Arms, trade and terror: How the Pakistan-Afghanistan-China link was established decades ago
In the winter of 2000, China's former ambassador to Pakistan, Lu Shulin had met the founder of Taliban Mullah Omar as the Communist country quietly manoeuvred in Afghanistan.
As the dust settles and Afghanistan begins its "reconstruction" under the Taliban, China has already taken the lead and promised $31 million in aid to the Taliban government, including food supplies and coronavirus vaccines.
China hasn't suddenly discovered the Taliban as a player in the "Great Game". In the winter of 2000, China's former ambassador to Pakistan, Lu Shulin had met the founder of the militant movement Mullah Omar, clearly establishing the Pakistan-Afghanistan-China link nearly 20 years ago.
Wang Yi meets Taliban
China had maintained its interest during the American presence in Afghanistan as Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited the country and promised to play a "constructive" role in the country and help train the Afghan security forces.
The Communist country therefore firmly established its hold on both sides of the divide - keeping in touch with the Taliban and providing help to the then Afghan government at the same time.
In return for all the "help", Zarar Ahmad Osmani, who was the foreign minister of Afghanistan when Wang Yi met him in the country, had said the country will never allow its territory to be used by the "East Turkistan Islamic Movement" (ETIM) for activities against China.
China had earlier signed up Afghanistan as an observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), touting it as a 'goodwill gesture.'
During Mullah Omar's meeting with Lu Shulin in November 2000, the Taliban leader had reportedly promised Afghanistan will not be used for activities against China, foreshadowing similar statements made by the current Taliban leadership in 2021.
Clearly, the Taliban's priority was set decades ago right under the noses of the international community.
The Afghanistan government under President Hamid Karzai had also cosied up to the Chinese. Karzai himself had visited China to establish a "strategic cooperation partnership" as the Afghan ex-head of state said China was a "very wise neighbour".
Karzai had in fact visited China in 2002 and met then Chinese President Jiang Zemin as China presented 30 million yuan worth of aid to Afghanistan and reopened the Chinese embassy in Afghanistan.
After the Taliban took control of Kabul on August 15, China was one of the few countries which continued to maintain its diplomats in the country even as Western nations including the United States hurriedly pulled their military and diplomatic staff.
The Taliban has now clearly expressed its desire to join the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China's international trade gateway which it wants to link to major trading outposts in Asia through to Europe and Africa under the Belt and Road initiative (BRI).
Afghanistan's entry into the CPEC would help the Xi Jinping regime to extend its footprint into the landlocked central Asian region, with Pakistan already on board for the past several years.
Chinese officials have been meeting Taliban and Afghan officials since 2015. They increased the frequency of these meetings in the past two years as the former Trump administration expressed its desire to pull out of the country.
China had in fact started manoeuvring harder post-2014 amid the Obama administration's shift towards full Afghan sovereignty and drawdown of US troops.
It is no secret that China had provided military support to the Afghan Mujahideen and Pakistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
China maintained a low profile position in Afghanistan for several decades. The Communist country's outlook towards Afghanistan was reflected in its former foreign minister Yang Jiechi's statement in 2002 after the formation of the Karzai government when he said,"In the after-war peace rebuilding of Afghanistan, China has been an active supporter, anticipator and promoter."
The keyword here is perhaps "anticipator" - a role China has played to the hilt as it moved cautiously as the US played a pivotal role with troops and aid in Afghanistan.
China displayed high-powered stealth as it kept the Taliban in the fray as the US administration first under Obama and then Donald Trump moved to pull American troops out of Afghanistan.
China's policy towards Afghanistan is not just tied to economic and strategic concerns but also guided by fear. It views the East Turkistan Organisation, which has links to Taliban and Al Qaeda as a threat to its activities in Xinjiang, where Chinese authorities have reportedly put thousands of Uyghur Muslims in interment camps.
Reports say the US Army had captured fighters from China's Xinjiang and had also detained Uyghurs at Guantanamo base in Cuba. The Chinese government, therefore, is afraid that with the Taliban in control in Kabul, a separatist movement could be triggered on its border.
China has steadily increased its trade relations with Afghanistan since 2002. The country concluded a major oil and gas deal with the Afghan government in 2011.
Under the deal, China's National Petroleum and Corporation (CNPC) will pay royalties, corporate tax and rent for the oil and gas operations in the Amu Darya basin. The deal was expected to help the Afghan government earn billions of dollars in the subsequent two decades. Now with the Taliban in power, more such deals could be clinched by China.
China Metallurgical Corporation had earlier signed a contract in 2008 to develop the huge Aynak copper mine near Kabul. CNPC, along with Afghanistan's Watan Group, was set to explore oil in Kashkari, Bazarkhami and Zamarudsay basin in a lucrative win-win deal for both Afghanistan and China.
Pakistan has undoubtedly played a key role in Afghanistan's affairs since the 80s ever since the Soviet occupation. However, its support in breeding and arming the Taliban in the 1990s was a gamechanger.
Pakistan has now openly supported the new regime, with the ISI chief visiting Kabul in the last few days as the current Imran Khan government sets about consolidating its hold over the country, much like its principal ally China.
Several key Taliban leaders were believed to be living in Pakistan as the US fought the Taliban throughout the last two decades, with arms and ammunition flowing freely to the militant group. Pakistan PM Imran famously said the Afghans had “broken the shackles of slavery” while referring to the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan.
As the "Great Game" in the 21st century continues to change in Afghanistan, it remains to be seen how the Taliban leadership will now react to China and Pakistan's wish to control events in the country.