China and the US could work together to support the Taliban and deter extremism in the militant group but differences over Xinjiang are a stumbling block, according to Chinese observers.
The Taliban took over the Afghan capital Kabul two weeks ago but is confronting an economic crisis that could spiral into a humanitarian disaster as international donors cut off foreign aid – a key contributor to the economy.
The International Monetary Fund has blocked over US$370 million in assistance due to “a lack of clarity within the international community” over the recognition of the Taliban regime and the United States has frozen around US$7 billion of Afghanistan’s reserves.
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Zhu Yongbiao, a professor of international relations at Lanzhou University, said the US and China could work together to stop pessimism within the Taliban about integrating into the international community descending into extremism.
“To achieve such a goal, China and the US should help Afghanistan based on conditions on the ground, and shouldn’t seek to impose harsh sanctions on the Taliban blindly according to the Western standards,” Zhu said.
“We should look more at whether the Taliban is truly willing to change.”
He added that a prerequisite for China and the US to help the Taliban cut ties with terror groups was the US changing its attitude towards the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
Beijing blames ETIM for terror attacks in Xinjiang, an area in far western China that borders Afghanistan.
The group was founded by Uygur jihadists in 1993 and designated a foreign terrorist organisation by the US in 2002.
But late last year, it was taken off the US list in response to alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
China protested against the decision and has called on the US to change its mind, saying it would help remove obstacles to cooperation between China and the US in Afghanistan and in the global fight against terror.
China has repeatedly accused the US of “double standards” on terrorism, a message underlined in a call between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday
But the US and China had started talking about Afghanistan, and dialogue was better than confrontation, Wang was quoted by the Chinese foreign ministry as saying.
With a series of deadly suicide bombings in Kabul in recent days, it was necessary for all parties to engage and actively guide the Taliban, Wang said, adding that the US should give economic and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.
It hosted a delegation from the Taliban in late July, describing the group as an important political force in the nation.
Beijing has also spoken out against sanctions on Afghanistan, saying further pressure would not ease the crisis. But it has stopped short of endorsing the Taliban as the country’s legitimate government.
Gu Dingguo, a research fellow at East China Normal University specialising in studies of China’s neighbours, said China would continue to oppose the US position on ETIM and Xinjiang but there was potential for cooperation.
“China can agree to work with the US to provide humanitarian and economic assistance to Afghanistan, but China believes the US is the reason for the chaos, and needs to bear most of such assistance,” Gu said.
Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said the US-China strategic competition meant cooperation on issues such as infrastructure projects to rebuild Afghanistan was off limits but it was possible for the two nations to coordinate on anti-terrorism.
“If Afghanistan becomes a haven of international terrorism once again, it is likely that the US and China would open a channel of communication,” Kondapalli said.
“The cooperation would be what they did post-911 – intelligence-sharing, and in this case helping regional states coming together to counter [Islamic State] and [Isis-K].”
Additional reporting by Eduardo Baptista
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