The Importance of China’ s Role in Afghanistan Peace Talks

After more than 18 years of conflict, the United States (U.S) and the Taliban signed an ‘agreement for bringing peace’ to Afghanistan. The U.S special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Brother signed the deal in Doha, Qatar.  The US and its allies, i.e. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) agreed to withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months if the Taliban follows the deal. In return, the Taliban decided not to allow any extremist militant group to operate in the territory they control. Instead, the agreement quickly hit several snags, including a bitter struggle among political rivals and a Taliban dispute with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani over the release of 5000 prisoners. The U.S inability to enforce the Afghan peace terms, coupled with India-Pakistan regional rivalry, appear paramount obstacles which may further bring inexorable violence in Afghanistan. China’s multiparty diplomacy, unlike the other regional and global powers, may seem a remedy to the never-ending violence in Afghanistan. Moreover, a Chinese initiated Afghan peace process has high credibility, and acknowledged by the regional and the global powers.

China’s ability to reconcile all the political groups, unlike all the regional and the global powers, is quite impressive in Afghanistan. Under the blueprint of the ‘non-intervention’, China did not become a part of a US-led western military assault on Afghanistan. Since 2002, China has been assisting all Afghan governments politically, economically and even with military aid. ‘Treaty of Good Neighborly Friendship and Cooperation’ and US$4.4 billion investment in Aynak Copper deposit further validated the government of Hamid Karzai. In 2012, China-Afghanistan relations further elevated toa ‘strategic partnership’. Since the formation of ‘National Unity Government’ (NUG) in Afghanistan in 2014, both President Ashraf Ghani and Afghan Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Abdullah have enticed China to influence Pakistan to bring the Taliban on the negotiation table.

On the other side, it seems that China has managed to impact the Taliban to the extent, allegedly with Pakistan backing, which no other country can do. Zhao Huasheng writes that  China is not against the Taliban but opposesthe terrorism, separatism and extremism. There also exist implied conciliation between two confirmed by a historical event when, amidst the mounting American pressure, the Taliban saw to China as a relief for their government. Moreover, in December 2000, Mullah Omar met with a Chinese ambassador and, he assured him that the Taliban would not allow any group or country to operate against China from Afghanistan. Not to offend the Afghans in general and the Taliban in particular, China adopted the policy not to send the troops to Afghanistan even on the frequent requests made by America and its allies. The Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a network of transportations from the Black and the Baltic Sea through Russia and Central Asia to Afghanistan to provide non-lethal supplies to International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), China also refused to be the part of this network. Besides, China also fears that too much alignment with the west in Afghanistan could have severe repercussions for her image in the Muslim world.

The rising importance of China in Afghan Peace Process can be assuaged from the fact that a Pakistan based Cleric Maulana Sami ul Haq, who is also known as the ‘Father of Taliban’, requested China to participate and promote Afghanistan peace.In 2014, China hosted the ‘Fourth Ministerial Conference Istanbul Process’ with the participation of the Afghan government. In May 2015, the Afghan government envoy Muhammad Masoom Stanekzai, an important member of the Afghan Peace Council, and the Taliban representatives met in China secretly for exploring peace with the mounting insurgency. China and Pakistan arranged this meeting for initiating a peace process to end the conflict in Afghanistan. The ‘Murree Process’, both the Afghan government and the Taliban were present: it also included the Chinese officials. In 2017 and 2018, China-Pakistan-Afghanistan foreign ministers conference held in Beijing and Kabul respectively. In 2019, when the US President Donald Trump abruptly cancelled the months-long peace talks, after that, a Taliban delegation visited Beijing for discussing the Afghan peace process.

China’s role in Afghanistan seems to have the support of all regional and international players. In 2016,China became an important member of ‘the Quadrilateral Cooperation Group’ including, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the U.S. China also has intelligence cooperation with Russia, Pakistan and Iran in Afghanistan to counter the burgeoning influence of Islamic State of Iraq and Levant(ISIL). On 11 May 2019, Chinese peace envoy for Afghanistan Deng Xijun met with India’s foreign secretary and agreed on cooperation in the Afghan peace process. Deng Xijun also met with Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs and agreed to adopt a common mechanism for the lasting peace in Afghanistan.

Ensuing violence even after the U.S-Taliban peace deal again brings China at the forefront. Unlike the other regional and the international powers, China’s diplomacy has been, to a large extent, successful in bringing the Taliban and the Afghan government at the negotiation table. Under burgeoning Chinese political, economic and security stakes, the regional and the international powers also expect China to be at the driving seat in steering the Afghan peace to a logical conclusion.