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China’s Afghan policy

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China’s Afghan policy

Afghanistan-ChinaAs part of its more assertive Asian diplomacy, China is playing an increasingly active role in Afghanistan. In the past two years it has also raised the profile of its diplomatic and economic engagement. This marks a departure from its previous low-key posture.

The shift has received little public attention in Pakistan. As have the various trilaterals that China is now conducting on Afghanistan to deepen regional understanding and cooperation – with Pakistan and Afghanistan on the one hand, and Pakistan and Russia on the other.

The third round of the China-Pakistan-Afghanistan trilateral dialogue was held in Kabul earlier this December. The second round of the dialogue between Pakistan, China and Russia was hosted by Islamabad in November. These have emerged as important new forums to share assessments and seek to align diplomatic strategies.

China has a fundamental interest in Afghanistan’s peace and stability. As Chinese officials often point out, it is the only major power with an “immediate border” with Afghanistan. China’s Afghan policy has been influenced in recent years by the security imperative of protecting its border regions, particularly Xinjiang province, and to contain the separatist activities of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which has links with militant groups fighting in Afghanistan. China’s stake in a stable Afghanistan is also driven by the concern to protect its economic investments there.

In recent years Beijing has upgraded bilateral cooperation with Afghanistan and, with that, enhanced its diplomatic profile. The increasing engagement has been driven, in part, by the approaching deadline of the US-Nato military drawdown from that country. As a senior Chinese official explained to me, once Western engagement reduces in Afghanistan “it will be up to the neighbours to coordinate efforts in support of its peace and stability”. China will act in concert with others and not seek any lead role.

Beijing’s interest in playing a greater regional role especially to build consensus on post-2014 Afghanistan is also indicated by the fact that China will host the ministerial meeting of the Istanbul process next year in Tianjin city.

Pakistan and China have a number of shared goals and interests in Afghanistan. Both want to see the critical transitions in 2014 completed peacefully and smoothly. They also regard political accommodation among different Afghanistan forces as indispensable to the country’s stability; both emphasise this should be secured through an Afghan-led process.

The two countries have convergent interests in seeking an outcome that ensures that Afghan territory is not used to destabilise another country. And both agree that sustained international support for Afghanistan is necessary to build peace and promote regional stability.

China’s framework for engagement with Afghanistan has four elements or dimensions: promoting peace and security; assisting in economic development; supporting “political reconciliation”; and strengthening international cooperation. Beijing’s engagement in these areas has been encouraged and welcomed by Kabul. This, Chinese officials point out, is acknowledgement that China has no historical baggage with Afghanistan – having never interfered in its internal affairs or been a colonial power. This has established the basis for positive, broad-based relations.

On each of the four elements of China’s Afghan policy, Beijing’s thinking and actions can be summarised as follows – which is mostly based on characterisations by Chinese officials themselves.

Peace and security: Chinese diplomats see the year ahead as critical yet fraught with uncertainty. The smooth conduct of presidential elections in April 2014 is deemed crucial for Afghanistan’s ability to peacefully complete the security handover from Nato to Afghan forces. China supports Afghanistan’s capacity building so it can assume full security responsibility.

Beijing has a carefully crafted position on the bilateral security agreement (BSA) proposed between Washington and Kabul. Once signed, this will allow for a post-2014 Nato military presence in Afghanistan. Chinese diplomats see this as a sovereign decision for Kabul to make, but insist that the concerns of neighbouring countries should be addressed, and the agreement should not compromise any neighbour’s security. This is similar to Pakistan’s position.

Beijing’s nuanced position reflects an attempt to balance two different concerns. The first relates to the risk of a security vacuum if the military transition is not handled “responsibly”; the second is over an open-ended or long-term Western military presence in the region, on which China has strong reservations. Chinese officials reject reports that Beijing urged President Hamid Karzai to sign the BSA. This, they stress, is not for China to do, as it adheres firmly to principles of non-interference.

China’s security expectations of Afghanistan are articulated in the joint statement issued during Karzai’s September 2013 state visit to Beijing. This committed both sides “not to allow their respective territory to be used for any activities targeted against the other side”. The communiqué expressed “strong rejection of all forms of terrorism, extremism, separatism.” The Afghan side also “reiterated its continued and firm support for China in combating ETIM”.

Political reconciliation: China has long held that there is no military solution in Afghanistan. It supports “political reconciliation” and talks between all major Afghan political forces and the Taliban to achieve an inclusive settlement for sustainable peace. If credible presidential elections are an important element, the other is reconciliation to secure a “fully successful” political transition.

Despite Beijing’s longstanding misgivings about the Taliban and ETIM’s ideological and other links, it is keen for the Taliban to join talks in an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process”. Chinese officials see a key role for Pakistan in this and express appreciation for the steps Islamabad has taken. They also want Pakistan’s positive influence to be used for Afghanistan’s stabilisation.

Chinese officials believe time is limited to achieve an outcome from peace negotiations given Nato’s December 2014 deadline. But diplomatic efforts should still be intensified, ahead of the April elections, even though there may be dwindling prospects for serious talks before then.

China would like the US to overcome its frustration with the stalled Doha process and encourage Afghan efforts towards national reconciliation. For its part, Beijing is “working with many Afghan political forces” to “steer them” towards accommodation. Much, however, depends on the Taliban’s attitude, and whether they will continue to fight or opt to talk to Kabul after April 2014. Ultimately, say Chinese diplomats, the Afghans have to decide their own destiny.

Economic development: Chinese spokesmen point out that since 2002 China has participated actively in Afghanistan’s economic development and reconstruction. Apart from financial assistance Beijing’s support is manifested in at least twelve development projects, infrastructure ventures as well as the sizeable number of Chinese workers in Afghanistan (whose safety is a high priority for Beijing).

The largest element of China’s economic engagement is its investments in the Aynak copper mine and Amu Darya Basin oil projects. The former represents the biggest foreign investment in any Afghan project, but is at present ‘on hold’ for security reasons.

International cooperation: Since 2002, China has fully supported international efforts aimed at stabilising Afghanistan. China now wants to see a greater role for Afghanistan’s neighbours to strengthen this process. That is why, according to Chinese officials, their country is willing to play a more active role to foster regional cooperation.

By offering to host the ministerial meeting of the Istanbul process next year, China is signalling strong support for the Heart of Asia process, which it regards as a key vehicle for regional cooperation. Beijing also desires closer coordination between Pakistan, Russia, Iran, Turkey and India. In the regional context China seeks to enhance the role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, but it has yet to specify how this is to be done.

China is opposed to the ‘New Silk Road’ initiative, because it wants the well-established historical trade route to be revived rather than an alternative being promoted as part of any new great game. By proposing an “economic belt along the ancient Silk Road” during his September 2013 visit to Central Asian countries, President Xi Jinping signalled China’s seriousness in implementing this vision of regional cooperation.

Source: The International News

The writer, Lodhi Maleeha, is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.



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