Hamid Karzai's derailment of this week's planned U.S. peace talks with the Taliban may have been a disappointment to Washington's hopes of ending its longest war -- but it disappointed Beijing, too. China welcomed the breakthrough in the Qatar process, and sees a political settlement in Afghanistan as increasingly important for its economic and security interests in the region. As a result, China's support for reconciliation between Kabul and the Taliban has become a fixture of its burgeoning diplomatic activity on Afghanistan's post-2014 future.
Over the last year, China has been expanding its direct contacts with the Taliban and sounding them out on security issues that range from separatist groups in the Chinese region of Xinjiang to the protection of Chinese resource investments, according to interviews with officials and experts in Beijing, Washington, Kabul, Islamabad, and Peshawar. While Beijing would like to see the reconciliation talks succeed in preventing Afghanistan from falling back into civil war, it is not counting on their success, and thus is preparing to deal with whatever constellation of political forces emerges in Afghanistan after the United States withdraws.
While even tentative U.S. and European meetings with the Taliban generate headlines, China's substantive dealings with them tend to slip under the radar. After the 9/11 attacks and the Taliban's fall from power, Beijing quietly maintained a relationship with the Quetta Shura, the Taliban's leadership council based across the border in Pakistan. In a conversation, one former Chinese official claimed that besides Pakistan, China was the only country to continue this contact. Over the last 18 months, exchanges have taken place more regularly, and China has started to admit their existence in meetings with U.S. officials, according to people familiar with the matter. The same sources said that Taliban representatives have held meetings with Chinese officials both in Pakistan and in China. Although the possibility of active Chinese support for peace talks has been discussed, it appears the focus has been on a narrower set of Chinese objectives: as one Pakistani expert noted, "it has so far been about mitigating [Chinese] security concerns rather than reconciliation."
In China's dealings with the Taliban, the independence movement among China's Uighur Muslim minority has always been its biggest concern. In the late 1990s, Beijing worried that the Taliban government in Kabul was providing a haven for Uighur militants, who had fled Chinese crackdowns in Xinjiang and set up training camps in Afghanistan. In meetings in December 2000 in Kandahar, the Taliban's reclusive leader Mohammed Omar assured the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin that the Taliban would not "allow any group to use its territory to conduct any such operations" against China. In exchange, Omar sought two things from China: formal political recognition and protection from U.N. sanctions.
Neither side delivered satisfactory results. The Taliban did not expel Uighur militants from its territory. Though it prohibited them from operating their own camps, it allowed them to embed with other militant groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. At the same time, China moderated its stance at the U.N. Security Council to abstain on sanctions that targeted the Taliban and established trade links that would help mitigate their impact, but it didn't use its veto power. Beijing deferred its decision on giving the Taliban diplomatic recognition, which Washington's reaction to the 9/11 attacks soon made moot anyway.
The two sides, however, realized they could do business with each other. The Taliban's then-ambassador to Pakistan described his Chinese counterpart in Islamabad in the late 1990s as "the only one to maintain a good relationship" with the Taliban. In fact, China was signing economic deals in Kabul the very day of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
Since then, China has forged a good working relationship with the Karzai government, without ever becoming too closely identified with it by the insurgency. Today, China's priority remains ensuring that any territory under Taliban control won't function as a base for Uighur militant groups. The small remaining band of Uighur fighters -- perhaps as few as 40 men -- are primarily located in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan, in remote territory under the influence of a commander with ties to both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. China has been seeking assurances that the sheltering of Uighurs will not take place on a larger scale in Afghanistan itself. It also wants its multi-billion dollar investments in Afghanistan protected from Taliban attacks. Beijing's largest economic project, the Aynak copper mine, is in territory with a strong presence of the Haqqani network, an insurgent group that is closely allied with the Taliban.