After the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, the September 16 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was set up for high-profile coverage. The SCO has long been viewed by many observers as a balancing tool of Russia and China to counter American engagement in Central Asia. After the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and a swift takeover of the country by the Taliban forces, it was apparent that these developments will dominate the conversations in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
Initially founded as the Shanghai Five in 1996, the SCO set the framework for strategic cooperation on security matters between Russia, China, and Central Asian republics. Although the SCO was often viewed as a Sino-Russian attempt to resist American activism in Central Asia, the SCO became something substantial in itself. The SCO became a somewhat effective regional discussion forum to promote confidence and healthy relationships amongst its member-states. SCO member-states worked on attenuating historical border tensions and establishing procedural mechanisms of cooperation, but most importantly they were advancing common narratives on the war against the three evils of terrorism, separatism, and extremism.
The presence of both Russia and China in the SCO emerged as a convenient solution for Central Asia’s leadership as well. Accommodating the ambitions of Moscow and Beijing preserved the domestic status quos of Central Asian states, and provided some confidence that Russia and China were willing to share the burden of security risks in the region – even though neither Russia nor China were committed to getting directly involved in the security matters of Central Asia.
That said, the summit began under historic pretenses that reflected the current position of the SCO towards Afghanistan – lacking in a clear and unified vision. Tajikistan, which shares a 1,400 km border with Afghanistan, has sent stern messages that they will not recognize Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule. Tajiks are also the second largest ethnic group residing in Afghanistan. In contrast, Kyrgyzstan has sent its top high-ranking officials to Kabul to meet the Taliban’s foreign minister. The deputy head of the National Security Council of Kyrgyzstan even brought humanitarian aid and ceremonially handed it over to the Taliban’s first deputy prime minister.
The physical absence of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping from the summit only further complicated observers’ understanding of the SCO’s stance towards the Taliban. It is highly unlikely that Xi Jinping downgraded the importance of the SCO to miss out on its 20th anniversary, especially in the light of its relevance now. Xi Jinping has not been seen travelling abroad since January 2020, and his absence from the summit may be simply in line with his travel precautions. Putin may have simply followed suit, as the Russian president is also particularly cautious about personal contact since the COVID-19 outbreak.
Nonetheless, for external observers the absence of two key leaders embodied a growing dilemma for the Eurasian security bloc: whether to recognize the Taliban or not. Even prior to the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, both Russia and China have been courting the Taliban. The Kremlin has long promoted itself as a peacemaker in Afghanistan by openly hosting the Taliban delegations in Russia, despite classifying them on Russia's list of terrorists and banned organizations since 2003.
China has also sought out the role of mediator in Afghanistan in a similar, but more behind-the-scenes way. It has been long assumed that Beijing established and maintained links with the Taliban. The events of 9/11 forced Beijing to distance itself from the Taliban and Afghanistan. However, prior to those events, there were some contested reports that China signed a memorandum of understanding on economic and technical cooperation with the Taliban in Kabul in 2001. At the moment, it is practically impossible to verify whether China was willing to buy peace with the Taliban through economic initiatives, but it is still apparent that China had vested interests in the stability of the region due to its simmering problem in Xinjiang.
In fact, such security concerns are part of the reasoning for Xi Jinping’s concern for Central Asia. In public discourse Afghanistan is made out to be one of the greatest sources of regional instability. Thus, there were fears in Beijing that Central Asia would serve as fertile ground to instigate instability in Xinjiang, even though there’s little evidence that Central Asians within extremist organizations were sympathetic to the Uighur militant struggle against Beijing.
Both Russia and China are facing an important juncture in their approach to the situation in Afghanistan, although there are hints that both leaderships are exploring the possibility of lending some sort of legitimacy to the Taliban. As Afghanistan was falling to the Taliban, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with the Taliban delegation in Tianjin. Wang Yi stressed that the Taliban “is an important military and political force in Afghanistan and is expected to play an important role in the country's peace, reconciliation and reconstruction process,” if it builds “an open, inclusive Islamic government.” In a similar vein, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly confirmed that international recognition of the Taliban is not under consideration, it is highly unlikely that Kyrgyzstan would have sent its high-ranking officials to Kabul without the endorsement of Moscow.
Meanwhile, Central Asian states remain on high alert about the possibility of security spillover effects, including the potential influx of refugees. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted this week that the Taliban has sent thousands of fighters to its borders with Tajikistan near the Afghan province of Takhar, while the acting deputy head of the Taliban government Abdul Ghani Baradar warned Tajikistan in an interview to Al Jazeera, “[If] Tajikistan interferes in our affairs, for every action, there is a reaction." These statements go against the Taliban’s reassurance that it poses no threat to the Central Asian states. Thus, it is an open question whether China genuinely views the Taliban as an actor to work with.