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EFSAS Commentary

President Xi Jinping’s acceptance of the Taliban Ambassador’s credentials opens the gate for broader diplomatic acceptability


China has been toying with the idea of according full diplomatic recognition to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan for the last two years. Beijing, in this sense, has been contradicting the stand of United States (US) - led Western democracies that the Taliban needs to do much more on human rights before it can be accorded any recognition. The United Nations (UN), meanwhile, has also urged for greater engagement with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, and the Taliban regime itself has held a regional conference in Kabul this past week with this very aim in mind. Afghanistan’s other neighbours, especially India, would now come under increasing pressure to follow the Chinese example, given that these neighbours would be suspicious of Chinese dominance over an Afghanistan that is critically linked to their geo-political and security interests.

Akmal Dawi wrote in Voice of America (VOA) on 30 January that “Chinese President Xi Jinping's issuance this week of ambassador credentials to the representative of Afghanistan amounts to the first official recognition of the interim Taliban government by a major nation, some analysts and former diplomats say. Xi welcomed Asadullah Bilal Karimi, the Taliban-appointed Afghan ambassador, in a formal ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, along with envoys from Cuba, Iran, Pakistan and 38 other countries, who also presented their credentials”. Xi told the new Ambassadors that China is seeking deep friendship and mutually beneficial cooperation with their countries, Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported. Diplomatic recognition is not always formally declared, and diplomats offered differing opinions on whether Beijing's action constitutes such recognition.

Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, evaded a direct question at a post-credential briefing as to whether China now recognizes the Taliban administration in Kabul. But, he said, “China believes that Afghanistan should not be excluded from the international community”, adding that it was normal diplomatic protocol for China to receive and accredit an Ambassador from the interim Afghan government. Wang said China hoped the international community “will step up engagement and exchanges with the Afghan interim government, encourage it to actively respond to international concerns, jointly help with Afghanistan’s reconstruction, development and support Afghans’ efforts to combat violent terrorist forces and contribute to regional peace, stability, and prosperity”. Wang continued, “China’s policy on Afghanistan is consistent and clear. As a traditionally friendly neighbor, China has maintained diplomatic ties, exchanges and cooperation in various areas with Afghanistan”.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s chief spokesperson, said on 30 January on X that “China has understood what the rest of the world has not. We are not in a unipolar world”. Mujahid called on Russia, Iran and other countries to take similar steps and upgrade diplomatic relations with Kabul. The new Afghan Ambassador, Bilal Karimi, told Al Jazeera Net that “This is a good step in the framework of relations with China, and is in the interest of both countries. We must exploit the current circumstance to develop our country, which has been exhausted by war, and I strive with all my might to be a bridge between the two countries, and China is an important country in the region and everyone cares. Relations with it and this step will open the way to other countries soon”.

A source in the Afghan Foreign Ministry was quoted by Al Jazeera Net as saying, “We told the Chinese authorities a year ago that we were ready to send an Afghan Ambassador, and we did not feel during our dealings with the Chinese that we were an unrecognized country, and they were dealing with us as an official country. I believe that the rest of the countries will choose this path, and that things will change”.

Matthew Miller, spokesperson for the US State Department, said whether Beijing has officially recognized the Taliban regime is for Chinese officials to clarify. He added, “I have seen some comments from them to the contrary”. For the US, Miller said, the Taliban’s relationship with the international community depends on their actions. Omar Samad, a former Afghan Ambassador, believes that “China may be getting ready to break ranks and take the final technical step either within the UN system or outside of it through a bilateral initiative”. Javid Ahmad, Afghan Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) under the former Afghan government, called the Chinese move an act of recognition. He said, “The signal is unmistakable, as no Head of State would accept Ambassadorial credentials unless they recognize the government. In this instance, the Chinese leadership is treating the Taliban envoy in the same manner as other Ambassadors, a clear indication of recognition”.

Karimi, who was sent to Beijing by the Taliban regime late last year, had met Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, in December 2023. China has repeatedly declared that it respects Afghanistan’s national sovereignty and its choices. Additionally, it has declared that it does not meddle in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs. It had nominated a full-time Ambassador to Kabul in September last year, who gave Taliban Prime Minister Mullah Hassan Akhund his diplomatic credentials. By doing this, China became the first nation to designate a permanent Ambassador to Afghanistan following the fall of Kabul in August 2021. In return, contracts for mining are already managed by China in Afghanistan. China has also indicated that it is prepared to expand the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) into Afghanistan and make significant investments there. Further, a source in the Afghan Foreign Ministry told Al Jazeera Net that “After we came to power, the Chinese authorities submitted reports about the presence of Uighur militants, and after a while we became certain of the accuracy of the reports, and we learned that a third country had tried to influence China’s position on the new government, but we proved to China that we are obligated not to use the lands. Afghanistan is against them, and they realize that”.

Despite this, China had last year asserted that prior to establishment of complete diplomatic relations, the Afghan Taliban must undergo reform. Beijing had stated that in order to obtain full diplomatic recognition, the government would need to enact political changes, enhance security, and repair ties with its neighbors. Additionally, it had stated that while Afghanistan shouldn’t be kept out of the international community, the Taliban needed to live up to the expectations of the outside world.

While China's acceptance of Karimi’s credentials marks a significant step, it remains an isolated one. No other major nation has recognized the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and the UN has repeatedly denied their requests for representation at the world body. The UN has refused to grant the Afghan seat to Taliban representative Suhail Shaheen. Since reclaiming power in August 2021, the Taliban have steadily established control over many Afghan diplomatic missions, primarily in neighboring countries. The group now oversees Embassies in at least 14 countries, including Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Some countries, including Russia, China and Iran, have maintained their Embassies in Kabul. Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in New York that Moscow had not recognized the Taliban regime because of political and human rights considerations. Lavrov said, “We, as the rest of the UN members, do not officially recognize the Taliban”.

Just weeks prior to the Chinese acceptance of Karimi’s credentials, Roza Otunbayeva, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, addressing members of the UN Security Council on 20 December, called for more frequent and direct engagements with de facto Taliban authorities both inside and outside Afghanistan to address the country’s challenging relations with the international community. Otunbayeva opined that engagement does not equate to legitimizing Taliban rule, and that “It can be used to express disapproval yet encourage change”. She informed that the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has had “successful interactions” with Taliban authorities on several issues, including counternarcotics and human rights. Otunbayeva said compromises will be required from all sides to help Afghanistan return to the international arena. Last month, the UN Security Council authorized the Secretary-General to appoint a Special Envoy for Afghanistan to facilitate coordinated international engagement with de facto Taliban authorities. Taliban officials, however, have objected to the appointment of the new envoy, saying the UN should stop treating Afghanistan as an anomaly within the international community.

Shinkai Karokhil, a former Afghan diplomat and member of the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of Afghanistan’s parliament, believes that China’s ties with the Taliban could spark a regional rivalry. Karokhil said, “Russia might be the next (to normalize relations with the Taliban), since it considers Afghanistan as part of its influence”. Regional countries, including Pakistan and India, would also be “concerned” about China-Taliban ties. Ashok Swain, a professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University in Sweden, believes that India does “not want to fall behind” China is gaining influence in Afghanistan. He said India would “possibly find some ways of reestablishing contacts with Afghanistan”. Sami Yousufzai, a London-based Afghan journalist, told VOA that China is a “major” power, and “it looks like other countries would also improve their relations with the Taliban”.

Reflecting the growing confidence of the Taliban regime, it hosted on 30 January its first international meeting since returning to power in Kabul, saying it was aimed at promoting economic connectivity and cooperation with regional countries on “common challenges”. Special Representatives and Ambassadors from neighboring and regional countries, including China, Russia and Iran, attended the gathering in the Afghan capital under the title ‘Afghanistan Regional Cooperation Initiative’. Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told the inaugural session that “regional security remains of grave importance” for his government. Muttaqi explained that the meeting had been convened to develop a “region-centric narrative” to enhance cooperation “for a positive and constructive engagement between Afghanistan and regional countries to tackle existing and potential threats”. Muttaqi added, “I would like to take this opportunity to put across to you a clear message: The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan respects others’ interests, choices, government structures, and development models and, in return, expects others to respect Afghanistan’s interests and government and development choices and models. Therefore, our choices shall be respected. Instead of proposing governance models and pointing fingers at the (Afghan ruling) system, it is better to engage in mutual interests”.

Muttaqi urged delegates to convey the “ground realities of today’s Afghanistan” to the UN meeting scheduled for next month in Qatar in hopes of fostering a “constructive engagement” and “acceptable approach” for his country. The two-day conference in Qatar’s capital, Doha, will open on 18 February. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will convene the meeting with member States, regional organizations, and special Afghanistan representatives. “The objective of the meeting is to discuss how to approach increasing international engagement in a coherent, coordinated, and structured manner, including through consideration of the recommendations of the independent assessment on Afghanistan”, said Guterres’ spokesman Stephane Dujarric while speaking to reporters in New York last week.

Rambabu Chellappa, the head of India's technical team in Kabul, represented the country at the Taliban’s regional meeting. Emphasising New Delhi's role in fostering regional stability, he said, “India actively takes part in international and regional initiatives regarding Afghanistan, and supports every effort leading to the stability and the development of Afghanistan”.

The Chinese move of accrediting the Taliban’s Ambassador will certainly put pressure on New Delhi to respond with an equally bold and significant step, one that conveys how serious it is on Afghanistan.