ISLAMABAD–China is set to make history by helping prevent neighbouring Afghanistan from sliding into complete chaos after Western forces ended their combat mission in the mountainous nation.
A year after economic and security interests prompted China to assume a lead role in Afghanistan’s peace process, Beijing appears to be on the cusp of bringing the Kabul government and its Taliban enemies to the negotiating table.
Recently, a Chinese foreign minister publically offered to mediate in the stalled Afghan peace negotiations.
“We will support the Afghan government in realising reconciliation with various political factions, including the Taliban,” Wang Yi told journalists. “China is ready to play a constructive role and will provide the necessary facilitation at any time if required by various parties in Afghanistan.”
In a significant symbolic step, Wang made these comments during a visit to Pakistan last week.
Over the past 13 years, Kabul has consistently blamed Islamabad for supporting the Afghan Taliban by sheltering its leaders and foot soldiers.
Author and journalist Ahmed Rashid says the Chinese are reaching out to all the major players involved in the Afghan conflict.
“China has a lot going for it,” he told RFE/RL Gandhara. “They have come with much greater neutrality. They are respected by all the powers, including the Taliban, for their neutrality.”
Rashid says that since appointing veteran diplomat Sun Yuxi as its special envoy for Afghanistan in July, Beijing has moved rapidly to secure a regional consensus on Afghan reconciliation.
Beijing has set up a trilateral diplomatic forum with Islamabad and Kabul to encourage their cooperation and friendship. China has taken similar initiatives with Iran and India to involve the two countries in trilateral dialogues with Afghanistan.
“What they are trying to do is to bring all of those neighbours with them and get them to accept a role for Chinese peacemaking,” he said. “Russia will certainly go along with whatever the Chinese propose, as will the Central Asian states.”
During the past year, Beijing has also reached out to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to secure their backing because they are seen as a key funding source for some Afghan insurgents.
Chinese diplomats have held meetings with the Afghan Taliban emissaries in the Gulf and inside Pakistan.
In January, even the Taliban acknowledged its delegation had visited Beijing late last year, but the insurgents stopped short of accepting a Chinese role. A Taliban statement said it “respects the efforts of all concerned parties in this regard, however, it has not yet decided on a new course of action.”
Rashid says that in an unprecedented move, China is even pressuring traditional archrivals India and Pakistan to discuss the future of Afghanistan. “Beijing obviously wants to see Afghanistan and Pakistan develop. They do not want to see two failed states on their northwestern border,” he said.
Beijing has strong reasons to have such fears. In recent years, Beijing has publically aired its concerns about the presence of Muslim Uyghur separatists from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in Afghanistan and Pakistan. China views their alliance with Islamist militant factions in the two countries as a major security threat and is reportedly worried over their unrest turning into a Chechnya-like fiasco.
Beijing blames ETIM for scores of attacks in western China in which hundreds have been killed. Beijing is concerned about increasing violence in the western Uyghur homeland, Xinjiang, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“They want to end the Uyghurs’ training and fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan and stop the supply of fighters returning to Xinjiang,” Rashid said.
Marvin Weinbaum, a South Asia specialist at the Middle East Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., says that despite Beijing’s strong security interest, it is still not clear how far China will go with its policies.
“The test will not be China’s willingness to support reconciliation with the Taliban but whether it will work to foster cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan while also expanding its role in the Afghan economy,” he told Gandhara.
Indeed, Beijing has already expressed interest in financing a series of major energy and infrastructure projects to improve cooperation between the two neighbours.
In Kabul last week, during the first round of the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue, the three countries agreed that Beijing will finance the building of a proposed dam in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar. The 1,500-megawatt hydroelectric project is expected to supply electricity to energy-starved Pakistan and will be jointly managed by the two neighbours.
In addition, China is also expected to bankroll the construction of a motorway connecting the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar to Kabul. A rail link it agreed to finance will connect Quetta, the capital of southwestern Balochistan Province, to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
These projects are a recent addition to the billions of dollars China has already invested in infrastructure, mineral extraction and energy resources in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The two neighbours are an important link in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Silk Road Economic Belt initiative. The plan envisions Beijing investing hundreds of billions of dollars in energy and infrastructure projects in neighbouring South and Central Asian countries to connect East Asia with Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Barnett Rubin, a former State Department adviser, says Washington is “fully on board” with the Chinese efforts.
Rubin, who advised US diplomats on Afghan reconciliation policies in recent years, says Beijing’s role is fundamentally different because, unlike Washington, it is not a party in the Afghan conflict.
“China is close to Pakistan and is trusted on this question [of reconciliation] by the Afghan government and the US,” he told Gandhara. “China’s most important role is creating confidence in Pakistan to facilitate talks with the Afghan Taliban hiding there.”
Rashid looks to the start of direct negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban in the near future as a sign that China’s efforts are succeeding.
“It is really up to the Chinese pressure on Pakistan to allow such a thing to happen,” he said. “What the Afghans want most of all from the Pakistanis is access to the Taliban leadership living in Pakistan.”
Andrew Small, the author of a book on China’s close relations with Pakistan, agrees. He says Beijing is making it clear to Islamabad that it should take China’s interests in Afghanistan into account.
“China’s interests there are all about a stable political settlement and ensuring there is no repeat of the [civil war] in the 1990s,” he said.
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The 2018 Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) annual conference is scheduled for April 8 to 11 in Boao, Hainan Province. The forum will be themed "An Open and Innovative Asia for a World of Greater Prosperity."
— The Daily Mail - People's Daily