In February 2015, Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, suggested Beijing mediate in the peace talks between the official authorities in Kabul and the Taliban: “We will support the Afghan Government in the issue of reconciliation with the various political groups, including the Taliban… China is ready to play a constructive role and provide the necessary assistance at any time if required by the various parties in Afghanistan.”
Throughout the years of the anti-terrorist campaign of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, China closely monitored the situation in the northwest region. In September 2001, after the fall of the Taliban regime in Kabul, Beijing provided Afghanistan help in the amount of $ 250 million. In those days, financial support was limited and mostly confined to training anti-drug specialists.
Completion of ISAF’s combat mission at the end of 2014 did not bring the expected peace to Afghanistan. Stabilization efforts made by both internal and external actors and the transfer of security responsibility to Afghan forces did not have the desired successful result. In such circumstances, the probability of Taliban groups trying to topple the government and retake Kabul, as in 1996, was not excluded. In turn, this created a risk of further growth of cross-border extremism and the spread of the drug threat in the region.
Successful completion of the electoral process, the formation of a national unity government, the first in the country’s history peaceful transfer of power from one elected head of state to the next, and the coming to power of President Ashraf Ghani in September 2014 also have not brought the situation in the country any closer to normal. The implementation of a program of national reconciliation, negotiations with the main anti-constitutional force, the Taliban, remained one of the challenges inherited by the new Afghan administration. Taliban representatives, beginning with the deployment of NATO coalition forces in Afghanistan in September 2001 as part of the international anti-terror campaign, refused direct contacts with both administrations – in Kabul and Washington.
Kabul has an important place in the foreign policy priorities of the countries of the region – Russia, India, China, Pakistan – and is traditionally an important element of their national security strategy. In 2015, as a result of the withdrawal of NATO military forces from Afghanistan, each of the countries has intensified its efforts for a new world order in West Asia.
Long-standing opposition between Islamabad and New Delhi set goals, firstly, to prevent the expansion of either party in Afghanistan and, secondly, to ensure its own influence within the country’s political establishment.
Since approximately 2013, Beijing has become visibly more active in the Kabul area. Beijing’s Northwest foreign policy vector aimed at political settlement, ensuring strong forces in the Afghan establishment, a stable socio-economic development of the country and thus guaranteed non-repetition of the intra-Afghan war following the scenario of the 1990s.
Beijing had worked laboriously before declaring its official connection to the national reconciliation process in Afghanistan. It had received some assurance of support from each of the parties to the conflict, both in Afghanistan and in the region, in particular from Islamabad. As is well known, Pakistan, particularly its military establishment, has maintained contacts with the Afghan Taliban for many years, and, according to many analysts, the keys to the negotiations are in the hands of the Pakistani generals. According to local media, the Commander of the Faithful, the Emir of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Mullah Omar (1996 – 2001), has been in Pakistan in the last years.
Islamabad had also taken steps to encourage intra-Afghan dialogue. But, for various reasons, there was no trust in the Pakistani-Afghan relations. Over the past thirteen years, Kabul has repeatedly accused Islamabad of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, in sheltering their leaders on its territory.
As for Beijing, it associated the peacekeeping mission on the territory of its northwestern neighbor with its national security and, in particular, in such areas as:
Further strengthening of trade and economic relations, the search for new hydrocarbon energy commodity tracks, and, as a consequence, access to the markets of Central Asian States (western direction), to the waters of the Strait of Hormuz and the Indian Ocean (south-west) through the Pakistani port of Gwadar. This is part of China’s strategy of economic growth in its internal and less developed western regions such as Xinjiang.
- Fighting against Islamist extremism and terrorism in the region, the localization of separatist tendencies in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
- Strengthening relations with its closest partners for the further growth of economic potential and dominance in the Asian region.
Beijing comprehensively and proactively approached the issue of mediation in the national settlement in Afghanistan by developing a series of long-term economic and political programs.
Over the past few years, China has invested billions of dollars into the economy of Afghanistan, investing directly in the infrastructure, mining and energy resources of the country.
Afghanistan, for its part, recognized that long-term sustainability of its economy could only be achieved through enhanced integration in the region. President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani Achakzai’s first foreign visit was made to China in October 2014.
However, for Beijing the matrix of political and economic cooperation in the West Asia region were not just bilateral relations, but comprehensive regional cooperation. The China-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral strategic dialogue and the diplomatic forum between Islamabad and Kabul were aimed at the development of mutual economic cooperation. In 2015, Beijing and Islamabad once again confirmed their support of the “Afghan-led reconciliation process.”
In 2015, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, in the framework of the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue supported Beijing funding the hydropower project in Kunar with a capacity of 1500 MW in eastern Afghanistan. Commissioning of the dam also involves the supply of electricity to Pakistan, which in recent years has been experiencing a severe energy crisis. It is agreed that the project management team representing both countries will manage the project jointly.
In the future, China plans to finance the construction of a highway linking the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar and Kabul and a railway track from the Pakistani city of Quetta (the capital of Baluchistan province) northwards to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
One of the regional challenges for the “triangle” is Islamic extremism. China and Pakistan have expressed fears that the withdrawal from Afghanistan of such a deterrent as the US / NATO coalition forces would lead to activation of militants in Afghanistan.
China fears that the Islamist wave could reach Xinjiang where local ethnic Uighurs have repeatedly demanded the secession from the People’s Republic of China.
In parallel with the development of diplomatic and economic initiatives, Beijing is working to ensure regional consensus on the Afghan reconciliation. In previous years, it has closely followed the attempts by the US and other NATO countries to organize direct negotiations between representatives: between former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the leaders of the Taliban. With the appointment in July 2014 of China’s special representative for Afghanistan, San Yuxi, Beijing has made significant progress in this regard.
Chinese diplomats have held several meetings with the emissaries of the Afghan Taliban in the Gulf and in Pakistan. Considering the Gulf countries as the main source of funding for certain groups of Afghan militants, in 2014 Beijing appealed to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to ensure their support in establishing contacts and meetings.
According to the Afghan and Pakistani media, a Taliban delegation visited China in late 2014 and held talks. However, in January 2015 the rebels said they are taking a break in order to understand whether or not to accept China’s role as mediator, to what extent and under what conditions. In their statement, the Taliban said that they “respect the efforts of all stakeholders in this regard, however, have not yet decided on a new course of action.”
Three features distinguish Beijing’s handwriting when organizing potential negotiations. Firstly, the Chinese have covered all the major players involved in the conflict, both within Afghanistan and in the region. Secondly, they showed a maximum of neutrality to all participants, and this has earned them credibility even among Afghan militants. Thirdly, Beijing is not a party to the conflict.
In these circumstances, China has consistently pushed all regional and intra-Afghan parties to accept its role in the national reconciliation process in Afghanistan.
Natalya Zamaraeva, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, Pakistan Institute for Near-East Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”