Thursday, 22 January 2015

China's Role in Stabilizing Afghanistan

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By Sudha Ramachandran (01/22/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani’s recent visit to Beijing was an important milestone in Sino-Afghan relations as it marked the start of China’s enhanced role in Afghanistan, especially as a peacemaker in the war-ravaged country. While Beijing’s close ties with Pakistan will come in handy in dealing with the Taliban, the road to building stability in Afghanistan is littered with landmines. Can Beijing succeed where mightier powers such as the Soviet Union and the United States did not?

BACKGROUND: China’s growing profile in Afghanistan, especially as a peacemaker has sparked intense discussion worldwide about its motivations, assets, challenges and chances of success. It was Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to China late last year that signaled Beijing’s growing role in the strife-torn country. Ghani’s choice of China as the destination of his first state visit abroad was interpreted as an indication of the priority he accords Beijing in Afghanistan’s future, especially in the context of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which ended its combat mission on December 31.

During Ghani’s visit, China signaled plans to intensify engagement with Afghanistan. It pledged US$ 327 million in grants through 2017, professional training for 3,000 Afghans over the next five years, humanitarian aid, etc. In addition, the two countries announced a “new important consensus” on combating the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a separatist group in China’s Xinjiang province that borders Afghanistan. Besides, China expressed support for a peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan that is “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.”

Although China and Afghanistan are neighbors, bilateral engagement was limited for decades. Even after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, China maintained a low profile. It avoided sending troops and contributed just US$ 250 million to Afghanistan in the 2002-13 period, preferring to focus on investment in Afghanistan’s natural resources sector. It was only in 2012 that Afghanistan began occupying more space on China’s diplomatic radar. In February that year, China’s then security chief Zhou Yongkang visited Kabul, becoming the most senior Chinese leader to visit Afghanistan in over four decades. Underscoring China’s rising role in Afghanistan’s internal security, Zhou announced plans to train Afghan policemen. More recently, Beijing appointed a special envoy on Afghanistan.

China’s new interest in Afghanistan’s stability stems from anxieties over rising militancy of its Uighur separatists and their links with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. There is concern too over the impact that persisting instability in Afghanistan will have on Chinese investments there. A US$ 3 billion-deal reached in 2007 for extraction and processing of copper from the Mes Aynak mines is yet to take off. China’s other investment plans inside Afghanistan, its plans for development of its western provinces as well as its Silk Route ambitions hinge on a stable Afghanistan. But a deteriorating security situation looms especially with ISAF pulling out the bulk of its troops from Afghanistan. Beijing’s new willingness to play a stabilizing role in Afghanistan must be seen in this context.

IMPLICATIONS: What is China’s plan for stabilizing Afghanistan? It is expected to avoid deploying troops in Afghanistan as it is keen to avoid getting caught in a quagmire. However, the Chinese government is mulling legislation on deploying troops in counter-terrorism missions abroad with the consent of the host nation. This suggests that it could consider deployment on limited missions in Afghanistan perhaps against Uighur militants taking sanctuary there.

Its strategy will focus on economic development, especially on its traditional strength in resource extraction and infrastructure development, an approach that Ghani, a former World Bank economist, will welcome.

Another important pillar of its stabilization strategy is support for the reconciliation process. It has welcomed the Taliban to any “neutral venue such as China.” Its special envoy on Afghanistan, Sun Yuxi, is said to have met the Taliban more than once in Peshawar, Pakistan and a Taliban delegation led by Qari Din Mohammad, a member of the Taliban political office in Doha, visited China recently. Among the issues discussed was an idea China promoted at the recent “Heart of Asia” ministerial conference it hosted in Beijing, which favors establishing a regional forum for reconciliation in Afghanistan.

China possesses several advantages as its steps into a peacemaking role in Afghanistan. Unlike other powers, it is not burdened by a negative historical legacy. Importantly, it enjoys close ties with Pakistan and will leverage its enormous influence over Islamabad to get it to support the peace process as well as to bring on board the Taliban. Besides, China has set up or is part of several groupings/dialogues such as the Pakistan-China-Afghanistan trilateral dialogue; the India-China-Russia dialogue, the 6+1 dialogue on Afghanistan, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, whose input, expertise, or support it can draw on. China has also stepped up its engagement with Washington on Afghanistan. Finally, China has powerful inducements – benefits of regional trade and economic development - to lure Pakistan and Afghanistan to the negotiating table and to co-operate and reach a settlement.

However, problems loom. The kind of development China is considering could itself trigger new conflicts. Resource extraction the world over is known to generate anger among local communities as it involves complicated land acquisition and contamination of local resources. Jobs promised to locals often fail to compensate their loss of land and access to forests. This is likely to become more troublesome in the Chinese context as its companies working abroad prefer taking Chinese laborers to work on the projects. This has been the experience in Africa, for instance. An influx of Chinese workers into Afghanistan would complicate an already difficult conflict situation.  

CONCLUSION: China’s agenda in Afghanistan is limited; it is not considering any grand nation-building project or seeking to determine the complexion of the Afghanistan government. All it wants is stability there. This will require it to convince the conflict parties to give up violence. This may not be easy. There is little to suggest that Pakistan wants to move away from using terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy in the neighborhood. China faces a formidable task of convincing Pakistan. How far will it go to succeed? Will it be willing to take on Islamabad if Pakistan resists mending its ways? Importantly, China may have to contend with the Islamic State (IS) as well. Afghan officials confirm the presence of IS fighters in southern Afghanistan. Taliban-IS tensions could leave China grappling with a conflict that is more complex than those that the Soviets and Americans struggled with.

This is the first time that China will be essaying the role of peacemaker outside its borders. It must adopt an inclusive approach on economic development. Ordinary Afghans must benefit and not just their leaders if they are to be weaned away from weapons and war. Beijing needs to be inclusive with regard to the peace process as well. Getting a handful of parties to sign a peace agreement may be simpler but it will not culminate in a sustainable peace. A broad-based approach that draws as many actors as possible to the table is necessary. Inclusion of communities at the ground level is necessary as they are vital pillars in building peace. Beijing must keep Afghanistan’s neighbors and the regional powers as well as the U.S. and Russia in the loop as opacity triggers suspicion. Importantly, it must move beyond the realm of rhetoric to enable a genuinely Afghan-owned and led peace process, one where Afghan ideas and capacity are sought. This is after all Afghanistan’s peace process.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent researcher / journalist based in India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues. Her articles have appeared in Asia Times Online, The Diplomat, and China Brief. She can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

(Image Attribution: The State Council of the People's Republic of China)

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