Intro : Anyone who tried to engage in Afghanistan to serve the Pakistani interest had to face the wrath of freedom loving Afghans. The former USSR and USA are classic examples. Does China’s intervention in Afghan in favour of Pakistan indicate the same fate for the Asian giant?
The proposed peace talk on Afghanistan has been postponed due to the revelation of death of Taliban Chief Mullah Omar which took place couple of years back. It has been revealed by the Afghan officials. China has expressed understanding on the postponement of the second round of talks between the Afghanistan Government and the Afghan Taliban representatives. The peace talks – originally scheduled for July 31, 2015 in Pakistan – have been postponed at the request of the Taliban leadership. Omar – who established the Taliban Movement in Afghanistan has not been seen since the collapse of his regime by the US-led military invasion in 2001.
It is very interesting to note why China did agree to mediate between Afghan Government and different factions of Taliban? Since 2001 China has been least interested in Afghanistan, its economic support was also miniscule. For the last two years, China has been regularly facing the heat of Islamic terror in its Xinjiang region which has one sixth of the total land of China. In October 2013, Uyghur terrorists were linked to an attack in which a car was set alight and driven into Beijing’s central square, Tiananmen. In May 2014, a mass knife attack at Kunming train station in China’s south killed 29 and left dozens injured. Within Xinjiang, 100 people died in violent incidents. Ethnic unrest and terrorism in Xinjiang have been an ongoing concern for Chinese authorities for decades.
China had subsequently come to regard the stability of Afghanistan as crucial to its internal security, as well as its economic future. China’s primary concern in Afghanistan is its Xinjiang province which shares the 92 km boundary with Afghanistan and three other Central Asian states. There is report that Uyghur militants are being trained in Afghanistan-Pak border, that is why it overspills the contagious Islamic terror in Chinese border. China’s engagement with the Taliban is not new; Beijing had maintained cordial diplomatic relations during the period Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban Government. Much of the interest in Afghanistan at the time was based on its natural resources, particularly in the mining sector. A successful intervention in Afghanistan-Taliban negotiations could be a powerful event and increase Islamabad and Beijing’s clout.
Xinjiang is getting affected by the problems of Afghanistan. That is why China plunged into the mediation in Afghanistan. Chinese attempt in Afghanistan is perhaps the first case where China has ventured into international mediation. China along with Pakistan is trying to bring peace between Afghan Government and different factions of Taliban. If China succeeds in this peace talk, China and Pakistan could jointly hold a larger common interest in Afghan politics and economy than India, and even the United States.
China’s Advantages in Afghanistan
Afghan President Ghani is moving towards China. His first foreign trip after becoming the President was China. During the visit itself China has maintained publicly that, if required, it would be willing to play the mediator’s role between the two sides. According to the former head of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, Amrullah Saleh, Pakistan and the ISI are looking to “integrate” the Taliban into the Afghan National Army at various commander levels. In November last year, Chinese diplomats reportedly visited Peshawar in Pakistan to push forward the agenda for talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban.
Breaking with decades of distancing itself from Afghanistan’s various armed conflicts, the Chinese Government has offered to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan national government and the Afghan Taliban insurgency movement. Last year in November, Sun Yuxi, China’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan, for the first time publicly confirmed that he had met with representatives of the Afghan Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan, to discuss the modalities of their possible participation in peace negotiation. Ashraf Ghani arrived in Beijing, on October 28, and met with President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders before participating in the Fourth Foreign Ministerial Conference of the Istanbul Process on Afghanistan. The participating countries backed 64 separate projects designed to promote Afghanistan’s socio-economic reconstruction, national security and regional integration. Arguing that, “Peace and stability in Afghanistan have a direct bearing on China’s security and stability” and highlighting the reciprocal positive effects of economic development and political stability, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang delivered an opening address that offered five principles designed to support a solution to the Afghan conflict, including “a broadly-based, inclusive political reconciliation”.
In their pre-summit meeting at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, President Xi called President Ghani “an old friend of the Chinese people,” and said that he was prepared to work towards “a new era of cooperation in China-Afghanistan relations” to “take development to a new depth and breadth”. Calling China a “strategic partner, in the short term, medium term, long term and very long term,” China pledged 2 billion ($330 million) in aid to Afghanistan from 2014 to 2017—more than the approximately $250 million that China has provided since 2001—and to train 3,000 more Afghan professionals over the next five years. Both governments called for more Chinese investment in Afghanistan and for expanded government-wide bilateral cooperation as they prepare to celebrate the 60th anniversary of their relationship next year. The worsening security situation in Afghanistan could have implications for other regional powers such as Russia and India, but unlike China, neither of these two countries has as much leverage with the Taliban or much influence on Pakistan, where militants are allegedly given safe havens. China has preserved contact with the Taliban since the ultra-conservative Islamic regime was ousted in the US-led military campaign. However, since the US-led countries began withdrawing their forces two years ago, China has increased its already burgeoning diplomatic efforts in order to prepare itself for post-2014 scenarios.
China has a few exceptional advantages in trudging the terrain of Afghanistan. First, many Afghans and others believe the Chinese argument that China can apply its enormous resources to help develop the Afghan economy and thereby address some socio-economic causes of Afghans’ discontent. The World Bank estimates that the Mes Aynak mine, which will be the largest private sector project in Afghan history when operational, would create tens of thousands of local jobs and provide the government with $250 million in annual revenue. Second, Afghans and others hope that China can use its influence in Islamabad to induce Pakistan’s security establishment to more comprehensively support the Afghan peace process. Pakistan, which has more influence with the Afghan Taliban than any other country, is one of China’s closest partners. Third, Xi has augmented China’s “New Silk Road Economic Belt” vision with new infusions of cash and transportation infrastructure projects designed to facilitate China’s trade with and through Central Asia, Pakistan and Iran. Although the Chinese Government has preferred that other countries take the lead in stabilising Afghanistan, China’s growing regional presence in South Asia has made Chinese policy makers more sensitive to how instability in Afghanistan could disrupt China’s regional economic and security plans. Finally, China lacks the negative historical legacy of other countries that have assumed a high-profile role in Afghanistan. China is one of Afghanistan’s few neighbours that have not regularly intervened in the country’s civil wars. In July, 2015 Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid reportedly said that, “We have no problems with China as it has never interfered in Afghanistan. The Chinese will be safe.” Beijing also benefits from the advent of the new Afghan presidential administration.
Chinese Challenges in Afghanistan
There are many challenges and disadvantages which may boomerang against Chinese head and may China’s attempt nose dive into utter failure like other powers failed in Afghanistan. China faces major challenges in bringing peace to Afghanistan when so many others, ranging from foreign countries to international organisations like the United Nations, have failed.
First, China has found it difficult to apply its potentially most powerful tool, its economic wealth, to Afghanistan due to many local obstacles. When President Xi met then-President Hamid Karzai in Beijing in September 2013, Xi said that, besides encouraging Chinese firms to invest in Afghanistan, China would “always provide assistance to Afghanistan within the realm of its capabilities”. It means China is not willing to spend like the US did in Afghanistan nor it does intent to continue for longer period of time. It is a quagmire of complexities, which China understood better than any other country.
Second, China also lacks powerful military tools that it can apply in Afghanistan, unlike several other third countries; China does not have strong local and international partners for Afghanistan. Whereas Pakistan, Iran, Russia, India and Western Governments have cultivated politicians, warlords and other influential Afghans, the Chinese Government has sought to avoid getting bogged down in Afghan internal politics.
Pakistan’s Game plan and Challenge to India
Chinese mediation in Afghanistan is moving along with Pakistan’s overt and covert support of its ISI and Military. Chinese proximity with Pakistan will challenge the Bharatiya exercise in Afghanistan. It has been time and again said by many experts that Pakistan is not merely fighting territorial borders but civilisational war against Bharat. For the Army of Pakistan, resisting Bharat’s rise is a necessary condition for the survival of Islamic Pakistan. Sustaining the ability to challenge Delhi, and to challenge India’s rise is in itself the prize. The doctrine of strategic depth is not an invention of the Pakistan Army but a legacy from the British Raj. Like the British Raj, Pakistan believes that security of Pakistan needs a pliable regime in Kabul and a less than sovereign Afghanistan. There is a problem, though, Pakistan, as the successor states on the north-western frontier inherited the geography of the Raj but not its vast resources. Partition, therefore, has given Pakistan much power to disrupt Afghanistan but not enough to construct a stable order. Beijing emerging relationship with Pakistan army and ISI is the most interesting new element in the region. Beijing hopes that collaboration with the Pakistan Army in Afghanistan will help weaken the negative forces of violent, extremism, religious fundamentalism and separatism. That heartens China. A stable AF-PAK region, Beijing believes, can help consolidate China’s ‘Go West’ strategy and strengthen its influence in Inner Asia. Beijing has established direct contacts with the Taliban with the help of the Pakistani Army. Beijing has plans to extend its ambitious Silk Road initiative to cover Afghanistan and integrate it with the project to develop the China-Pakistan corridor. Pakistan’s capacity to reorient the Taliban holds the key to a potentially successful Chinese role in Afghanistan.
Dr Satish Kumar (The writer is the Head of Centre for International Relations, Central University of Jharkhand)