China’s Increasing Role in Afghan Strategic Landscape
China’s stated goals for engaging with Afghanistan are two pronged. Firstly to support the ‘Afghan led and Afghan owned’ peace process aimed at bringing peace and stability to the region and secondly to help Afghanistan enhance connectivity with its neighbours.
A stable situation in the region directly helps China pursue its “One Belt One Road” initiative and aids building the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The initiative also aims at development of a futuristic China-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Iran Railway project. This ‘connectivity’ also extends to information and communication and facilitates launch of a “Afghan Satellite 2” cooperation project.
Afghanistan, practically devoid of a “Super Power” ally post partial withdrawal of US troops and thinning of NATO assistance, looked at China for help. The change of political dispensation in Kabul beginning September 2014 provided an opportunity to Afghanistan to seek developmental assistance, and China as a regional super power willingly obliged to fill up the strategic gap. Since then bilateral relations between Afghanistan and China have been on an upswing. President Ashraf Ghani wasted little time and undertook his first official visit to China in October 2014 where he was warmly received by the Chinese President Xi Jinping. This was followed by visits of its foreign and interior ministers in quick succession leading to signing of six bilateral MoUs relating to diverse fields.
The scope and intensity of visits increased rapidly, especially in the field of defence cooperation with China showing growing interest in engaging with Afghanistan. The visit of Afghan Defence Minister Masoom Stanekzai in October 2015 culminated in the signing of a MoU between the two sides and handing over of a list of equipment sought by Afghanistan to strengthen Afghan National Army (ANA).
A Chinese military delegation led by General Fang Fengui, Chief of China’s Military Commission and its Chief of General Staff, reciprocated by visiting Kabul in February 2016. Most significantly it pledged US $ 70 million in support to ANA.
In another significant visit in April 2016, the Afghan National Security Advisor paid a visit to China and met senior ministers and officials of the Communist Party, besides General Feng, and again made a request for military hardware including aircraft, radars and military uniforms.
Mr Abdullah Abdullah, Chief Executive of Afghanistan also paid an official visit to China including a visit to Xinjian from 15 to 18 May 2016. During his meeting with Chinese President Li Jingping, he reiterated the requirement of having strong security forces and made a request for Chinese assistance; Mr Jingping agreed to enhance ANA’s security capabilities.
The growing bilateral engagement between the two neighbours notwithstanding, China’s most significant initiative for a momentous role in Af-Pak region has been its willingness to play an active role in Afghan peacemaking. A major reason for acceptance of China in the peace process and inclusion in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) was the belief of Afghanistan that China’s influence over Pakistan would help it to bring Taliban on board the peace initiative and bring semblance to the talks and check mate Pakistan’s complete hold over Taliban. Taliban too was happy with Chinese inclusion in the QCG so as to minimize US influence.
China’s interest to be a party to the process was guided by its peripheral policy and security interests in Xinjiang where Uighur separatists have been active, predominantly with the support of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Peace and stability in the region is also paramount to help China achieve its goal for better connectivity and completion of Silk Road Economic Belt corridor. With China committing itself to huge investments to complete CPEC bringing peace to the region has been its paramount interest.
The peace talks did not move as planned due to refusal of Afghan Taliban to join talks. Continued attacks by Taliban on numerous targets in Afghanistan forced President Ashraf Ghani to suspend talks in April 2016 amid increasing criticism from within Afghanistan. The killing of Mullah Mansour in a drone initiated attack further vitiated the atmosphere. To most observers it appeared as good as an end of QCG and peace talks.
But in a significant development a delegation of the Qatar based Taliban’s political office led by Abbas Stanakzai visited China from 18 to 21 July 2016 at Chinese invitation to discuss current situation in Afghanistan. Speaking to Voice of America, Taliban’s spokesman neither denied nor confirmed the visit. There was no official statement from China. Afghanistan reacted strongly, disapproving the reported courting of Taliban by China. Its spokesman Ahmed Shakib Mustaghani stated that Afghanistan and China enjoy “strong friendly relations. We believe our friends in China will always prefer to maintain state-to-state relations and will not provide a platform to those groups that are responsible for the killing of people of Afghanistan,”
China’s engagement with Taliban without knowledge of Afghanistan clearly points to the close Pakistan-China nexus to steam roll the events in Afghanistan. With Afghan-Pakistan relations deteriorating due to refusal of Pakistan to persuade Taliban to come to the negotiating table and inability of the US to make any headway in re-starting peace talks, it probably dawned on the Chinese to take the initiative to engage with Taliban. With Pakistan continuing to hold leverage over the new Taliban dispensation headed by Mullah Hakimullah and his deputy Sirajuddin Haqqani, although it ostensibly denies the fact, the Chinese would be forced to tow the line of Pakistan since Taliban essentially operates from the sanctuaries located on Pakistan’s territory and has almost complete control over it.
The Chinese see Taliban as a major player where it has been steadily making inroads into Afghan territory, especially Helmend where it is reported to have made territorial gains forcing US led airstrikes on Taliban strongholds. A report also suggests that Taliban currently holds control over approximately five percent of Afghan territory and has been attacking Afghan National Army regularly inflicting heavy casualties. Taliban is no pushover and keeping its channels open with Afghan Taliban may be a prudent way forward for China to keep playing an active role in the region.
China’s current engagement is with the Qatar based Taliban dispensation whose influence in Afghanistan in comparison to Quetta Shura is limited. The current engagements with Taliban therefore may only be exploratory in nature and further movements would depend on the reaction of key players engaged in peace talks. It also points to the fact that any future peace talks which are only Afghan led are unlikely to be successful.
The increasing role of China to push a Pakistan centric agenda necessitates a joint initiative by India, Iran and Russia to increase their role and assistance to Afghanistan and strengthen the current government which seems to be facing challenges on multiple fronts, more specifically relating to its legitimacy and stability.
Ahmed Bilal Khalil http://thediplomat.com/2016/06/the-rise-of-china-afghanistan-security-relation