Imagine you turn on the news to the spokesperson of the latest newly-formed government in the world. As he lays out their foreign policy agenda, the spokesperson has this to say: “China is our most important partner, representing a fundamental and extraordinary opportunity for us.”
So far, so humdrum. But this is not just any other new regime talking about a partnership shared by the entire developing region of the world.
These words are from the Taliban spokesman Zabihulla Mujahid. And the partnership gleefully referred to is not with a fellow Islamic country, but one with credible accusations of massive and pervasive persecutions of its own small Muslim population that includes mass incarceration, displacement and forceful ‘re-education.’
So, if a self-confessed poster child for a deeply indoctrinated Islamic republic is now best friends with a burgeoning superpower that has committed ‘cultural genocide’ against Muslims, what does it say about the state of other Islamic regimes? And more importantly, how does Bangladesh shape a foreign policy to engage with an Islamic state that doesn’t really seem to care much for Muslims of a different cloth?
The answer is quite clear: we need to stop seeing the Taliban as brand ambassadors for draconian Islam, and more of a representative for regimes that want to cling on to power with whatever means they have access to. In short, sustainability trumps ideology for the Taliban, something very familiar to the once touted poster child for communism.
The Taliban’s relationship with China is akin to what so many other countries far different from the Taliban have already experienced: from a spectrum ranging from ‘calculated’ indifference to strategic involvement, China offers Afghanistan exactly what a resource-poor, civil war-torn country with a deeply controversial regime in power needs right now: money with no strings attached.
Honestly, the Taliban certainly did not start Afghanistan’s love affair with Chinese funds and ‘look the other way’ approach when it comes to human rights. Since its establishment in 2014, the National Unity Government (NUG) led by now-deposed president Ashraf Ghani has long been pushing for a stronger Chinese role in Afghan economic growth, especially in infrastructure. Just as importantly, Ghani wanted to wield the ‘China card’ as leverage against Pakistan.
Contemporary Afghanistan engagement is no different from what started decades ago. Videos posted by the Taliban government are as much about building ravaged roads, reconstructing bombed bridges and infrastructure, and establishing phone and internet lines, as they are about making sure universities are adhering to same-sex classes only. While the world watches and decides whether to even communicate with the Taliban, Chinese power companies have already submitted multiple bids to help rebuild Afghanistan.
Thus, as far as China is concerned, the chronic instability that has pervaded Afghanistan for decades will definitely play to its advantage of both expanding its markets for Chinese goods and establishing its burgeoning ambition of regional connectivity to fuel and sustain the kind of economic growth needed to fuel its global hegemon candidacy.
As India, the US and Bangladesh baulk at engaging with the Taliban, China leads in cementing a relationship that has had decades-long roots. Their engagement with the Taliban is a golden opportunity to fill the void left behind in the region by the US and flex its muscles not only economically, but in terms of ‘soft power’ and establish a cultural ascendancy. Getting into bed with a strict Islamic government conjures strong imagery against the kind of opprobrium it draws for its domestic anti-Muslim actions. Sino-Afghanistan relations are a win-win for both, from every aspect of the relationship.
For a Muslim majority country like Bangladesh, where thousands celebrated Afghanistan’s ‘independence’ and not just with social media statuses but actually with their feet by travelling to Afghanistan, the Sino-Afghanistan relationship has a strong message. Bangladeshi security agencies are rightly worried that many extremists have left for Kabul to help the Taliban. Counter-terrorism units in Dhaka had arrested at least four suspected terrorists who wanted to be trained by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Concerns about terrorism are of course concrete and real, at least in the short term. But with time, the ideological cloak worn by the Taliban will gradually peel away to that of the robes worn by mercantilism and pragmatism.
Consider the role played by the Middle East by the Bangladesh government. Long seen as a purveyor of puritanical Islam and not just an importer of cheap Bangladeshi labour, countries like Saudi Arabia have changed course since 9/11 and the realization that oil stocks are much more finite and the world is slowly weaning itself off from its biggest source of funds.
Bangladesh too is no longer the poor developing country, and for the Saudis to have any kind of influence to wield over the hearts and minds of 160 million Sunnis, they need to see Bangladesh as a business partner, and not just export Wahabi ideology. If the Saudis can shed their ideological skin, why not Afghanistan.
The Sino-Afghanistan relationship offers a lens through which the world can view the role of the Afghan Taliban. It is true that for a country like Bangladesh, the Taliban will imbue extremism in a certain quarter of our population. This should not be treated lightly. Nor should their poor human rights record, especially against women and minorities, should be somehow brushed under the carpet.
Any kind of leverage that we have to make the lives of Afghani women and minorities better and safer should be used. But to ossify the Taliban as an extremist outfit with no understanding of global politics, or the economic needs of their own country will be to ignore the evidence right in front of us. If a puritanical regime guided by Shariah law can also morph into behaving like any other newly formed regime guided by mercantilism and pure survival instincts, and be wooed not with divine blessings but with cold, hard cash, our interactions with them too should be multifaceted and protean.