As part of China’s global outreach program, its efforts to showcase interest and ability to mediate in conflict zones has increased in the last decade. To some degree, this posture has been significantly influenced by China’s desire to stand out in global affairs on par with the United States. Although its search for an alternative beyond the troubled role played by the United States in conflict zones has not been well grounded, given its growing interest, it is likely that China would like to go further than a mediation role.
Currently, its proactive engagement in conflict zones translates as a momentum to seize economic potentials and ensure its security interests, thereby building an image of a responsible international player. As it seeks to press ahead, Afghanistan turns out to be one interesting example where China shows its willingness to engage in a reconciliation program, and so far has succeeded in being quietly involved in the country.
For those who wonder why China is giving such attention to Afghanistan now, the answer is, it has always been interested in Afghanistan – a reflection of its westward strategy. The level of its engagement, however, has differed from time to time because of a lack of political influence. More important, China’s minimalistic role in the security aspect was due to its discomfort about having direct military involvement.
Interestingly but unsurprisingly, an Afghanistan strategy has been taking shape in China since the terrorist attacks on the US of September 11, 2001. Since 2013, the issue has gotten more decisive attention in Beijing circles. In essence, China’s renewed interest in Afghanistan was to create a conducive environment for securing its heavily invested regions under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), specifically in and around the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Central Asia. Given this, China also offered an extension of CPEC to Afghanistan.
What China seems to be doing in Afghanistan is persistently driving the talks to a possible political solution and on the sidelines seeking stability from all the players as well as increasing its economic profile. For this purpose, China not only engaged in a bilateral framework but was also proactive in bringing the Taliban and Pakistan to the table with the Afghan government and the United States.
What China seems to be doing in Afghanistan is persistently driving the talks to a possible political solution and on the sidelines seeking stability from all the players as well as increasing its economic profile
So far, much of the focus has been on mediating peace talks with the United States (in New York and Qatar), and also Afghanistan-led talks. China too seeks cooperation with the Taliban to crack down on Afghan-based camps that are involved in violent attacks in Xinjiang – something Beijing has been perennially worried about. One Pakistani official has said that the meetings with the Afghan Taliban in Beijing were “meant to showcase China’s progress and its tolerance of Muslims,” as reported in the Financial Times.
Since 2016, China has been steering a new trilateral dialogue among Chinese, Afghan and Pakistani foreign ministers. It also engages in talks with Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States as part of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG). After the first China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue in Beijing, in December 2017, there were reports that China was willing to build a fully funded military base in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province. If China considers building one, that would permanently close the doors to talks with the Afghan Taliban. In the meantime, China also takes part in a tripartite consultation on the Afghanistan issue hosted by Russia along with the United States.
Both the 2017 and 2018 Joint Statements of the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue carefully brought up both the terrorism and the Taliban factors and called for active participation in the peace process and counterterrorism measures. For the moment, the trilateral mechanism among China, Afghanistan and Pakistan has set up three key directions for their role in Afghanistan: building political mutual trust; reconciliation, developmental cooperation and connectivity; and security cooperation and counterterrorism.
At this stage, in principle, China is actively involved in setting norms such as “not to allow any country, organization or individual to use their respective territories for terrorist activities against any other countries” and to “combat all terrorist groups and individuals without any discrimination,” according to the Joint Statements of the second Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue. Further, Beijing also considers regional multilateral arrangements such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Afghanistan Contact Group to persuade Pakistan to deal with the Afghan Taliban, and through the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) China offers security cooperation to Afghanistan. With these measures, China aspires to create an image of a constructive player in the conflict zone.
So far, much of China’s focus has been to deal with practical hurdles. Indeed, China has been partially successful and made some progress through consultation mechanisms. Strangely, after all these efforts, there has been no considerable change in the status quo between the Taliban and the Afghan government. As a result, these efforts have not yielded any concrete political solution so far.
At this moment, it is very uncertain how China would manage, operationalize, and steer the dialogue process when the trust deficit is so high. Moreover, Pakistan and Afghanistan do not get along because of the Afghan Taliban’s proximity to Pakistan’s security establishments. In many aspects, the Afghan government believes that Pakistan has been using the Taliban factor as leverage in order to gain political and financial support from both the US and China. Contrary to this, Pakistan claims it has been a victim of non-state actors from Afghanistan. Intense politics and a high trust deficit reached a crescendo in January 2018, when Pakistan canceled a visa-on-arrival provision for Afghan nationals, citing security risks.
Likewise, the blame game between Pakistan and the US is of concern to China. For instance, Pakistan calls the US attacks on Afghan Taliban counterproductive and hampering Pakistan’s positive engagement. On the contrary, the US and Afghanistan governments blame Pakistan’s silent attitude toward the Afghan Taliban taking shelter in its territory. On the other side, the Taliban repeatedly call for a boycott of the upcoming Afghan presidential election, which could potentially have an impact on future talks.
Furthermore, some in Beijing view Chinese influence on Pakistan as being overrated and believe too much pressure on Pakistan could be counterproductive. The Afghanistan issue is the one that has been pushing the “all-weather friends” – China and Pakistan – into an awkward relationship.
The new frontiers in China’s Afghanistan policy were primarily triggered by the change in US policy toward Afghanistan and its security dynamics. US President Donald Trump’s decision to reduce by half the number of US troops (by about 7,000) from Afghanistan without any peace deal between Afghan government and the Taliban came as a surprise. So far, there is no disagreement that China sees Trump’s intention toward Afghanistan as having serious security implications for its growing economic interest in the region. There are also fears that if there is no plan for a follow-on training and advisory force from the US side, it would further destabilize the situation.
Interestingly, China is one among the others players (such as India, Iran and NATO forces) who want a continuation of US troops on the ground until Afghanistan sees moderate political stability or the signing of a concrete security agreement that facilitates capacity building. Second, both China and India are reluctant or somewhat nervous about undertaking a direct military role and the possible consequences, yet they have not ruled out the option of sending peacekeepers under the UN mandate if necessary.
Deteriorating Afghan security poses high risks for China’s interests in the region. Considering the regional dynamics, which are diverse and complex, the absence of concrete actions and a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban implies that China will only have a partial influence on the events in Afghanistan. Winning support from Afghan non-state actors is also highly essential for Chinese business interests to thrive, not just in Afghanistan and also in the region.
China’s active role in Afghanistan’s peace process shows that it has high expectations of its renewed diplomatic push. In the long run, regardless of what happens on the ground, China’s international profile might increase regarding Afghanistan reconciliation and developmental cooperation is concerned.