The Perfect Partner: How Sino-Taliban relations will have broad humanitarian ramifications

by Nile Johnson

Image: MEI@75


What You Can Do

  • Call your local Congressperson about aid to Afghanistan to ensure the U.S. will not abandon Afghanistan to Chinese interests. 
  • Raise awareness on social media about the threatened Uyghur population in Afghanistan and Chinese humanitarian abuses. China’s global ambition necessitates a certain level of complicity with international human rights norms. A lack of media coverage will allow China to act freely for good or worse. 
  • Vote for leaders who value international multilateralism. While the effectiveness of the UN as an institution can be debated, it is without a doubt that it can prevent certain antagonistic behaviors China may take through united sanctions on the Taliban.

Even before the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, China has been strengthening diplomatic ties with the Taliban. In July, before the U.S. withdrawal, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, met with a delegation of high-ranking Taliban officials [1]. To go even further, the Chinese government stated on August 16th that “China respects the rights of the Afghan people to decide their own future on their own will,” implying China’s support for the Taliban victory [1]. Chief among the concerns of a Chinese-Taliban relationship is the treatment of Uyghur people (Muslim ethnic minority in southwestern China) in Afghanistan and whether Chinese financial support will disincentive key Taliban reforms Western governments support. 

China’s relationship with the Taliban will be twofold. For purely economic reasons, China will seek to revive its business investments in Afghanistan. While the Taliban is likely to support these ventures by the Chinese government because of the fragile state of the Afghan economy, such initiatives would undermine Western interests. Western foreign aid accounts for half of the Afghan economy [2]. Given that the IMF has already cut $450 million worth of assistance because of concerns about what the Taliban will do with the funds, it is not an understatement that most aid will be cut [3]. It is clear, however, that when Western governments restart aid programs to Afghanistan, they should be made conditional to ensure Taliban protection of women’s rights, human rights, and the Afghan constitution. This is especially pertinent considering Thus, China’s aim to show that a country can become successful without being democratic is concerning. If China were to give aid without human rights conditions, it would eliminate the last remaining mechanism Western governments have in ensuring the protection of the Afghan people. 

Second, since China shares a border with Afghanistan, a Sino-Afghan relationship will depend on the Taliban not interfering with Chinese internal affairs from a national security perspective. In essence, the Taliban cannot export extremism into China’s troubled Xinjiang region or condemn the Chinese government’s abuses against Uyghur Muslims in that region [4]. It is unclear whether Uyghurs in Afghanistan face an immediate threat to their safety, but Uyghur deportation to China remains a fundamental concern. Since 2017, the Chinese government has locked up close to a million Uyghurs in concentration camps and subjected those outside to constant surveillance [5]. Keeping in mind the increasing pressure Chinese officials have placed on foreign governments to return Uyghurs from abroad, it is possible that the Taliban and China may negotiate a deal for such extraditions [6]. As such, a robust China-Taliban relationship will only worsen a Chinese humanitarian crisis that the U.S. has labeled as “genocide” by increasing the number of affected Uyghurs [7]. 

A relationship between China and the Taliban, although beneficial for each other, is concerning for the minority groups that have been historically oppressed by both parties. To combat the potential humanitarian crises that may emerge from such an alliance, it is necessary for Western governments to maintain incentives to make the Taliban follow the norms of the international community. One such way is through the United Nations. The United Nations Security Council has imposed sanctions on the Taliban, making it even more complicated to reverse them even if China wants to do business with Afghanistan [8]. Despite this, considering China’s worldwide influence in addition to its place on the Security Council, complacency is not an option. Pressure must be kept to ensure that countries with divergent interests, namely the West and China, continue to place a united emphasis on human rights.


References

[1] A relationship between China and the Taliban, although beneficial for each other, is concerning for the minority groups that have been historically oppressed by both parties.

[2] “China-FM Briefing/Taliban.” CCTVPLUS, https://www.cctvplus.com/news/20210816/8218994.shtml#!language=1. 

[2] “Afghanistan Faces Economic Shock as Sanctions Replace Foreign Aid.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Aug. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/21/business/afghanistan-economy.html. 

[3] Horsley, Scott. “The Taliban Could Soon Face a Cash Crunch as Countries Cut off Funding to Afghanistan.” NPR, NPR, 19 Aug. 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/08/19/1029437836/the-taliban-could-soon-face-a-cash-crunch-as-countries-cut-off-funding-to-afghan\. 

[4] Johnson, Ian. “How Will China Deal with the Taliban?” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/china-afghanistan-deal-with-taliban. 

[5] Wee, Sui-lee, and Muyi Xiao. “Afghan Uyghurs Fear Deportation as Taliban Cozy up to China.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Sept. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/23/world/asia/afghanistan-uyghurs-china-taliban.html. 

[6] Anderson, Christina, and Chris Buckley. “They Escaped China’s Crackdown, but Now Wait in Limbo.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Oct. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/27/world/asia/china-uighurs-sweden-asylum.html. 

[7] Shesgreen, Deirdre. “The US Says China Is Committing Genocide against the Uyghurs. Here’s Some of the Most Chilling Evidence.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 6 Apr. 2021, https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/politics/2021/04/02/is-china-committing-genocide-what-you-need-know-uyghurs/7015211002/. 

[8] “Afghanistan Faces Economic Shock as Sanctions Replace Foreign Aid.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Aug. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/21/business/afghanistan-economy.html.