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China’s recognition of the Taliban sets a dangerous precedent

Posted By on February 7, 2024 @ 12:04

On 30 January, 2024, President Xi Jinping provided further evidence that China formally recognises the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan [1]. This sets a dangerous international precedent and is a morally moribund approach to international relations which puts selfish resource security concerns firmly ahead of human rights and global wellbeing as China’s primary philosophical approach to international affairs.

This event is representative of the fundamental reason strategic competition with China is so important. When distilled to its purist form, it is a protracted attritional duel between liberal democracy and authoritarian socialism that is quickly devolving into a slap fight [2]. China’s recognition of the Taliban is its latest and most outrageous slap to the face of democracy.

Prior to the Taliban’s resurgence, China maintained a cooperative relationship with the Afghan government, which included security collaboration against Uyghur militants. Following the Taliban’s takeover, China initiated engagement with the new regime [3], aiming to prevent terrorism from affecting its regional interests and to secure its investments, including those related to the Belt and Road Initiative.

The ethical dimensions of China’s interactions with the Taliban are seemingly complex, even on the surface. On one hand, China’s engagement is driven by security concerns and economic interests, particularly in mining [4] and infrastructure. On the other hand, the Taliban’s lack of international recognition and domestic legitimacy raises questions about the long-term viability of these agreements [5].

China’s promise of economic and development support to the Taliban, in exchange for security assurances, reflects a strategic approach that prioritises resource stability and the suppression of Uyghur militancy. This is consistent with the broader narrative that China’s rise should not be feared, rather it should be welcomed as a blessing for global development and prosperity. In this regard, China’s policy towards Afghanistan could be described as clear and consistent with its approach to any country, emphasising non-interference and respect for sovereignty.

However, the practical aspects of its engagement with the Taliban present a moral quandary that is an affront to the global norms for free societies. The Taliban’s abuses of human rights are well recorded [6]. Their suppression of women and girls, assault on freedom of speech, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture neatly reflect the same accusations levelled against China [7].  Perhaps, then, it makes sense that China has added the Taliban to its collection of thugs, villains, and reprobates which are considered its closest allies [8].

I feel fortunate to come from an imperfect society where egalitarianism sometimes slips into tall poppy syndrome [9]. I now live in the heart of one of the world’s most problematic democracies, which is the one with the most wonderful aspirations. Both of these liberal democracies fundamentally embody the principles of individual rights, rule of law, democratic governance, separation of powers, societal pluralism, minority rights protection, and a vibrant civil society. If I do not like the way the current government is implementing my preferred version of democracy, I have the opportunity to change the dynamic through voting, peacefully mobilising and protesting, or even getting involved in the mechanisms of bureaucracy.  I have done all these things, spending 27 years serving a government that I was sometimes protesting against. I did not end up in jail, sanctioned, or in any way disadvantaged—quite the opposite. This is the superiority of liberal democratic ideals.

President Xi receiving the credentials of the Taliban Ambassador to Beijing could, perhaps, be perceived as an arcane diplomatic tradition. The reality, however, is that in doing so the Chinese government has provided tacit recognition of the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan. This has dreadful implications for the women, children, resistance fighters, and civil society activists who have all been brave enough to stay or unable to leave and who should all be afforded the same freedoms as me. It also sets the preconditions for the Chinese to pull levers of influence to broaden official recognition; levers established through debt dependencies that compromise the sovereign decision-making capacity of beholden nations. It is an anathema to how democracies want to act domestically and internationally.

There is an additional, not-so-hidden subtext at this stage of the slap fight between liberal democracy and autocratic socialism. China has taken a clumsy swing at the face of every country that tried and failed to bring sustainable democracy to Afghanistan for 20 years, and who dramatically left in ignominy just over two years ago. Sadly, it has landed as a low blow that could have dangerous consequences.


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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/chinas-recognition-of-the-taliban-sets-a-dangerous-precedent/

URLs in this post:

[1] formally recognises the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan: https://www.voanews.com/a/china-s-president-receives-afghan-ambassador-taliban-seek-recognition-from-russia-iran-/7463837.html

[2] slap fight: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/06/sports/power-slap-league-dana-white.html

[3] engagement with the new regime: https://www.voanews.com/a/security-concerns-bring-china-closer-to-taliban-/6697339.html

[4] mining: https://8am.media/eng/chinas-unique-relationship-with-the-taliban-a-focus-on-mining-ventures/

[5] long-term viability of these agreements: https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2023/2/27/will-chinas-latest-investment-in-afghanistan-actually-work

[6] well recorded: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2024/country-chapters/afghanistan

[7] China: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2024/country-chapters/china

[8] closest allies: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2021-11-15/chinas-search-allies

[9] tall poppy syndrome: https://doi.org/10.1075/eww.25.1.02pee

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