As part of its ambitious South and West Asia policy, China appears to be taking tentative steps towards establishing formal diplomatic relations with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Last Wednesday, Beijing sent a new Ambassador Zhou Sheng to Afghanistan as a replacement to Wang Yu who had been there as Ambassador since 2019 when the anti-Taliban Ashraf Ghani government was still in place.

With the appointment of the new Ambassador, a statement issued by the Chinese embassy in Kabul said: “The international community should maintain its dialogue with Kabul and encourage it to put in place an inclusive political framework, adopt moderate policies, combat terrorism and develop friendly external relations…

“Certain countries need to draw lessons from what happened in Afghanistan, abandon double standards on combating terrorism, return the country’s overseas assets, and lift sanctions.”

On their part, the Taliban welcomed the new Ambassador and expressed the hope that it would be the harbinger of full recognition.

The Taliban regime has not been officially recognised by any foreign government, including China. Some countries (like India) have lower-rank diplomats (chargé d'affaires) posted in Kabul for limited purposes.

However, realising that the Taliban are entrenched in Kabul and that they will stubbornly stick to their antediluvian policies no matter what the world might do to pull them down, the intensely practical Chinese are seeking an accommodation with the Taliban.

It is part of their pragmatic policy of getting a footing in the geopolitically important and resource-rich Afghanistan.

Ahmad Nader Nadery, one of Afghanistan's former peace negotiators in the Doha talks, told ‘WION’ that China is eyeing Afghanistan’s rare earth minerals, iron, and copper. It has encouraged its private sector to seek permission for medium and large-size mines.

This should be a matter of interest or concern to the United States, the West and India. India has infrastructure projects and technical cooperation agreements with Afghanistan and needs to build on them to stay in the game.

New Delhi had announced a development assistance of Rs 200 crore (US $24.3 million) for Afghanistan in the 2023-24 budget. But unlike China, India is not seeking a wider role yet, having strong reservations about the Taliban’s political and cultural policies like the West.

As for the Taliban, it is eager to have relations with the rest of the world though it will not compromise on its domestic policies.

As China does not question these policies in the same way as liberal democracies do, Ambassador Zhou Sheng was warmly welcomed by the Afghan Prime Minister Mohammad Hasan Akhund. Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi described the arrival of the Ambassador as a “significant step with a significant message.”

Afghan officials said that the Chinese envoy’s arrival was a signal to other nations to establish relations with the Taliban regime.

“Other governments appointed charge d’affaires after the expiry of the terms of their ambassadors. However, China decided to nominate a new ambassador,” pointed out the Taliban spokesperson in Doha, Suhail Shaheen.

Opinion in the West appears to be also losing its rigidity on the Taliban regime. Well-regarded international relations journals like ‘Foreign Affairs’, ‘Foreign Policy’ and ‘Economist’ are debating the issue of interacting with the Taliban regime if not according it formal recognition.

In their piece in ‘Foreign Affairs’ entitled: ‘The world has no choice but to work with the Taliban’ (August 11, 2023) Graeme Smith and Ibraheem Bahiss say: “For the sake of millions of Afghans, regional actors as well as Western governments and institutions must work to establish more functional relationships with the Taliban.

“After spending several months in Afghanistan speaking to Taliban officials and the foreign dignitaries who negotiate with them, we concluded that, even though Afghanistan’s re-entry into the community of nations remains a distant prospect, there are substantial practical steps that the outside world can take in the service of peace, stability, and security.”

Smith and Bahiss further say: “Diplomats should move quickly to break the current paralysis. The situation reminded a Taliban Foreign Ministry staffer of an Afghan parable about a cow and its butchers: “The butchers disagree about how to carve up the animal. They bicker for so long that the cow dies of old age and nobody gets to eat!”

The ‘Economist’ submits that isolation has only strengthened the Taliban’s hard-liners.

In their paper ‘It’s time to recognize the Taliban’ in ‘Foreign Policy’ (May 23, 2023) Javid Ahmad, a former Afghan Ambassador, and Prof.Douglas London of Georgetown University who is a former CIA officer, called for a US diplomatic presence in Kabul.

“Establishing diplomatic relations might be perceived as a painful betrayal to many, but the alternative—allowing Afghanistan’s dangerous descent into a hermit kingdom and forsaking the insight and means to influence or shape events—would mean more dire consequences for all,” Ahmad and London said.

Taliban’s ironclad grip on the country is now an undeniable reality, despite being an uneasy coalition of religious zealots, political pragmatists, and unpredictable.

“The new rulers have cemented their power, while resisting most attempts at moderation,” Ahmad and London pointed out.

According to them, the Trump and Biden administrations have been working under the “disastrous assumption” that a reformed Taliban is possible. But the Taliban’s “powerful cartel of clerics has also only grown more resolute, leaving no room for dissent.

“Washington has only two viable choices: overthrow the Taliban, which didn’t end well the first time, or work with it. Unfortunately, accepting the status quo of non-recognition leaves Washington largely blind to developments and powerless to influence change, yet still deeply embroiled with short-term economic, political, and military affairs as the country’s top aid donor,” the authors pointed out.

They further said that the indifference of the West had resulted in Taliban’s Acting Foreign Minister, Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi, travelling to Pakistan to meet with his Pakistani and Chinese counterparts, “whose governments are moving forward with or without the international body on wholesale economic, political and security cooperation.”

In a recent op-ed for ‘Al Jazeera’, Foreign Minister Muttaqi said that the Taliban is willing to work with the US in return for lifting the sanctions. The Taliban believe in “dialogue and an exchange of ideas,” he said.

Ahmad points out that the West will have to accept the following reality: “The new rulers have proclaimed their Islamic Emirate their Dream Emirate, a God-given responsibility and a religiously validated right that has granted them legitimacy and that requires the strict enforcement of divine commandments.

“For them, this dream Emirate is not just a matter of political preference or word choice, but a deeply interwoven system of Islamic governance. It mirrors a contemporary form of the Islamic Caliphate, where authority is concentrated in the hands of a single ruler—the Emir.”

Within the Taliban, authority is vested in their hard-line Emir, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. Akhundzada’s grip on power is absolute. His decisions are viewed as infallible and unchallengeable. Furthermore, Akhundzada’s vision and authority are reinforced by Pakhtun tribalism and a search of a single Afghan identity considered necessary for restoring Afghanistan’s “self-respect.”

The advantage of this system for foreign negotiators is that it facilitates swift and decisive decision-making, ensures predictability and fosters stable relationships.

Ahmad and London contend that Western powers lack insight into the Taliban’s inner workings. This lacuna can be corrected only with a quality diplomatic presence on the ground in Kabul. They recommend an arrangement with the Taliban that will allow US physical presence in Afghanistan with security guarantees. In return, the US could ease sanctions.