With the United States withdrawing and the Taliban having swept to control of about half of Afghanistan, few observers give the Afghan government much chance of survival.
September may be a decisive month, when the withdrawal is complete and American air operations against Taliban positions end.
That is the background to Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s unusually high-level reception to a delegation of Taliban leaders in Tianjin, in the same room where he met American Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman just days earlier.
Two things set the talks apart. Beijing maintains diplomatic relations with the beleaguered Afghan administration and the Taliban lack formal recognition. In keeping with its policy of non-interference in another country’s affairs, Beijing seldom engages openly with an opposition ahead of a change of government.
The exception in this case reflects China’s high stake in Afghanistan’s stability. The reception recognised the Taliban as a legitimate political force and the reality that it was likely to be in total control and able to form a government sooner rather than later.
Geopolitically, Afghanistan occupies a pivotal strategic location. Its stability is critical to central Asian stability. Most importantly, Afghanistan shares a long border with the restive western Chinese region of Xinjiang.
Many radical fighters of the Uygur Muslim minority use Afghanistan as a base. Beijing does not want to repeat the mistakes of the former Soviet Union and the US of intervening in Afghan affairs.
Its strategy is to convince whoever holds power that it has no intention of doing so and that it is in their own interests to work with China. As a condition of its support, China wants the Taliban to cut any ties with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a radical Uygur independence group, and is making it clear it will not tolerate any use of Afghanistan as a base for action against China.
Engagement with the Taliban now, from China’s point of view, is pragmatic diplomacy aimed at securing stability amid a US withdrawal. The US pull-out is in return for a commitment by the militants not to allow al-Qaeda or any other extremists to operate in the areas they control. It is of paramount importance to China that they uphold it.