Does Beijing grasp the portent of embracing Afghanistan and the Taliban?
- Raffaello Pantucci says it is not clear that Beijing fully appreciates the role it is taking on by trying to broker peace in strife-torn Afghanistan
The 2018-19 period has been noteworthy in one way: it has seen a flurry of activity between China and Afghanistan.
During that time, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his colleague, Ambassador Deng Xijun, have racked up the air miles doing shuttle diplomacy between Kabul, Islamabad and hosting people in Beijing.
The result of all this manoeuvring was a successful trilateral meeting in Kabul between the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Pakistan and China – a parley which appears to have helped accelerate the latest round of peace negotiations in Afghanistan’s seemingly endless conflict.
Yet amid the positive mood, it is still not clear what China’s expectations and plans are for Afghanistan. Nor is it clear that Beijing has fully appreciated the central role into which it is increasingly stepping.
The first question to ask is: What has spurred this new surge of Chinese diplomacy?
The answer is simple, and sits in the White House.
Visiting Beijing earlier last year, the outrageous narrative being advanced around Afghanistan was that America was making things worse and was largely the source of problems within the country.
This view needs to be considered in context, as it was the moment at which the broader US-China relationship was going down the drain.
Everything involving the Americans was bad. But as the days have gone by, this anger has turned into an awareness that the US might actually be on the cusp of making a dramatic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
As this realisation took hold in Beijing, the next stage, therefore, was to comprehend that China needed to step up to play a more forward role in resolving the situation.
While the US stands detached from the conflict, Beijing remains hostage to geography and is obliged to maintain some engagement with Afghanistan – a commitment whose salience is only increasing through China’s long-term investments in Afghanistan’s neighbours – Pakistan and Central Asia.
This state of affairs helps explain Beijing’s new activism, and Ambassador to Pakistan Yao Jing’s willingness to increasingly champion the Taliban as a political group.
Talking to Chinese interlocutors about their country’s engagement with the Taliban used to be a taboo subject; now it has apparently become a topic of conversation.
Beijing has clearly concluded that the road to resolution in Afghanistan includes bringing the Taliban to the table – something that was likely discussed between Wang and Mohammad Umer Daudzai, secretary general of the Afghan High Peace Council, on his visit to Beijing late last week (a trip that followed Daudzai’s visit to Pakistan to meet Taliban representatives).
Beijing is seemingly using its contacts to expedite the peace discussions – a move that even the Taliban’s leaders have championed. What is not clear, however, is what incentives are being offered and whether Beijing has considered the consequences of its latest actions.
At this stage, it is likely that Beijing’s immediate security concerns around Afghanistan have been largely mitigated – not resolved, but managed.
China has invested in security forces along Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan; pumped money into similar structures in Gilgit Baltistan; provided training, funding and equipment to Afghan forces; and has hardened its own direct border with Afghanistan.
Sitting atop this activity, Beijing has created the Quadrilateral Coordination and Cooperation Mechanism, which brings together the chiefs of defence staff of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Tajikistan. There has even been talk this year of the four countries taking part in joint military training exercises together.
China’s is concerned about how Afghanistan’s instability might affect that country’s neighbours and Beijing’s larger investments in Pakistan and Central Asia. But even these issues seem to have some answer to them.
Just 10 days after the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi by a cell linked to the Baluchistan Liberation Army, the group’s leader (and admitted director of numerous attacks on Chinese targets), Aslam Baloch, was killed by a suicide bomber in Kandahar.
That ignominious end signalled that China had lethal friends in the region who were keen to show they could reach into the heart of China’s enemies and strike them.
It is still not clear what Beijing’s economic stake or interest is in Afghanistan.
Some of the routes of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” – Xi Jinping’s massive infrastructure plan – that cross the Eurasian continent would benefit from transit through Afghanistan. Beijing’s mineral extraction firms view the country’s natural resources with interest.
While talks continue about moving forward with belt and road projects, actual activity seems to be quite low. Trade routes are opening slowly, but the spigot of economic investment has not quite opened up.
Beijing seems to have concluded that for the time being, the answer to Afghanistan is to try to get a political structure in place that involves everybody and then see how things play out.
It will continue to dangle the carrot of economic investment, while knowing that its direct security equities are covered. This strategy will position Beijing fairly securely to let the consequences of a Taliban inclusive government play out.
The danger here is what a Taliban inclusive government might mean.
First, it is not clear that this arrangement would be acceptable to all other regional players. And even if it were, it is not clear it would help bring stability to Afghanistan. Much of the progress that has been made there might be wiped out, and the country might slip back into even greater chaos and warlordism.
Beijing may feel it has this eventuality covered through its current relationships, security structures and economic incentives, but this assumption is risky. Civil conflicts are by their nature brutal and unpredictable, especially in a country so intertwined with its region, and with such a sad and rich history of conflict.
Beijing may assume that by brokering a negotiation, it buys itself immunity from these problems. But as the US withdraws from the region, regional powers will increasingly look to China to resolve their issues.
It is not clear that Beijing fully appreciates the consequences of this potential responsibility.
Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London