Afghanistan: Chinese Whispers Replaced with Discernable Actions
A theatre of rivalries in the past, Afghanistan continues to be an experiment ground for regional and international permutations and combinations – those that put it at the centre of conflicts and those that seek to bring it peace. The series of trials and errors that have followed since the fall of Taliban in 2001 have generated a sense of purposelessness and hopelessness around initiatives that are meant to give it a semblance of security and order. One such attempt to bring peace to Afghanistan was the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG).
Apart from being a key international initiative that was taken in the post-drawdown period (post-2014), the other factor that lent it greater importance was the pronounced participation of China in it. QCG brought the Chinese on publicly on board as a major player to resolve the Afghan crisis. Not that China had not been party to other international conventions and actions, however maintaining caution towards involving itself directly in political and diplomatic matters concerning Afghanistan, the Chinese parleys were restricted to economics alone. However, the Chinese have taken upon themselves a different role and responsibility. China is no longer whispering on Afghanistan anymore.
China’s Relations with Afghanistan
Ties between China and Afghanistan are fairly old. Establishing diplomatic relations in 1955, the Chinese and Afghans had proceeded to conclude many cooperation treaties, including a ‘border treaty’ (1963), in quick succession. Exchange of high-level visits further solidified “the foundation for the development of friendly relations” between China and Afghanistan. The decade-long Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was condemned by the Chinese, who, in projecting the sourness of their ties with the former USSR, degraded their diplomatic ties with the Soviet-backed Afghanistan to ‘representative office handling visa and consular issues’. Following the fall of the Soviet-backed Najibullah government in 1992, the ties between China and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan led by Salahuddin Rabbani were once again established. However, in the extremely violent contest for power that pursued within Afghanistan – a period that is dubbed as ‘Civil War’ – China had to wind up its presence and shut its Embassy in 1993. The establishment of ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ under Taliban in 1996 was not recognized by China, extending, as a result, the period of official diplomatic absence of the Chinese in the Afghan territory.
Following the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001, China was quick to become a part of the international cohort that oversaw the emergence of the “Interim Administration of Afghanistan” established under the Bonn Agreement and recognized the “Transitional Government of Afghanistan” led by Hamid Karzai. As early as in January 2002,Karzai visited China and met the then President and Premier, giving the ties between Afghanistan and China a formal accent. It was during this interaction that China agreed to provide material and cash aid to Afghanistan for its reconstruction. This was followed by there-opening of China’s Embassy on February 6, 2002 and was subsequently followed by the visit of then Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan in May 2002. Agreements including, “Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation” and “Declaration of Good Neighbourly Relations” were two of the most prominent points of cooperation and convergence that were witnessed between China and Afghanistan in the immediate year following the establishment of the transitional administrative authority in Afghanistan.
Stepping-up its Role, Especially After the American Drawdown
Where China had been forthcoming in engaging with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan since it came into being (once again) in 2001, the Chinese have shied away from involving itself in the affairs militarily. Maybe taking lessons from history of backlashes against those who tried to exert their military power over Afghanistan, China kept its involvement restricted to economic investments. Even as its bilateral donation to Afghanistan has been miniscule especially when compared to what India has offered, China has emerged as the largest single foreign investor in Afghanistan so far. Aware of the abundance of mineral and energy resources wealth Afghanistan has to offer, the Chinese, in the backdrop of their ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), have hedged their bets on cultivating the resource wealth of Afghanistan for fuelling its own economic growth. It comes as no surprise that China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC), a state-owned mining conglomerate, bid the highest amount to mine the copper mines in Mes Aynak. Bidding for these exclusive rights at a whopping US 3.4 billion, which according to reports is USD 1 billion more than what US and Russia had bid, China is expected to excavate what is known to the be the second-biggest known copper mine in a lease that is supposed to last thirty years. This lease was bagged by MCC in 2007 amidst allegations of corruption and possible reneging of the terms of contractby the company, especially in the light of growing insecurity in and around the mines. It is worth noting here that Mes Aynak is one of the most preferred routes taken by insurgents along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to move between the two countries, and as a result, is exposed to volatility and lack of security.
Investing little in controlling the spawning insurgency in Afghanistan, it has often been felt that the Chinese are building on the foundation – however faulty it might be – laid down by the blood and money of someone else. Such accusations of ‘free-loading’ against the Chinese are not new. However, emerging from this steering-clear policy followed by the Chinese, China today is finding the tide turned in its favour within Afghanistan. Popular perception regarding China in general and support for the mining process in particular have got the government(s) of Afghanistan and people on board largely.
The drawdown of the American led-NATO forces from Afghanistan in December 2014 has resulted in the stepping-up of the Chinese interest and investment in the country. This time, however, this investment and interest is more diplomatic, political and geared at restoring peace in Afghanistan. Starting with the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) – a group comprising of USA, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan – the Chinese offer for mediation in the on-going Afghan crisis registered in the public memory.
Where the QCG proved to be a dud, although the talks of its revival are being heard, what it did establish was that the Chinese interest in Afghanistan was now going beyond the economic domain, but maybe with an eye to serve its larger economic goals. The reported talks it has held with Taliban delegations speaks loudly about the new role it is assuming. What has made the odds favourable for China to play this role is its “all-weather friendship” with Pakistan and the economic largesse it has committed to Afghanistan, making China a country they both would like to listen to. As recent as in the month of March 2017, Express Tribune reported that a delegation of Afghan Taliban led by the head of head of Taliban’s political office in Qatar, Sher Abbas Stanikazai, had visited China on the latter’s request. Chinamaintains that its meetings with the Taliban are meant to encourage the group to take part in the peace dialogue. The Taliban, on its part, maintains that it is yielding to such requests, according to them, because ‘it recognizes China as a major world power and a major stakeholder’ and that its consultations with China are much like the ‘relations its political office (in Qatar) maintains with other countries’.
Affected by setbacks including, the confirmation of the death of Mullah Omar (Rehbar of Taliban), rifts within the Taliban; the death of Mullah Akhtar Mansour (successor to Mullah Omar), and the growing exasperation of the Afghan government with the Pakistani reluctance to stem its ‘export of terror’ to Afghanistan, the QCG could not turn out to be much. Replacing this quad-squad with a trilateral, China along with Pakistan and Russia, held a meeting in December 2016 to discuss peace in Afghanistan and called for Taliban to be included in the eventual process. In the absence of Afghanistan – the country in concern – this trio irked many, including India, resulting in the expansion of this group to include India, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics at later stages. Being on the same page as Russia and Pakistan on the necessity to bring Taliban on board, China once again demonstrated its increasing willingness to take the driver’s seat in the Afghan peace process.
From Multilateral Actions to Shuttle Diplomacy
The drawing down of the American-led NATO forces from Afghanistan created questions around international political leadership that was to see this war-torn nation to wade out of its crisis. Although the American policies have been reversed since then, and are likely to be reversed even more, the vacuum that was created back in 2014 looked for someone to step in. It is here that China appears to have seized the opportunity.
Aspiring to be a global power in all sense of the term, it recognized that it could not project itself as one if it did not take upon the role of being a conflict manager and resolver. The equations in Afghanistan, which it knows it could get a grip on especially owing to its influence on Pakistan, led it to huddle itself into negotiating with the Taliban and become part of almost all the peace processes that have followed. And, it has not stopped there.
In a recent development that has been dubbed as “shuttle diplomacy“, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, made back-to-back visits to Islamabad and Kabul in the hope to break the deadlock between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Calling itself a “mutual friend” of Afghanistan and Pakistan, China through this initiative has offered to mediate between the two countries. To this effect, it has been reported that emerging from the Chinese efforts, Afghanistan and Pakistan have agreed to establish a “Bilateral Crisis Management Mechanism“. In addition to this, the three countries are also expected to have ministerial dialogues to facilitate conversation on matters of mutual concern.
Statements from the Presidential Palace in Afghanistan also suggest that the Chinese Foreign Minister was apprised about the Taliban and Haqqani Network havens in Pakistan and the attacks on civilians being launched from there. Wang, according to the statement had said, “Pakistan has influence on the Taliban and would ask the country to use its influence on the Taliban”. Going a step further, he also stated, “”Pakistan has showed willingness in this regard and we would call for practical steps”.
Will the Chinese Walk the Talk?
Serving its own interests, and in various ways, restoration of peace and security in Afghanistan would reap a lot of benefits for China. To begin with, it is expected that stability in Afghanistan and the minimization (or cessation) of militant activities there will keep the unrest in China’s Xinjiang province on low flame. Second, the fear of spread of Islamic extremism to the Central Asian Republics would also get contained, although one has to exercise caution here and recognize that there is more to extremism and radicalism than what Taliban perpetuates. Third, for the success of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which will traverse through the territories of Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics, it will be crucial to ensure overall political stability in this region. Also, to safeguard its existing investment in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which has been a target of militant activities and terror ploys, it will be vital to get Afghanistan and Pakistan on the same page since the latter has accused former of perpetrating terror on its soil!
Hitting many birds with a single stone, it would certainly be in the interest of China to see that peace and stability are restored in Afghanistan. While it is yet to the walk the required mile vis-à-vis Pakistan, prevailing on it to tackle the terror and extremist threats that emanate from its soil, it would certainly be advantageous for China in the longer run to create a semblance of order in the region through which it wants its road to prosperity to run.