Transatlantic Take

China’s Bet on the Taliban Protecting its Nationals

August 26, 2021
Jonas Parello-Plesner
Mathieu Duchâtel
7 min read
Photo credit: lev radin / Shutterstock.com
Afghanistan is in turmoil after the rapid takeover by the Taliban.

All countries have been scrambling to evacuate their nationals ahead of the full withdrawal of U.S. personnel on August 31. Having conducted its own evacuation a month earlier, China has been spared, but the security of Chinese nationals in Afghanistan and in the region will be a key determinant of its developing relationship with the Taliban in power.

In recent years, Afghanistan has been “ground zero” for China’s policy of enhancing the protection of its nationals abroad, which we analyzed in a 2015 book. A significant change was kickstarted by an attack that took the lives of 11 Chinese nationals in 2004 in Kunduz. Since that and other similar incidents, Beijing has prioritized securing nationals abroad, including by securing host-nation assurances or through evacuations. The Afghanistan evacuation is the 18th conducted by China since 2006. Most of these were conducted using civilian means—ferries and charter flights—but the People’s Liberation Army was involved twice: in Libya in 2011 with the air force and the navy, and in Yemen in 2015 with the navy in the lead. With more than 36,000 nationals extracted, the scale of the Libyan evacuation was unique, but such operations have become a standard Chinese response to security crises overseas.

On the diplomatic side, securing its interests during regime changes has also led to modifications of China’s classical non-interference policy. Previously, government-to-government relations were privileged, with scant contact with opposition forces, leaving China’s interests vulnerable during sudden transitions. In the last decade, its diplomacy has become much prescient and flexible by reaching out to opposition forces to secure its interests in case of a power shift. That has been on display in Afghanistan, where Foreign Minister Wang Yi on June 28 met with the head of the Afghan Taliban Political Commission, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is expected to play a prominent role in a Taliban-led government.

At that time, most Western countries including the United States still thought that a Taliban takeover was neither imminent nor inevitable. At the meeting, Wang secured a commitment by the Taliban to “never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China.” The Taliban leader said he hoped that China would “play a bigger role in future reconstruction and economic development.” The Taliban promised to create an “enabling investment environment” for this to happen.

Getting Nationals Out in Due Time

China showed the same prudence and preparing for the worst when it comes to protecting its nationals. A week prior to Wang’s meeting with the Taliban, on June 21, the Foreign Ministry issued an appeal to all Chinese citizens in Afghanistan to leave the country. On July 2, a charter flight took off from Kabul, evacuating 210 Chinese citizens to Wuhan. In 2011, evacuated Chinese from Libya were brandished upon their return as a display of China’s efficiency as a great power. This time, there was more Chinese media interest in whether the returnees were bringing back COVID-19 from Afghanistan.

The flight’s crew was reportedly picked among “Party cadres with a high-level of political awareness and strong navigation skills.” The airplane had to wait one day on the tarmac in Kabul for 70 Chinese citizens who had trouble reaching the city, but this was many days in advance of the airport being overrun by fleeing foreign and Afghan nationals.

There are no reports of the Chinese government or companies also evacuating Afghan staff, as other countries are doing. If this had taken place, it would have been publicized by state media as a sign of China’s benevolence and strength. In the 2015 evacuation in Yemen, Chinese marine vessels evacuated other nationals, including Pakistani and German citizens. That gesture was used by state media to highlight China’s increased global maritime presence as a global public good.

Moreover, China’s current political approach to the Taliban is to put trust in their promise to form “an open, inclusive Islamic government in Afghanistan and take responsible actions to protect the safety of Afghan citizens and foreign diplomatic missions.” Consequently, the Chinese embassy is still operating, a sign of trust in the security guarantees received from the Taliban. The exact number of Chinese citizens still in Afghanistan is not known. The Foreign Ministry has mentioned “sporadic personnel who voluntarily stayed.”

While the initial coverage of the evacuation was much more discreet than for previous operations, some media and social media took intense satisfaction in the fact that China had acted faster than Western countries and was not embroiled in the chaos at Kabul’s airport. References to the Chinese blockbuster Wolf Warrior II and its tale of a muscular non-combatant evacuation from a war-torn country lead to the conclusion that “You can always trust the motherland.” The events in Afghanistan confirm that China has a good track record of securing its nationals from Libya in 2011 onward. Amid the current chaotic situation in Kabul, its ambassador met on Wednesday with the Taliban leadership to secure protection of Chinese diplomats and staff.

No Investment without Security Guarantees

Even before the Taliban seized power, insecurity was the main reason why three Chinese companies—Metallurgical Corporation of China, Jiangxi Copper Corporation, and China National Petroleum Corporation—froze the two largest investment projects in Afghanistan: the Mes Aynak copper mine and an oil-exploitation project in the Amu Darya basin. When these projects were announced, China was accused of “free-riding” on the relative security provided by the Western military deployment. This was the time of the Obama administration’s AfPak strategy, when the West’s plan was to involve China as a partner in stabilizing Afghanistan. China’s cooperation with the United States or European partners never really took off beyond symbolic small-scale initiatives, and the risks for Chinese nationals were so high that their numbers decreased from a peak of about 1,000 in 2009 to between 100 and 400 in 2015. The Mes Aynak mine was the target of a Taliban rocket attack in 2012 and there were several reports of threats of kidnapping.

China seems poised to be one of the first countries to recognize a new Taliban government, based on the close contacts already established. In earlier similar cases, such as Libya in 2011, it was the last among the UN Security Council members and scrambled to connect with the country’s new powerholders for opportunities and contracts.

China will continue to seek protection for its nationals from the new regime. It pursued such a policy, without recognizing the Taliban government, before 9/11 changed everything. In the late 1990s, China used the good offices of Pakistan to seek assurances from the Taliban that it would not allow activities hostile to Beijing and would help monitor Uyghur militants. It has again sought similar assurances during the visit to China of Mullah Baradar in July.

Can the Taliban Deliver?

Whether the Taliban can deliver will determine the level of China’s involvement in Afghanistan’s reconstruction. There are three particularly difficult subsidiary questions—regarding the limits of Pakistan’s influence over Afghanistan’s coming choices, the extent to which the Taliban will want to keep China’s influence in check, and whether there are segments of the Taliban movement hostile to China because of its treatment of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

In Pakistan, which has been the most deadly and dangerous country for Chinese nationals in the past two decades, insecurity used to be a major obstacle to Chinese economic projects. President Xi Jinping’s decision to push the Belt and Road Initiative in the country changed that outlook, as it came with guarantees from the Pakistani government that Chinese workers and staff would receive special protection. A special security division was established in 2016, consisting of 9,000 Pakistan army soldiers and 6,000 paramilitary forces. They are deployed on port, road, and hydropower projects. However, protection has not been entirely successful, as there have been several attacks against Chinese nationals in recent years. Perhaps China will seek to get a Taliban government to replicate that approach and demand a “Taliban China Guard” to safeguard renewed Chinese investments and a matching inflow of workers. Then that would be another important piece for China in the Central Asia Belt and Road coverage.

So far, the way things have played out for China in Afghanistan is testament to a much more forward-looking and adaptable policy. If—and this is a big if—it succeeds in getting the Taliban to protect its nationals and investments and to refrain from supporting jihadist movements inside China and the Uyghurs more broadly, China will be one of the few countries not to lose out as Afghanistan takes a new trajectory.

Jonas Parello-Plesner is executive director of the Alliance of Democracies Foundation.

Mathieu Duchâtel is director of the Asia Program at Institut Montaigne.