China has been intensifying its diplomatic efforts to help build a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, by hosting a regional meeting on the issue and deepening its bilateral ties with Kabul. In a new Q&A, Zhao Huasheng examines China’s growing attention to Afghanistan as well as the interests that are motivating Beijing. He says China is not seeking to fill a void left by the withdrawal of U.S. forces, but that it, in the future, could play a useful role in the reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Since the start of 2014, China’s Afghanistan diplomacy has become more positive, proactive, and dynamic.
In October 2014, Beijing hosted the fourth foreign ministers’ meeting of the Istanbul Process—an international effort launched in 2011 to encourage cooperation and coordination between Afghanistan and its neighbors and regional partners. By hosting this event for the first time, 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 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops and U.S. combat forces, which took place in December 2014. The Istanbul Process meeting also demonstrated China’s positive attitude toward regional and international cooperation on Afghanistan. China also hopes to use this multilateral framework to propose its own ideas for securing Afghanistan’s future, and to win other nations’ support for its approach.
China has also continued to hold bilateral and trilateral meetings on Afghanistan with other countries in the region. In February 2015, following three earlier sets of talks, the first round of the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue was held in Kabul. In 2014, talks among China, Russia, and India took place, as did a second round of talks between China and Iran. In past years, China has also held bilateral talks on Afghanistan with India and Pakistan.
China is in a strong position to help coordinate between Afghanistan and its neighbors, which all have an especially important role to play in promoting security in Afghanistan. A consensus among these surrounding countries on their positions and policies would help to ensure a stable future for Afghanistan. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional group that includes most of Afghanistan’s neighbors and nearby countries, is an important multilateral platform for coordinating policies toward Afghanistan.
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 November 2014, the state councilor responsible for China’s domestic security, Guo Shengkun, visited Afghanistan for discussions that focused primarily on guarding against and combating the terrorist forces of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist group from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China. A month earlier, deputy chief of the PLA general staff, Lieutenant General Qi Jianguo, traveled 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.
In October 2014, the newly elected president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, visited China. 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. Going forward, China and Afghanistan are prepared to work more closely in the areas of politics, economics, security, and culture.
In 2015, the two countries will mark the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. A Year for China-Afghanistan Friendly Cooperation has been planned, with a series of activities to commemorate their ties.
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.
Economic aid is only one aspect of the assistance that China will extend to Afghanistan. More importantly, China is willing to increase its economic cooperation with Afghanistan and help Afghanistan gain greater economic independence. The idea is not merely to provide people with fish but to teach them how to fish. Within the framework of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt strategy, the two countries have many opportunities for cooperation. This will not only produce benefits for Afghanistan’s economy, but it will also propel the country forward and help it further incorporate the region’s broader economic development.
China’s actions in Afghanistan are motivated by its national interests, and by a growing awareness of its responsibility, as a major power in the region, 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 neighbors, and the border they share, although only about 90 kilometers (approximately 56 miles) long, poses significant security concerns for China. The Afghan side of the border is a hotbed of terrorism and extremism, while on the Chinese side sits Xinjiang, a region that is especially vulnerable to the effects of terrorism and extremism.
The situation in Xinjiang has become more complicated, moving it to the forefront of China’s national security strategy. Maintaining security and stability in Xinjiang requires a dual approach. China must combat and control domestic separatist, terrorist, and extremist groups in the region. But it also faces the danger that they might coordinate with terrorist groups in Afghanistan and beyond. China is therefore also trying to isolate external terrorism and extremism, to prevent these outside forces from influencing or spilling into Xinjiang. If Afghanistan cannot achieve stability, it will be more difficult to ensure Xinjiang’s security and stability.
China also 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.
China’s Silk Road Economic Belt 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.
If the Afghanistan war is said primarily to have consisted of force, then China’s proposal for solving the Afghan problem will primarily consist of peace. China believes 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 work hard to put this idea into practice and help Afghanistan move along the path toward political reconciliation.
At the fourth foreign ministers’ meeting of the Istanbul Process, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang formalized the five suggestions that China believes Afghanistan should adopt. His proposal called for ensuring that Afghanistan is governed by the Afghan people; promoting political reconciliation; speeding up economic reconstruction; exploring new paths of development; and providing the Afghan government with stronger external support from the international community. China hopes that this support will encourage Kabul to develop friendly relations with its neighbors, will bolster Afghanistan’s regional economic cooperation, and will help the country to enhance its own security capabilities.
In China’s view, 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. As Afghanistan pursues a suitable governance model, the international community should respect the independent decisions of the Afghan people.
China does not believe there is a void in Afghanistan and has no thoughts of filling one.
The U.S. stationing of large numbers of troops in Afghanistan stemmed from a temporary and particular set of circumstances. The withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan will restore the normal state of affairs there.
China has always emphasized the principles that Afghanistan belongs to the Afghan people, not to any other country, and that the Afghan people should be responsible for affairs in their country. Afghanistan is not an object for major powers to transfer back and forth or divide up among themselves.
Afghanistan is currently facing a security situation that leaves little room for optimism and an economy that is in shambles. China’s increasing role in the country reflects its commitment to invest resources and share responsibilities, but it should not been seen as an attempt to acquire power.
The United States has at times shown mixed emotions about China’s role in Afghanistan. Washington has encouraged Beijing to provide more assistance to Afghanistan and to take on greater responsibility there. But when China does this, some in the United States worry that China’s influence is on the rise.
Over the past few years, 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. My personal judgment is that in the future China may be willing to make an effort to encourage the Afghan government and the Taliban to reach a settlement. This assessment 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 neighbors have taken on added importance. China 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 have each added urgency to China’s need to secure a stable Afghanistan.
In January 2015, the Washington Post reported that China hosted a Taliban delegation in Beijing in December 2014. The visit 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 China is 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. China is a major power in the region, with a significant degree of political influence. China 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.
However, China is not an interested party inside Afghanistan; its function is primarily to encourage peace negotiations. Political reconciliation in Afghanistan can only be achieved through internal discussions. China knows this will be a long-term and difficult process, but one that needs to begin somewhere. Only then will new possibilities present themselves.
For any country, mediating Afghanistan’s domestic conflicts is an undertaking in which the risks are greater than the chances of success. China is no exception. Essentially, if China does not succeed, its credibility will be damaged. For Afghanistan, even if China’s efforts fall short, no harm will be done.
This article was published as part of the Window into China series.
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