Xi and Putin pledge to co-operate on Afghanistan after Taliban takeover

Asia updates

China’s leader Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, on Friday pledged to join forces in an effort to prevent violence and instability spilling over Afghanistan’s borders into the wider region.

Speaking via video link at a joint regional security forum in Dushanbe, the Tajikistan capital, the two leaders announced plans to share intelligence and hold regular talks on Afghanistan following its takeover last month by the Taliban.

Putin also signalled a softening of Moscow’s rhetoric on the Taliban, calling for regional leaders to align their positions on potentially recognising the Islamist regime in Kabul.

The event marks the first ever joint meeting on Afghanistan of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation — a Eurasian political and security forum, of which Russia is also a member — and the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance of some former Soviet states in the region.

The joint event was a measure of Beijing and Moscow’s concern about the potential for instability in Central Asia, a region where the two countries have vied for dominance since the collapse of the Soviet Union, analysts said, adding that the participation of the two leaders sent a signal about the balance of power in the region.

“Members of the SCO and CSTO are all neighbours of Afghanistan, it is a community with shared stakes and shared security,” Xi told the summit. “At this critical juncture it is essential to play together and jointly uphold peace and stability. I hope these proposals would contribute to the goals of achieving common shared security in our region.”

Putin echoed Xi’s call for all regional capitals to increase their co-operation and for the SCO’s regional intelligence network to share information on terrorist organisations. He suggested the SCO mandate should also be expanded to control weapons and organised crime.

“Today’s discussion shows how important it is to join the efforts of the two organisations with the aim of ensuring security and stability in the Eurasian space,” Putin said. “This is particularly poignant given the sharpening of an already turbulent situation in Afghanistan.”

Indicating a shift in Moscow’s stance on potentially granting recognition to the Taliban government, Putin said that while the regime could “hardly be called efficient”, other nations would have to work with it. “As for recognition, we have to align our positions and build a dialogue.”

The Islamist group swept into Kabul in August and retook power 20 years after being ousted by a US-led coalition in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the US.

Russia’s leader praised the group for coming to power “without bloodshed” and called for the international community to consider gradually unfreezing Afghanistan’s assets and resuming Kabul’s programmes with the World Bank and IMF to fend off its further economic collapse.

“Lacking funds in Afghanistan’s treasury may push those in control of the country to earn by trading drugs and arms,” he warned. “The arms the American left behind costs billions of dollars.”

The CSTO includes Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Armenia as well as Russia, while the SCO is composed of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It has also begun the process of admitting Iran. Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have also joined as discussion partners as the organisation moves to expand.

Since Central Asian nations gained independence from the Soviet Union, Moscow and Beijing have competed for hegemony in the region, analysts say.

Moscow is expected to use fear of the Taliban to increase its leverage over Afghanistan’s neighbours through military ties, analysts say. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have conducted military exercises with Russia in recent weeks and have reinforced security at their borders.

China, meanwhile, will seek to expand its economic presence, said Oybek Shaykhov, secretary-general of Europe-Uzbekistan Association for Economic Co-operation in Brussels.

Beijing has expressed interest in Afghanistan’s copper and lithium reserves and sees the country as a missing piece in its Belt and Road Initiative. China has also said it will provide $31m of economic aid to the Islamist regime — which in turn has called China its “main partner”.

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