The ministerial meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the meeting of the SCO-Afghanistan working group in Dushanbe on July 13-14 have thrown light on China’s approach to the evolving situation in Afghanistan.
The elucidation of China’s intentions and motivations by Foreign Minister Wang Yi is timely and relevant, since Beijing has recently shifted gear to a more proactive role at the center of the Afghan peace process.
Wang’s remarks at a press conference in Dushanbe on Wednesday provide an invaluable reference point amid the paranoia in the Western (and Indian) media that China is about to gobble up Afghanistan. To rational minds, evidently, Beijing is extra-vigilant that it should not get sucked into the Afghan whirlpool. This is the first thing.
Put simply, China will not make a military intervention in Afghanistan and repeat the mistake of the former Soviet Union and the United States. Period. Beneath that threshold, however, China is a stakeholder in Afghanistan’s security and stability.
Wang prioritized China’s security concerns in three main directions: Prevent the present conflict from morphing into a fully-fledged civil war; restart the peace talks quickly; and eliminate the risk of Afghanistan again becoming a revolving door for international terrorist groups.
China is confident that the fallout from the Afghan security situation can be contained. It constructively engages both the Ashraf Ghani government and the Taliban. Beijing enjoys an excellent rapport with the Ghani government, which it has supported quietly all these years and whose record in office it regards as rather creditable under difficult conditions.
Equally, Beijing appreciates that the Ghani government has accorded the highest importance to fostering ties with China, among all regional states, given China’s commitment to the stabilization of the Afghan situation, which is non-partisan and is devoid of geopolitics.
Indeed, credit must be given to Beijing for keeping such strong ties with the Ghani government while also keeping lines of communication open to the Taliban.
The depth and resilience of China-Taliban ties have been a topic of speculation, predicated largely on the facile assumption of a China-Pakistan-Taliban nexus, so to speak. But the reality is more complex.
The Taliban profess friendship with China but the Dushanbe conference put into relief the fault lines in that relationship. Thus, more than once, Wang openly expressed China’s discomfort that the Taliban are yet to make a clean break with all terrorist forces and return to the mainstream of Afghan politics “with a responsible attitude toward the country and people.” This stunning remark must be carefully understood in all its dimensions.
Suffice to say, China, as a neighboring country, will not be prescriptive about the Afghan nation’s Islamic moorings and will scrupulously uphold its core principle of non-interference in that country’s internal affairs, but is also acutely conscious that a thin line separates Islamic militancy and terrorism.
It cannot be otherwise, since China has a Muslim population of anywhere between 20 and 25 million people inhabiting the central and western regions of Xinjiang, Gansu, Ningxia, etc that have geographical proximity to Central Asia.
The paradox here is that while China had misgivings about the United States’ hidden agenda, its bigger worry still is that in the downstream of the American pullout, the challenge of terrorism may become more daunting, as groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which threaten Xinjiang, may get greater latitude and space to operate out of Afghan soil.
Certainly, China cannot entirely place its trust in Pakistan to leverage the Taliban in a big country such as Afghanistan. Of course, Taliban spokesmen have described China as “a friend of Afghanistan.” But China agonizes as to whether the Taliban are in a position to fulfill Chinese expectations. The litmus test lies in the Taliban’s willingness to make a clean break with all terrorist forces.
Clearly, China will not want the Afghan state structure to collapse or a security vacuum to develop. China, therefore, is unlikely to terminate its material support, humanitarian aid and weapons supplies to the Afghan government or roll back on the intelligence cooperation it has been extending to strengthen Kabul’s counterterrorist operations.
Without doubt, a meltdown of the Afghan state is the ultimate nightmare scenario for Beijing. In this regard, China and Iran have similar approaches. Unlike Russia, which has had a testy relationship with Ghani, China and Iran are reasonably satisfied that they have a receptive interlocutor in the Kabul government.
But there is the gnawing doubt all the same about the durability of the Ghani government in the face of the mounting challenge from the Taliban.
Wang has offered that China is ready to facilitate/host intra-Afghan negotiations “at any time” and contribute to the political settlement of the Afghan issue. China is largely plowing an independent furrow, tapping into its own vast reserves in terms of its special ties with Pakistan and friendly equations with the Kabul setup, its large capacity to be a provider of material help, its credentials as a benevolent neighbor and, above all, its constructive approach.
China’s security-oriented concerns are very specific, and there is a convergence with Russia on this score insofar as both countries fear that a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan might quickly spread to Central Asia. The upgrade of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group to the foreign-minister level for the first time since the inception of the format in 2005 indicates their sense of urgency.
Wang refrained from calling for an interim government in Afghanistan. But then, why should China inherit the legacy of the Doha pact? A commentary in the Global Times has underscored that “China’s position on Afghanistan remains unchanged and China still praises the Afghan government for making efforts to stabilize the country despite the Taliban expressing friendship to China.”
It will come as an eye-opener that rather than reveling in the wasteful projection of power into post-American Afghanistan, China takes the long view. The Chinese estimation is that for a foreseeable future, no matter who forms the Afghan government, continuing anti-terrorism will be Afghanistan’s international responsibility and, therefore, will remain the foundation of future China-Afghanistan relations.
At the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group meeting, Wang urged all Afghan factions to clarify the roadmap and timetable for reconciliation, so as to lay a solid foundation for “a broad, inclusive political structure” in Afghanistan. Notably, in the presence of the Afghan foreign minister, Wang repeated his call on the Taliban to honor their commitment to break with international terrorist organizations.
In an ideal situation, China and the US could have been partners. But the transparency is simply not there in their relationship. Their conversation has broken down. Wang called on the US “to honor its commitment and increase its input,” but he also stressed that the regional states should be vigilant about any attempt to undermine regional security and stability by any outsider exploiting the chaos in Afghanistan.
Simply put, China views American intentions in Afghanistan with great suspicion. It doesn’t expect that the US will show enthusiasm for Afghanistan’s reconstruction work or nation-building. Nonetheless, China anticipates not only continued US involvement in Afghanistan but even attempts to expand American military presence in the region, on the pretext of counterterrorist activity, for geopolitical reasons.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.