World

Jacinda Ardern opts to go hard and early in New Zealand against the Delta variant. Malaysia’s prime minister resigns as country struggles with Covid-19. Woman tells of her imprisonment by Chinese officials in Dubai. By Jonathan Pearlman.

China and Russia foster ties with the Taliban

An Afghan child walks near discarded military uniforms at Kabul airport this week.
Credit: Wakil Kohsar / AFP

Great power rivalry

Afghanistan: Late last month, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a senior Taliban leader, visited the Chinese city of Tianjin to meet with China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi. At the time, the Taliban had no formal role in governing Afghanistan, yet Beijing released photographs of the meeting and affirmed its commitment to “non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs”.

This week, as Western nations rushed to evacuate their embassies from Kabul, the Chinese embassy stood firm. A Chinese spokesperson said Beijing wanted to develop “friendly and co-operative” ties with the Taliban.

“China respects the Afghan people’s right to decide on their own future independently,” the spokesperson said.

As the United States ended its longest war in devastating defeat, other nations – mainly US rivals – were poised to gain from the transfer of power in a fractured nation that has become known as “the graveyard of empires”.

China, which shares a narrow border with Afghanistan, is hoping to develop resources and infrastructure there and to involve Afghan projects in its globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, including a road that will connect China with Pakistan and central Asia. But Beijing is concerned the Taliban will support and protect militants who may try to conduct attacks in China’s Xinjiang region.

The Chinese spokesperson said this week that it had received assurances the Taliban “will never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China”.

Russia, too, has developed ties with the Taliban and last month hosted a Taliban delegation in Moscow. Like China, Russia sought assurances the Taliban would not allow Afghanistan to be a staging ground for attacks in neighbouring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which are former Soviet territories.

The Taliban previously supported Chechen separatists and is officially designated a terrorist organisation by Russia. But, as the US-backed Afghan government weakened, Russia began building ties with the Taliban, both to combat American influence and to expand its reach in a region that President Vladimir Putin views as Russia’s backyard.

Pakistan also stands to gain from the Taliban’s return to power, which led to the flight of the Afghan prime minister Ashraf Ghani, who was seen as close to India. On Monday, Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, welcomed the Taliban victory, declaring that Afghanistan had broken the “shackles of slavery”. But the Taliban’s return could strengthen Pakistani extremists, including the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban, which has claimed responsibility for multiple terrorist attacks in Pakistan, including a school massacre in 2014 that killed 134 students and 16 others.

The Taliban takeover this week was swift, and its long-term regional effects remain unclear. China, Russia and Pakistan have reason to be wary, but all publicly pointed to the US defeat as a demonstration of the dangers of trying to spread democracy abroad.

On Monday, Wang Yi spoke with his American counterpart, Antony Blinken, to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. According to the Chinese media’s account, Wang told Blinken that the US withdrawal had demonstrated that interventions to impose political models on countries with different cultures do not work.

“The lessons of this deserve serious reflection,” he said.

The neighbourhood

New Zealand: On Tuesday, Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, made global headlines when she locked down the entire nation after the discovery of a single case of Covid-19, the first local transmission in six months.

“New Zealand announces it’s locking down the entire country ... over one Covid case,” reported CNN.

But, within 24 hours, the outbreak had grown to seven cases, including a teacher and hospital worker. All cases involved the Delta strain. The original infection involved a 58-year-old man in Auckland with no links to quarantine facilities. Genome sequencing showed his infection was linked to the current outbreak in New South Wales.

The initial three-day nationwide lockdown involved the closure of schools and businesses and mandatory indoor masks. New Zealand has avoided serious Covid-19 outbreaks, but its vaccination rollout has been slow. As of Tuesday, 23 per cent of eligible residents were fully vaccinated.

Ardern said New Zealand had been one of the world’s last countries to experience a Delta outbreak and had learnt to go “hard and early”.

“We’ve seen the dire consequences of taking too long to act in other countries, not least our neighbours,” she said.

Democracy in retreat

Malaysia: Muhyiddin Yassin, Malaysia’s prime minister, resigned this week, leaving the country in political turmoil as it faces a devastating Covid-19 outbreak.

Muhyiddin will remain as caretaker prime minister after King Al-Sultan Abdullah decided that an election should not be held due to the pandemic. Malaysia, which has about 34 million residents, successfully handled Covid-19 last year but a worsening outbreak has overwhelmed its health system. In the past 28 days to Sunday, almost 500,000 cases and 5636 deaths were recorded. About 44 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated.

The collapse of Muhyiddin’s government came after the resignation last year of Mahathir Mohamad, whose government lasted less than two years. This revolving leadership marks a new era for Malaysia, which was governed by the United Malays National Organisation party from 1957 until 2018, when Mahathir, who had quit the party, made a political comeback as head of a new coalition.

Muhyiddin Yassin blamed the collapse of his coalition on his refusal to drop corruption charges against powerful figures. But his support fell away largely due to his poor handling of the health and economic crisis as well as the current fractious state of Malaysian politics.

The king, who appointed Muhyiddin, is now due to appoint his successor, who will serve as leader until the next election in two years. Mahathir has proposed instead handing power to a ruling council that would include political leaders and Covid-19 experts.

Spotlight: China’s ‘secret jail’

United Arab Emirates: In 2019, Wu Huan, a 26-year-old Chinese woman, fled China with her fiancé Wang Jingyu, a 19-year-old student who was wanted over his online comments about the Hong Kong protests and China’s border clashes with India.

While in transit in Dubai in April, Wang was arrested by local police and detained for several weeks. He said he was repeatedly questioned by Chinese officials before being freed.

This week, Wu claimed to have experienced a separate ordeal in Dubai. She said she had travelled there to assist Wang but was abducted from a hotel by Chinese officials and held for eight days at a villa that was converted into a jail. She told Associated Press that she was detained along with two Uygur prisoners. Associated Press said its reporters had seen evidence such as a phone-recording of a Chinese official asking her questions and text messages that she sent from the jail.

China and Dubai this week denied the report.

In recent years, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have all reportedly assisted with the detention of Uygurs who were then deported to China. Human rights groups say as many as two million Uyghurs and other members of minorities in China have been held in detention centres in Xinjiang.

Wang and Wu are now in the Netherlands, where they are seeking asylum.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 21, 2021 as "China and Russia foster ties with the Taliban".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.