A Harbinger of Stability in Asia
China has been intensifying its diplomatic efforts to help build a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. By indulging in regional consultations on the issue, the Chinese seem determined to deepening their ties with Kabul. All efforts by China are not because the country is seeking to only fill a void left by the withdrawal of US forces, but because it could play a useful role in the reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Taliban that, in the future, would greatly benefit China. The following paragraphs will examine China’s growing attention to Afghanistan as well as the interests that are motivating Beijing for this.
Diplomatic Efforts by China
China’s diplomatic outlook towards Afghanistan has always been positive. However, since 2014, it has become proactive as well as dynamic. For instance, in October 2014, Beijing hosted a bevy of international leaders for the fourth ministerial meeting of the Istanbul Process (hereinafter IP). Launched in 2011, the IP provides a new agenda for regional cooperation in the ‘Heart of Asia’ by placing Afghanistan at its centre and engaging the ‘Heart of Asia’ countries in sincere and result‐oriented cooperation for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan as well as a secure and prosperous region as a whole. By hosting this event, China showed its desire to take the initiative in promoting a smooth power transfer after Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election and a stable security transition following the withdrawal of Isaf troops and US combat forces, which took place in December 2014. The IP meeting also demonstrated China’s resolve toward achieving regional and international cooperation on Afghanistan because this multilateral framework can be used to exchange ideas for the better future of Afghanistan.
China has been holding various bilateral and trilateral meetings with other countries in the region as well. In past years, China has held bilateral talks on Afghanistan with India and Pakistan. In 2014, talks among China, Russia and India took place, as did a second round of talks between China and Iran. More recently, in February 2015, the first round of the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue was held in Kabul with active support from the Chinese side.
Owing to its overwhelming influence in the region, China is in a strong position to help coordinate between Afghanistan and its neighbours. Only a consensus among these stakeholders on their positions and policies would ensure a stable Afghanistan. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional group that includes most of Afghanistan’s neighbours, can be an important multilateral platform in this regard.
Evolving Afghanistan-China Relationship
In recent times, high-level, bilateral exchanges between China and Afghanistan have become more frequent. In February 2014, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Kabul and indicated that China would support Afghanistan in achieving smooth political, security, and economic transitions. In October 2014, deputy chief of the PLA general staff, Lieutenant General Qi Jianguo, also travelled to Afghanistan as a special envoy of China’s president. Never before have so many high-level Chinese diplomatic, security, and military officials visited Afghanistan in the span of one year.
From Afghan side, President Ashraf Ghani visited China in October 2014. During his meetings with the Chinese authorities, the two sides expressed their intention to deepen their strategic partnership and laid the foundation for strengthening the relationship between China and the new Afghan government.
China has significant financial investments in Afghanistan, chiefly the Mes Aynak copper mine, southeast of Kabul, and the Amu Darya oil fields in northern Afghanistan. Beyond these ventures, Chinese officials see an opportunity to make further investments in the country.
1. Economic Support
Economic aid is only one aspect of the assistance that China extends to Afghanistan. China is willing to increase its economic cooperation with Afghanistan and help Afghanistan gain greater economic independence. China’s economic support for Afghanistan has also increased significantly. Between 2001 and 2013, China provided Afghanistan with a total of 1.5 billion yuan (approximately $240 million) of aid. But in 2014 alone, China provided Afghanistan with 500 million yuan ($80 million) of aid and pledged to provide an additional 1.5 billion yuan ($240 million) over the next three years. In addition, over the next five years, China will provide 500 scholarships for Afghan students to study in China and will give training to 3,000 Afghan professionals in various fields, including counterterrorism, anti-drug trafficking, agriculture and diplomacy.
2. Security Cooperation
China’s actions in Afghanistan are motivated by its national interests. As a major power in the region, China aspires to promote security and economic development in Afghanistan and throughout South and Central Asia. Security is China’s top interest in Afghanistan. The two countries are neighbours, and the border they share, although only about 90 kilometres (approximately 56 miles) long, poses significant security concerns for China. On the Chinese side of the China-Afghanistan border sits Xinjiang, a region where Chinese have fears that its domestic separatist, terrorist, and extremist groups might coordinate with terrorist groups in Afghanistan and beyond to pose a serious security threat to China. If Afghanistan remains instable, it will be detrimental to Xinjiang’s security and stability.
3. Infrastructure Development
China has significant financial investments in Afghanistan, chiefly the Mes Aynak copper mine, located in the southeast of Kabul, and the Amu Darya oil fields in northern Afghanistan. Beyond these ventures, Chinese officials see an opportunity to make further investments in the country.
Within the framework of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt strategy, which can not only boost Afghanistan’s economy but can also propel the country forward to help achieve region’s broader economic development, the two countries have many opportunities for cooperation. The strategy includes the construction of railways and highways to better connect Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. Afghanistan is located at the geographical hub of these regions, and any unrest or civil war there would likely result in instability spilling over into nearby regions, making it difficult for the strategy to succeed.
Garnering Peace in Afghanistan
China amply knows that political reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban is one of the best ways to ensure a successful political and security transition in Afghanistan. This is not a new concept, and it is one that many nations support. But China will go a long way to put this idea into practice and help Afghanistan move along the path toward political reconciliation.
At the fourth foreign ministers’ meeting of the IP, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang presented a 5-point strategy that Afghanistan should adopt to garner peace and stability in the country. These points are:
1. Ensuring that Afghanistan is governed by the Afghan people
2. Promoting political reconciliation
3. Speeding up economic reconstruction
4. Exploring new paths of development
5. Providing the Afghan government with stronger support from the international community.
Moreover, the strategy says that Afghanistan’s unique cultural history and practical national conditions should be taken into consideration if lasting political stability and continued economic development are to be achieved. Transplanting models for national governance from other countries is unnecessary.
Chinese leadership has a principled stand that Afghanistan, which is currently facing a security situation that leaves an economy in shambles, should be ruled by the Afghans only. Therefore, China’s increasing role in the country should not be seen as an attempt to acquire power.
Role in Peace Talks with Taliban
Traditionally, China has been careful not to intervene directly in Afghanistan’s domestic politics and has not acted as an intermediary between the Afghan government and the Taliban. However, China should make efforts to encourage the Afghan government and the Taliban to reach a settlement. This suggestion is based on several factors:
First, China’s diplomacy has become more proactive. It is starting to focus more on taking the initiative to shape the situation.
Second, in general China’s diplomatic relations with its neighbours have taken on added importance. It is paying even more attention to development cooperation with surrounding countries, including Afghanistan.
Third, Xinjiang’s security situation and the Silk Road Economic Belt strategy each have added urgency to China’s need to secure a stable Afghanistan.
In January 2015, an American paper, Washington Post, reported that China hosted a Taliban delegation in Beijing in December 2014 — a visit that was believed to be part of an effort by the Chinese government to mediate a dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban. While Beijing did not confirm the Taliban visit, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China was willing to play a “constructive role” in supporting the Afghan reconciliation process. China is also relatively well-equipped to take on the role of peacemaker. The country is a major power in the region, with a significant degree of political influence. It has consistently advocated for political reconciliation in Afghanistan; it did not participate in the war there, and it has not made enemies with any of the political forces inside of the country. This makes it easier for all parties involved to accept China’s contributions.
The above discussion can be summed up in the words of Chinese Ambassador to Afghanistan, Mr Deng Xijun, who during a seminar on China-Afghanistan relations, said:
“China is willing to play a greater constructive role in Afghanistan, continue to support the effective administration of the Afghan National Unity Government, support the reconciliation between the Afghan Government and various political factions, including the Taliban, support the economic and social reconstruction of Afghanistan, support Afghanistan’s integration in regional cooperation, and work with the international community to make unremitting efforts to realize the successful transition of Afghanistan.”
China is stepping up its efforts to secure its long-term interests in Afghanistan, relying on its traditional strength of economic engagement, combined with a newly proactive diplomacy. The question is whether these limited means will achieve China’s aims in Afghanistan. Only the time will tell!