for Beijing, stability itself is more important than whoever is at Afghanistan's helm. A quick return to something approaching stability under the Taliban may well be preferable to drawn-out civil conflict.
In cases like these, Beijing is also able to fall back on its policy of “mutual non-interference” – the idea that countries should not "meddle" in each other’s internal affairs. This political impartiality lends it a competitive advantage in complex political situations – already the Foreign Ministry has been laying the groundwork for a flexible approach, claiming that China must “respect the choices of the Afghan people”.
This is not to say the Taliban and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would make easy allies. Stability or not, Beijing is wary of the Taliban’s ideological agenda and knows that a Taliban government will likely be subject to an onslaught of destabilising sanctions. But high-level meetings between the Taliban and foreign minister Wang Yi in Tianjin in late July show that Beijing is seriously preparing for the possibility of a more politically active role in the region.
Top of the agenda in coming months will be the Taliban’s links with militant groups. Back in the early 2000s, Beijing accused the Taliban government of harbouring and training Uyghur militants, who it claimed went on to launch attacks on Chinese soil. This time, severing any remaining ties with what Beijing sees as terrorist groups is likely to be a non-negotiable demand – and leaders will be hoping that formal recognition from China would be enough of a diplomatic coup that the Taliban will accept.
The two countries will no doubt find more common ground in investment, but even here Beijing has learned from the US and former USSR that even the most moderate expectations in Afghanistan should be tempered. So, while it is true that Chinese companies are often willing to get involved in financially riskier projects, Afghanistan – contrary to many fears - is unlikely to emerge as a new centrepoint for Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investment any time soon. Instead, Beijing is likely to remain wary until the dust has settled, continuing to insist on stability as a prerequisite to large-scale investment.
There is one area, however, where Beijing sees a clear route to profit. While China may be toeing a careful line in Afghanistan itself, back home the US withdrawal has provided an easy target for sweeping attacks on US credibility. Taiwan has found itself under an unwanted spotlight as state media positions the island as the next victim of the US’s global decline - “Afghanistan today, Taiwan tomorrow”, in the words of Global Times editor Hu Xijin.
But the glee of nationalist tabloids shouldn’t deter the US and its allies from pursuing an inclusive international response to the crisis in Afghanistan. For once, there is a workable overlap with Beijing’s foreign policy goals that should not be overlooked: both sides want a stable, Afghan-led solution and both recognise the importance of collaboration across traditional lines in reaching it. The challenge will be seeing behind Beijing’s bluster and seizing an increasingly rare opportunity for meaningful cooperation – else risk that China becomes yet another obstacle to peace and progress in Afghanistan.