China has supplied weapons and logistical support to the Taliban for decades, and American presidents have ignored Beijing’s ties to the group, even when those weapons were used against American and NATO forces.
China’s embassy in Kabul has remained open in recent days, a sign Beijing worked out an arrangement with the Taliban during the swift failure of the Afghan government.
Senior figures from the terror-harboring group, including co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar, met with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in the Chinese city of Tianjin on July 28. American intelligence officials believe Beijing will recognize the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan soon.
China’s ties with the Taliban go back before 9/11. According to U.S. intelligence officials speaking without attribution to the Washington Times, Huawei Technologies and Zhongxing Telecom, also known as ZTE, were working on the telecom system in Kabul for two years prior to that horrific event.
On Sept. 18, 2001, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said, "China does not have any kind of formal relations with the Taliban." Beijing’s ties with the group, he said, were on "the working level," and he labeled reports that China was building telecom networks and dams for the Taliban as "unfounded rumors."
Huawei, China’s "national champion" telecom-networking-gear manufacturer, had a deep relationship with the Taliban. Electronic Engineering Times reported in December 2001 that Indian intelligence officials believed Huawei India supplied communications surveillance equipment to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Huawei denied the charges, and a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said the allegations were "misleading."
BBC and other sources report that Beijing supplied the Taliban, even after Sept. 11, with surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft guns, landmines, rocket-propelled grenades and parts for roadside bombs as well as large-caliber sniper rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition. Some of these arms were shipped directly from China’s factories. Of particular concern was the Chinese shoulder-fired HN-5 antiaircraft missile. In short, China was a main supplier of small arms to the Taliban.
Even though some of the equipment was routed through intermediaries in Iran and Pakistan, central Chinese authorities had to know what was happening as these arms were made in its state factories. Moreover, Beijing then, as it does now, operated a near-total surveillance state.
Should the Taliban once again allow Afghanistan to be used as a staging ground for terrorist attacks, Washington will have to hold accountable not only the Taliban but also the Taliban’s big-power sponsors.
Chinese arms merchants were villains, but Americans and others allowed them to be villainous. A series of U.S. presidents – especially George W. Bush – looked the other way at China’s supply of weapons to the Taliban and insurgents in Iraq.
There was never any justification for purposefully looking in the wrong direction. American leaders and policymakers, however, did not see it that way. Then, Washington was hopeful that it could integrate China’s regime into the international system, that the Chinese party-state would become a "responsible stakeholder" as then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick expressed in a now-famous 2005 speech. Most everyone wanted to "engage" China and so remained patient.
After two decades of Chinese aggressive, malicious and provocative acts, that optimism is gone and tolerance is exhausted, not just in Washington but in capitals around the world. Now, no one can afford to overlook dangerous conduct.
Should the Taliban once again allow Afghanistan to be used as a staging ground for terrorist attacks, Washington will have to hold accountable not only the Taliban but also the Taliban’s big-power sponsors. That means, first and foremost, its most important backer, the People’s Republic of China.