By KATHY GANNON
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — China’s foreign minister made a surprise visit Thursday in Afghanistan’s capital, meeting with the country’s new Taliban rulers — even as the international community fumes over the former insurgents’ broken promise to reopen schools to girls beyond the sixth grade.
According to the official Bakhtar News Agency, Wang Yi was to meet with Taliban leaders “to discuss various issues, including the extension of political relations, economic, and transit cooperation.”
The Taliban, who seized power last August during the chaotic final weeks of the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces after 20 years of war, have been seeking international recognition in order to open up Afghanistan’s economy, which has been in free fall since their takeover.
Wang’s visit came as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, was also in Kabul. Kabulov also met with the Taliban-appointed foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, Taliban spokesman Qahar Balkhi said.
“The meeting focused on strengthening political, economic, transit and regional relations,” Balkhi tweeted.
Both Beijing and Moscow have become significant regional players, outdistancing the United States. Russia and China, which have both criticized the hasty U.S. departure from Afghanistan, worry that their enemies could find a safe haven under the Taliban rule.
Though neither has shown any inclination to officially recognize the Taliban government, both Moscow and Beijing have avoided criticizing the new rulers despite their repressive rules directed particularly at women, who are denied the right to work and full access to education.
On Wednesday, the Taliban unexpectedly reversed plans to reopen schools in Afghanistan to girls above the sixth grade, reneging on their promise in a move apparently meant to appease their hard-line base at the expense of further alienating the international community.
The U.S.-led coalition unseated the Taliban in 2001 after they refused to hand over al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America. The Taliban returned to power in mid-August and installed an all-male, Taliban-only administration. The international community has been urging them to open up the government to ethnic minorities and women.
Wang is one of the highest-level visitors to Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover. China has economic and mining interests in Afghanistan and Afghans familiar with past talks between the Taliban and Chinese officials say Beijing wants Taliban commitments to prevent China’s Uyghur opponents from setting up operations in Afghanistan.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin would not comment on Wang’s visit to Kabul, only saying that China was “stepping up preparations for the third meeting of foreign ministers of Afghanistan’s neighbors.”
China stands ready to “continue to contribute our strengths and advantages as a neighbor to the long-term stability of Afghanistan,” Wang told reporters at a daily briefing.
The issue of girls’ education wasn’t mentioned by Wang or in reports on the minister’s visit issued by the Foreign Ministry and official Xinhua News Agency.
“We expect the Afghan side to continue to build inclusive and prudent governance, better safeguard the rights and interests of women and children, and demonstrate the tolerance and friendliness of Muslims,” Wang was quoted as saying by the ministry.
China, which routinely opposes unilateral sanctions such as those imposed on the Taliban by the U.S. and others, is “willing to carry out mutually beneficial cooperation with Afghanistan in an orderly manner, under the premise of respecting Afghanistan’s sovereignty,” Wang said.
Xinhua quoted him saying that China “opposes forces outside the region to wantonly mount political pressure or impose economic sanctions on Afghanistan, and hopes the Afghan caretaker government will establish an inclusive political structure, implement prudent policies, and make active efforts to serve the interests of the Afghan people and meet the expectation of the international community, Wang said.
Last July, Wang hosted a senior Taliban delegation with their top leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, in the Chinese city of Tianjin. At that meeting, Wang sought assurances the Taliban would not allow anti-China groups to operate under their rule and referred to the Taliban as “a pivotal military and political force in Afghanistan.”
There have been reports that militants from among the Turkic Muslim Uyghur minority native to China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang have found shelter in Afghanistan. China has carried out a campaign of repression against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, including locking a million or more away in political re-education camps.
The overseas East Turkistan Islamic Movement has for years fought a low-level insurgency against Chinese rule. It has been aligned with the Islamic State group’s affiliate in Afghanistan — known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province — an enemy of the Taliban.
Despite consistent and documented reports of Beijing’s crackdown on Uyghurs, Wang was welcomed as a special guest in Pakistan earlier this week, at a summit of foreign ministers from the member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
At the summit, Wang called for negotiations to end the war in Ukraine. None of the OIC participants or host Pakistan, which has been particularly vocal about growing Islamophobia, mentioned China’s crackdown on its minority Muslims, including the destruction of mosques and punishment for those Uyghurs who participate in religious edicts.
China also has an interest in a stable Afghanistan as it has been used as a base for insurgent attacks against Chinese nationals in neighboring Pakistan. It also has a multi-billion dollar road project in Pakistan linking the Arabian Sea Port of Gwadar with China in the northwest.
Associated Press writer Tameem Akhgar in Islamabad contributed to this report.