BACKGROUND: China’s stake in Central Asian security has grown tremendously over the past decade, along with its rising economic presence in the region and increased bilateral and multilateral diplomatic ties. Although the continuing civil war in Afghanistan has shattered Chinese hopes for great economic gains in that country, China’s economic activities in the rest of Central Asia has been soaring. But a worsening of the Afghan situation, especially the export of terrorism to neighboring countries, would wreck China’s New Silk Road visions for Central Asia and beyond. Chinese concerns in this regard are evident in how its railways, highways, and energy pipelines carefully bypass Afghanistan to traverse more stable routes. An unstable Eurasia would also prevent Chinese planners from concentrating their attention on China’s elevated confrontations with Japan, the Philippines, the U.S., and other countries for hegemony in East Asia.
Whereas Chinese officials used to be most concerned about the spread of “color revolutions” in Central Asia through Western-backed regime change under the guise of democracy promotion, the growth of new regional terrorist groups that are less reluctant than the Afghan Taliban to promote Islamist militancy in China and Afghanistan’s other neighbors has become the dominant anxiety in Beijing. While lacking major state sponsors, these groups, above all the Islamic State, explicitly aim to replace the secular governments in Central Asia with extremist Islamist regimes and detach the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region from Beijing. The 2009 riots in Xinjiang caused almost 200 deaths and more than 1,700 injuries. Since then, a wave of terrorist incidents have occurred throughout China despite the regime’s hard crackdown.
Beijing has trusted Moscow to maintain security in the former Soviet republics given their deep economic and security interdependencies. At times, China has partnered with Russia in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to promote Kabul’s cause, including granting Afghanistan formal status in that body and making benign declarations. But Russia’s capacity to manage the new Eurasian challenges remains under quiet questioning in Beijing given Russia’s economic problems and other security requirements. Chinese analysts still see Western influence in Central Asia as ineffective and easily distracted and do not consider Iran or India as suitable security partners.
Yet, the SCO’s activities regarding Afghanistan have been limited essentially to issuing joint declarations and sharing information about drug trafficking and Afghan terrorists. The participants at this summer’s SCO summit in Ufa expressed alarm about the Afghanistan situation, especially the recent emergence of the Islamic State in parts of Afghanistan and the increased fighting in Afghanistan’s five northern Afghan provinces of Baghdis, Faryab, Jowzjan, Kunduz, and Badakhshan. Afghan leaders urged the SCO to make greater exertions on behalf of their country. But rather than take strong action, the SCO governments only issued more declarations and did not render Afghanistan any concrete economic and security assistance.
IMPLICATIONS: In accordance with Beijing’s policy of non-interference in foreign countries, Chinese officials have insisted that the Afghan reconciliation process has to be “guided and owned by the people of Afghanistan” with other states like China playing a constructive but limited role. However, Beijing has become more assertive to compensate for the vacuum created by the NATO military drawdown and the Russian government’s preoccupation with its western front. NATO’s presence has fallen to some 10,000 soldiers playing mostly a supporting training and equipping function for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) under the auspices of the current “Resolute Support” mission.
The PRC has no tradition of sending its troops to foreign lands. China has avoided contributing to the various multinational forces in Afghanistan, and has sought instead to support the ANSF solely through bilateral ties, non-lethal aid, and offsite training. Linguistic barriers, and the small scale of the Chinese effort compared with the magnitude of the task and the much greater Western and even Russian support have meant that China’s security activities have not appreciably impacted the fighting.
Media reports indicate that the Chinese government has also organized and participated in meetings, in December 2014 and May 2015, between representatives of the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban. In July, direct talks occurred between representatives of the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban in Islamabad. Although these were formally sponsored and hosted by Pakistan, China and the U.S. sent formal observers.
In February, to promote Afghan-Pakistan reconciliation, China chaired a meeting with Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai and Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry. Beijing has tried to entice trilateral cooperation with promises of shared investments – specifically, assistance in building a hydro-electric dam on the Kunar River, which will provide electricity to both countries, and new road and railroad connections between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
When asked about China’s unusual activism, the Foreign Ministry simply affirmed that Beijing wants to help Afghanistan “achieve enduring peace, stability and development at an early date” and is ready to cooperate with all parties and play a constructive role in the extensive and inclusive peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan as always.”
Whether China can succeed in an area where so many have failed is questionable. Chinese diplomats do have the advantage of representing a growing regional power with enormous economic assets that enjoys a rare neutral image in Afghanistan. As noted, Beijing has not sent its troops to the country and its security assistance has been low key. The current Afghan government has also welcomed China’s greater involvement and its representatives have thanked China for supporting the talks. Meanwhile, the U.S. and other foreign governments have backed Beijing’s reconciliation efforts. Those involved with Afghanistan have long seen inducing Pakistan to reduce its support for the Afghan Taliban as critical for forcing the Afghan Taliban to end its insurgency, and Beijing is the government with the most clout over Islamabad’s policies due to China’s strong ties with Pakistan’s security sectors.
But the distrust between Afghanistan and Pakistan has persisted despite China’s mediation and the Afghan Taliban has displayed acute internal divisions over their next steps. While Pakistan, pressured by China, is pushing for reconciliation within the Taliban, the presence of the Islamic State induces Taliban caution since it offers militants in Afghanistan an attractive alternative. The Qatar-based representatives of the Taliban criticized the negotiations in Islamabad as misguided and even treacherous. Another factor working against peace is that the Taliban troops have achieved some successes against the ANSF, whose casualties have soared as NATO forces have pulled back from the front lines and out of the country.
Most recently, the confirmed death of longtime Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar has led to a contest succession struggle within the movement. While Omar’s formal successor Mullah Akhtar Mansoor seems open to continuing the talks with the government, at least for tactical reasons, he lacks Omar’s authority to enforce his preferences over the Taliban field commanders, who can continue fighting without his approval. The Chinese government has now accepted the indefinite suspension of the peace negotiations while expressing a readiness to work with all parties to promote reconciliation.
CONCLUSIONS: Beijing may eventually bite the bullet and assume a more direct role in the peace process or in supporting the Afghan government. In recent years, China’s political leadership and People’s Liberation Army have been breaking with other traditions. For example, the PLA evacuated Chinese citizens from strife-torn Libya and Yemen, contributed combat troops for the first time to UN peacekeeping missions, and are building a fleet of aircraft carriers. But for now Beijing has returned to a wait-and-see attitude as the various Afghan players maneuver for advantage at everyone’s expense.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.
Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons