China’s role in Afghanistan is undoubtedly growing. What does that mean for the peace process?
On June 9, the Taliban ordered its fighters to “stop offensive operations against Afghan forces for the first three days of Eid-al-Fitr” this week. Its announcement came just days after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani declared a ceasefire against the insurgent group.
The ceasefires are for a very short period and do not include all armed actors in the Afghan civil war. The government has not extended its truce to the Islamic State group, and the Taliban has said it will continue operations against “foreign occupiers.” Still the announcement of overlapping ceasefires by the two sides is a significant development. While the Afghan government has declared ceasefires in the past, this is the first time that the Taliban is doing so.
Reports in the Pakistani media have cited unnamed Pakistani officials as saying that Pakistan and China “played a key role in brokering the ceasefire deal” and that the Taliban agreed to declare a ceasefire only if Pakistan and China were guarantors to it.
Neither Afghanistan nor the Taliban or even China has confirmed Pakistan’s claims. China has only welcomed the ceasefire so far. Still, the possibility of Beijing having nudged the government and the Taliban to declare ceasefires during the festive period cannot be ruled out.
Hitherto, China’s peacemaking efforts had not yielded tangible results. That has now changed, if the ceasefires did indeed happen under Chinese pressure.
It was in early 2015 that China began facilitating talks between the Ghani government and the Taliban. However, the efforts made little progress, partly because of deteriorating relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan on account of continuing Taliban attacks in Kabul. Recognizing that its efforts to get the Taliban to the negotiating table would make no progress so long as Pakistan and Afghanistan remained at loggerheads, China set out to bring Pakistan into its peace efforts. Beijing engaged in several rounds of shuttle diplomacy between Islamabad and Kabul to put in place a trilateral crisis management mechanism. In December 2017, Beijing hosted trilateral talks where the three countries called on the Taliban to join the process.
China’s role in Afghanistan has grown rapidly in recent years. This is in sharp contrast to its low-profile presence in this country even a few years ago.
For over a decade after the fall of the Taliban regime in December 2001, China preferred to be a mere spectator of the dramatic events unfolding in Afghanistan. Unlike other countries, which sent troops to participate in counterinsurgency operations and contributed financial and other support for reconstruction of the war-ravaged country, Beijing maintained a low profile.
China did not send troops to Afghanistan as it was not interested in being a “subordinate partner” of the U.S.-led alliance in that country. Besides, its goals in Afghanistan were “limited,” Zhao Huasheng, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai pointed out. Unlike the Western powers, China was not interested in “rebuilding Afghanistan politically” or in altering its “political structures, social patterns or ideological orientations.”
While China avoided participating in multilateral efforts in Afghanistan in the 2002-12 period, it maintained close ties with the Afghan government. It signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighborly Relations with Kabul in 2006. Two years later, Chinese companies won a $3 billion contract to extract copper from the Mes Aynak mines in Logar province.
It was in the context of the U.S. drawdown of troops from Afghanistan and the possibility of the country descending into chaos that China began stepping up its involvement in Afghan affairs in 2012.
For Beijing, instability in Central Asia in general and Afghanistan in particular is a matter of concern as it is seen to have “direct influence” on the security of China’s western provinces, particularly Xinjiang. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is known to have bases in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and Beijing has been apprehensive over ETIM fighters and other jihadists entering Xinjiang through Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor to radicalize Uyghurs or carry out attacks in China.
Besides, an unstable Afghanistan could derail China’s economic ambitions. Success of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as its flagship China-Pakistan Economic Corridor hinges on a stable neighborhood, which in turn depends on a stable Afghanistan.
It is to ensure stability in Afghanistan in order to address its own security concerns and to realize its economic ambitions that Beijing stepped up its engagement with Kabul post-2014 and it is in this context that China’s role as a peace broker, aid donor, and investor as well as its military role in Afghanistan must be seen.
In the 2002-13 period Beijing provided just $240 million in aid to Afghanistan. In 2014 alone China gave it $80 million in aid and pledged an additional $240 million over the next three years. In September 2017, China extended $90 million toward development projects in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province alone.
China is Afghanistan’s biggest foreign investor today. It is interested mainly in resource extraction and infrastructure building. It has started extracting oil from the Amu Darya basin in northern Afghanistan. In the telecommunications sector, China’s role has grown from supplying Afghanistan with telecom equipment in 2007 to the construction of fiber-optic links in 2017.
However, China’s economic ambitions in Afghanistan have not gone well. The Mes Aynak project, for example, has failed to take off largely because of the poor security situation in the country. A railway line linking China’s Jiangsu province and the Afghan rail port of Hairatan, which would have reduced travel time and costs substantially, runs empty from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan on its return route, as Afghanistan’s production of goods for export remains low.
Under the BRI, Afghanistan’s road and rail infrastructure would increase, providing this landlocked country with links to more markets. But road and rail lines built under the BRI could suffer the same fate as the Jiangsu-Hairatan railway line: crippled by Afghanistan’s low export capacity.
China’s military role in Afghanistan is growing but there is little clarity on its scope. According to the Afghan Ministry of Defense (MoD), a new military base is being set up in the Badakhshan province with the Chinese extending financial support covering all material and technical expenses for this base, ranging from weaponry and military equipment to uniforms for soldiers.
The question is whether and when it will house Chinese soldiers.
In addition to the military base, China is financing an Afghan mountain brigade that will operate in Badakhshan province near the border areas.
So far, China’s military role in Afghanistan is geographically limited. It is focused on Badakhshan province and restricted to the Afghan side of this province’s border with China. China is unlikely to expand its role geographically as it does not want to get caught in the Afghan quagmire as did the Soviet Union and the United States.
Beijing has sought to downplay its military role in Afghanistan. Chinese diplomats in Kabul maintain that it is engaged only in “capacity building” at the proposed facility in the Badakhshan province. China’s MoD has dismissed reports that the military is carrying out patrols in Afghanistan but has conceded that the two sides are engaged in “joint law enforcement operations” in border areas to prevent and fight terrorism.
Unlike the other major powers, China’s involvement in counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan is aimed not so much at weakening the Taliban as it is at eliminating training bases where the ETIM is believed to be running training camps in the Wakhan Corridor and preventing jihadists from entering Xinjiang.
The 76-kilometer-long Sino-Afghan border lies at the eastern end of the Wakhan Corridor and stretches from the trijunction of the two countries with Pakistan-controlled Gilgit-Baltistan at one end to the trijunction with Tajikistan on the other. It is near this border that the joint counterterrorism operations are taking place.
How successful is China likely to be in stabilizing Afghanistan?
It has advantages that strengthen its hand in brokering talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. It “is not burdened by a negative historical legacy” and hence its role as a facilitator has been acceptable to the government and the Taliban. More importantly, Beijing is Pakistan’s closest ally. It can “leverage its enormous influence over Islamabad to get it to support the peace process as well as to bring on board the Taliban.” Besides, as a participant in groupings such as the Quadrilateral Coordination Group and the 6+1 Dialogue, China can bring ideas and expertise from these dialogues to its brokering efforts. In addition, China is in a position to offer “powerful inducements – benefits of regional trade and economic development – to lure Pakistan and Afghanistan to the negotiating table and to co-operate and reach a settlement.” And finally, while China is wary of the Taliban, it is not averse to doing business or cutting deals with them.
However, there are constraints, many of them self-imposed, on China’s efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. For one, Beijing has not used its considerable clout over Pakistan to end Islamabad’s policy of using terrorist groups as an instrument of its foreign policy. Hitherto, China appears to have focused on getting Pakistan to crackdown on ETIM sanctuaries in Pakistan; Beijing has not pushed Islamabad to halt support for Taliban’s terrorist attacks. This selective approach to terrorism will at best weaken some terror outfits but it cannot stabilize the region, let alone build peace.
Economic development of conflict areas is important to build peace but China’s approach in this regard is unlikely to quell conflict. It has focused on resource extraction, a sector which has triggered conflict the world over. This could be the case in Afghanistan as well.
Importantly, China’s approach is narrow and superficial. It is not keen to address the underlying causes of the Afghan conflict. It is disinterested in shaping the political outcome of negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. It has done nothing to build peace constituencies in Afghanistan.
China’s role in Afghanistan is undoubtedly growing. Yet, its influence there remains limited especially compared to the United States. While China has been able to establish ties with the Taliban and has even hosted its representatives for talks on its soil, it is the United States that still matters in Afghanistan. Not only is Washington’s influence over the Ghani government considerable, but the Taliban also want to talk with the United States.
A peace process in Afghanistan cannot move forward without the United States and China working together. In 2016, for instance, U.S. drone strikes, which killed Taliban commander Mullah Mansour, caused the collapse of the QCG effort.
China will need to coordinate its efforts with other powers, including the United States and regional actors.
By: Sudha Ramachandran