China, Pakistan & Afghanistan: a strategic partnership for regional peace

Authors: Shahid Ali  &  Wang Li

On August 21 (Monday), U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled his new Afghanistan strategy in a national address, calling a rapid exit of the US troops from Afghanistan "unacceptable" and pledging a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions. Evidently, Trump ruled out a quick exit of the US troops, saying that a "nasty withdrawal" would create a vacuum that terrorists including the Islamic State and al-Qaida would instantly fill.

That means that the Untied States have been facing "immense" security threats in Afghanistan and the broader region, which made him stop following his "original instinct" to "pull out" the troops. Ahead of Trump's speech, he had already agreed on Defense Secretary Mattis' plans to send about 4,000 more troops in Afghanistan. This meant Trump’s strategy for the United States was not nation-building but focusing on "killing terrorists."

Meanwhile, President Trump in his speech heavily accused Pakistan’s close links with the militant groups involved in launching cross-border attacks on U.S and Afghan forces. He even reasoned that “Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror… Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people.” In the wake of Trump’s grim accusation of Pakistan, China’s FM Wang Yi met with Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua and affirmed Beijing’s support to Islamabad, followed by a formal statement as follows: “Pakistan is at the forefront of the counter-terrorism efforts. For many years, it has made positive efforts and great sacrifices for combating terrorism. We believe that the international community should fully recognize the efforts made by Pakistan in fighting terrorism.”

Actually, Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a shuttle diplomacy during June 24-25 towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he frankly had a vital task on mediation at the two sides’ request to promote the improvement of bilateral relations and support the Afghan reconciliation process. As he stated that China never interferes in the internal affairs of other countries, never imposes China’s will on others and never involves in geopolitical imbroglio. During his visit, he had candid and in-depth talks with the leaders of the two countries ended with a joint communiqué involving the core points: the three countries are to jointly safeguard regional peace and stability. Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed to establish a bilateral crisis management mechanism to which China would provide full support. The three countries agreed to resume the coordination group of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the U.S. and to devote to domestic peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan and call on Taliban to join in the peace process at an early stage. Finally, China reaffirmed its support to resume the liaison group between the SCO and Afghanistan in order to play a constructive role in promoting the reconciliation process of the region en block.

Now the question is why China is eager to act a “responsible role” in the Afghanistan issue? And what is China concerned with the current reality in this war-worn land?

Some scholars like Jeffrey Kaplan argued that Afghanistan is a “failed” state, and the Taliban has actually controlled the area of resources and many other parts of China-planed infrastructure projects. Rather, tribal militias, bandits groups and conflict zones dot the whole landscape of today’s Afghanistan. In addition, some held that China’s approach to have dialogue with the Taliban and then to have negotiations with the Kabul regime were perceived as a challenge to the United States. If the American troops withdrew to their barracks and away from active combat, China will be then left in a position of making many promises but having none of capacity of securing projects that traverse territory not under Kabul’s government control. What these people argued are due to, on the one hand, their unawareness of Chinese efforts to cooperate closely with Pakistan, Afghanistan and other SCO members; and on the other hand, China has been involved with the Group of Four, along with Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States, seeking peace talks in the country. We can argue that China’s approach to the issue of Afghanistan has since been cautious and cooperative.

President Trump’s new Afghanistan and South Asia Policy assigns a greater role to India to assist the U.S to bring an end to its longest “war without a victory”. He further argued that “We want them (India) to help us more with Afghanistan”. According to many analysts, the U.S. decision to engage India to play a more active role in Afghanistan is a part of U.S strategy to counter the growing China and Russia in terms of vicissitudes in Eurasia. Furthermore, The U.S. emphasis on giving India a larger role in Afghanistan at the expense of Pakistan would enable New Delhi to snip a strategic advantage over China. Strategically, China has high stakes in Afghanistan in view of a more active and broader Indian role and a greater US-India coordination in Afghanistan which could bring serious consequences for China’s core interests in the region. Given this, it is imperative for China to play a more constructive role in Afghanistan for protection and development of its “Belt & Road Initiative”.

Geopolitically, Afghanistan is not only a neighbor of China, but also is deemed as one of the key exits of China’s “Belt & Road Initiative” to the broader areas of the Central Asian and the Middle East. In fact, it is well-known that President Xi Jin-ping has extended China’s “grand century project” to Afghanistan which has met with enthusiastic desire from successive administration in Kabul. As the most reliable ally of China, Pakistan has agreed to work with China involving Afghanistan into the key projects such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the CASA 1000 electrification which offers the prospect of desperately needed infrastructure and energy development into a country wracked by generations of bloody conflict. Equally, according to US Pentagon report in 2012, the potential supply of lithium was so great in Afghanistan that the country could become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium” once it is exploited properly. Added to this are vast deposits of gold, iron, copper and cobalt. As a rising economic superpower, China needs both natural resources and regional security in Afghanistan.

Domestically, China and Afghanistan have the shared border of 60 miles, but the latter is adjacent to China’s Muslim communities in Xinjiang. Although Beijing has insisted on having dialogue with the Taliban groups, Uighurs from China has increasingly appeared in ISIS propaganda video, denouncing Chinese approaches to the Muslims that made China becoming more controversial in Islamic circles. There is a dilemma in all this. In Ningxia, another of China’s region of Muslim people, who have lived in harmony with the majority of Chinese and their religious life is much more peaceful than many Muslim polities. But in terrorism, the medium is the message and few outside of China have ever heard of Chinese Muslims citizens. It is also true that well-trained Uighur terrorists were reported to cross the border into Chinese side, but many of them were either arrested by the Afghani authorities or driven back by the Chinese borders guards. In this case, Afghanistan does indeed play the role of what China needs badly.

According to my survey recently, most of the students from Afghanistan who are now in China believed that for China Afghanistan can be strategically valuable due to its geographic pivot at the crossroad of South Asia and the Central Asia. Its vast resources are untapped and present great potential opportunities. No doubt, the notorious security dilemma and corruption challenges have deterred many Foreign Direct Investments. But China has played the key role in supporting peace talks between the government and the Taliban by encouraging the latter to join the nation-building. Obviously, peace and security in Afghanistan not only contribute to the war-wracked country, but also helps China feel secure regarding in its western border region—like Xinjiang. To that end, China has sped up its cooperation with Afghanistan in terms of providing military aid and security training for counter-terrorists efforts. In 2015, Chinese FM Wang Yi addressed at Shanghai forum that China had will and capability to play a constructive role in the Afghani reconciliation and the post-war reconstruction. Thereby, “China can become a better interlocutor for peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region than the US.”

There is a cliché existed that the American involvement into Afghanistan led them into disastrous imbroglio while the Soviet misadventure in the same country ended with great humiliation. Whether the Chinese approach to Afghanistan will be any more promising than those of the U.S. or USSR is questionable. Yet, as a rising power, China unquestionably seeks its own glorious moment on the world stage. The prospects for the success of the “BRI” in Afghanistan are currently uncertain. However, people who are pessimistic or suspicious of China’s motive and approach have ignored three key points as such. First, China’s involvement into the land of Muslim population is unlike those of the United States and the Soviet Union, for it is more economic win-win method backed up by its growing strong military. Second, now China has strategic partnership with nearly all the neighbors of Afghanistan that means China is not alone in dealing with the regional security issue. Evidently, Beijing has worked consistently on the prospect of inviting the SCO into Afghanistan. Third, after several generations of both civil wars and foreign wars, the Afghan people are desirous of peace, stability and the decent life.  Yes, God alone knows the outcome, but no one can deny people’s will and wishes.

Shahid Ali (Pakistan), a PhD student in International Relations, SIPA, Jilin University

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