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China Embraces Taliban, Eyeing Own Interests

DON GONYEA, HOST:

We just heard about how the Taliban is making quick advances throughout Afghanistan. And now there's growing dismay about what will happen if the militant group gains control of the country once the U.S. and NATO allies leave at the end of this month. But China views it differently and is reaching out and trying to consolidate its relationship with the Taliban. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

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JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: It was quite the photo op. China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, wearing a gray suit and stern face posing with nearly a dozen senior members of the Taliban, including its chief negotiator and top political leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

MADIHA AFZAL: This very public, very sort of overt engagement is definitely a first.

NORTHAM: Madiha Afzal is with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Although there have been informal backroom talks between the Chinese and the Taliban over the years, Afzal says this is the first time they were held so openly, which she says is a boon for the militant group.

AFZAL: Basically, you know, it was maybe the most significant stage that Baradar has received, the Taliban has received in terms of international legitimacy, in terms of sort of how the Chinese foreign minister interacted, even the things that were said.

NORTHAM: Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the Taliban a pivotal military and political force and urged them to hold high the banner of peace talks, all this while militants are capturing territory in Afghanistan and remain disengaged from the peace talks. Rodger Baker is with Stratfor Rane, a risk intelligence company, and has been monitoring Afghanistan for decades. He says China doesn't trust the Taliban but is hedging its bets.

RODGER BAKER: They still claim they don't pick sides, so they'll work with whoever claims to be the government of Afghanistan, so long as it keeps their interests stable.

NORTHAM: Baker says China's overriding concern in Afghanistan is security, in part to help protect its economic and investment interests in the region, including a massive infrastructure program known as the Belt and Road Initiative. Baker says Beijing also doesn't want the Taliban to allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for Uyghur Muslim extremists that could launch cross-border attacks.

BAKER: For the Chinese, it's - they perceive it as a real significant threat, not only in Xinjiang, which is where they have a lot of natural resources, but that fear that it can come over and strike at other parts of more economically powerful China.

NORTHAM: The Taliban has pledged that it's not going to allow Afghan soil to be used to interfere in China's internal affairs. Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, says that should be an easy promise for the Taliban to keep.

ANDREW SMALL: They don't care about Xinjiang very much in the grand scheme of things or the Uyghurs that much, frankly, either. It's just not a central concern.

NORTHAM: Small says, in the past, the Chinese were willing to hold informal talks and even provide some weapons to the Taliban when they controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s but always felt embarrassed and pressured by the international community for that relationship. Small says that's changed since Xi Jinping became China's leader.

SMALL: Clearly under Xi Jinping, I think there's much more indifference to how they're perceived if they think the U.S. in particular is reacting problematically to their dealings with the Taliban. I don't think they care as much as they did back at the turn of the millennium.

NORTHAM: A few days before the Taliban visited China's foreign minister, President Xi Jinping reached out to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani just to reaffirm friendly relations between the two countries. It may be playing both sides, but it helps keep China's interests in Afghanistan secured.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF RENE AUBRY'S "LA GRANDE CASCADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.