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After the 9/11 attacks, Beijing maintained distance from Afghanistan. On the one hand, it welcomed the US war against al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups, and on the other hand it looked at the US presence in Afghanistan with suspicion. Its approach to Afghanistan was “tokenistic, the minimum necessary to avoid alienating anyone”. China immediately did not commit any economic or military aid to Afghanistan. When US President Obama announced withdrawal from Afghanistan without completely defeating Taliban in 2009, China thought it would be prudent to diplomatically engage with different actors in Afghanistan. It started using a combination of its meagre economic and diplomatic prowess by announcing economic and military commitment to the Afghan Government; but at the same time engaging politically with other actors as well. This paper discusses increasing Chinese engagement in Afghanistan, its emergence as a new arbitrator in Afghan peace process and evolving geopolitics around it.


Chinese Interest


China has a two-pronged strategy vis-à-vis Afghanistan, which includes its security and geo-strategic interests in which ‘security’ has been the dominant factor. China’s main interest is to see its neighbourhood stable and secure so that it can reap the benefits of unexploited resources in the region. Xinjiang’s security and keeping it safe from religious extremism is China’s top security priority. Afghanistan’s instability can easily spill over to this Chinese province; and this can exacerbate the vulnerabilities of China and hence it is trying its best to break the communication between the extremists at home and abroad.


In the history of Sino-Afghan relations, broader economic and strategic aspects remained secondary. However, since 2013, geo-strategic and geo-economic interests have become increasingly significant with Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. It is argued that “the primary focus of the OBOR is the development of its western landlocked underdeveloped areas, including Xinjiang, and the establishment of a Chinese sphere of influence in parts of Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe.”


The strategic location of Afghanistan – linking it with Central Asia, South Asia and West Asia – has great significance for China’s OBOR initiative. Hence China realised the importance of relative stability in Afghanistan to achieve its geo-economic goals with security and strategy being focussed upon in tandem. 


In geo-strategic terms, the location of both Afghanistan and Pakistan are seen as constituting important links that could make OBOR a success or even a failure. Since 1990, China unsuccessfully looked at Xinjiang as a Eurasian Continental Bridge that could pave the way for fully integrating the restive province with the rest of China and utilizing its geo-strategic location to connect with the rest of the world. With OBOR initiative now, this seems to be materialising as China has launched direct freight services to European cities. It got a further push after a zero sum game unravelled in full swing in East Asia owing to Obama’s Asia Pivot to counter the Chinese threat in East and South China Sea. Around $5.3 trillion trade passes through South China Sea and the majority of it is constituted by US and Chinese trade. Thus, both the countries are trying to control these Sea Lines of Communication. To continue the flow of trade in the time of emergencies such as war, it has now become a ‘strategic necessity’ for the Chinese communist leadership to look for other ways and means.


Li Yonghui, a well-known Chinese scholar elucidates the importance of  Central Asia including Afghanistan, saying that the region can be “China’s Latin America: a strategic supporting peripheral belt that will serve as a buffer, source of growth, and a platform and channel for the expansion of Chinese influence.” This is the region from where Chinese influence can reach other parts of the world, largely because China does not have any disputes and does have a good reputation as compared to its relations with the eastern neighbours where it has maritime disputes with most of the ASEAN countries and Japan. But Xi Jinping’s dream project OBOR – construction of rail-roads, highways, and deep-sea ports – for regional connectivity can be affected if Afghanistan further descends into chaos.


The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan has a potential to flare up into a civil war. The existing ethnic differences could exacerbate and take the shape of a bloody conflict and Afghanistan would be having its Déjà vu of the 1990s. This can spill over into neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan where Chinese investments worth $50 billion under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will then get hit by instability. Hitherto China has focused only on diplomatic engagement and has resisted from entering the country militarily. It is not clear yet how Afghanistan is and in the future can be connected with OBOR economically. Both China and Afghanistan have seldom discussed these issues in detail.


In economic terms, China has not shown great interest in Afghanistan. In comparison with Central Asia and Pakistan, China has given meagre aid or grants to Afghanistan. After 2001, towards reconstruction and development of Afghanistan, China offered US$150 million for five years. In 2006, China and Afghanistan signed ‘Treaty of Friendship’ whose main focus is on bilateral commerce but still the bilateral trade remains negligible. In 2008, two Chinese state-owned companies, the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper Company Limited (JCL) was awarded Aynak copper mine contract for 30 years of lease worth a deal of US$4.4 billion investment. The Aynak copper mine in Logar is believed to possess the world’s second largest undeveloped copper deposits with a value of over US$1 trillion.


The construction of a 400MW coal-fired power plant and a railway from Hairtan to Tarkham dry ports are also mentioned in the contract. The MCC has already cancelled the construction of the 400MW power plant and the explanation it has given for that is an insufficient coal resource available in Ishpushta. The MCC in 2013 also requested the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum to re-negotiate the contractual terms. The Afghan government has refused to change the nomenclature of the existing contract. Since then the contract has been in a mess. The MCC has not yet started working on it; it has only done feasibility study, preliminary paper work and environmental impact studies. It is believed that the Aynak project has not taken off because of security reasons and excavation of Buddhist archaeological remnants. Mohsin Amin, a former energy advisor to the Afghan government, dismisses these reasons. According to him, over the past five years there have been only two major incidents in the area – one was in 2008 when a remote bomb blast occurred near the MCC camp; and the second one was in June 2012 when a Soviet era IED exploded. Except these two incidents the area never came directly under attack by the insurgents.


Now, following the US drawdown, China has intensified its diplomatic initiatives to bring stability, if not peace, to the war-torn Afghanistan. China clearly does not want to fill the void left by the US militarily; rather it still wants to rely on diplomacy. It is likely to exert some leverage on neighbours to bring active political forces in Afghanistan on to the negotiation table. This rigorous diplomacy has much to do with Xi Jinping’s assertiveness. Hence, he has emerged as a powerful leader of China by consolidating his position through establishing the Central National Security Commission (CNSC). Xi Jinping abrogated the old Chinese mantra of keeping a low profile and achieving something. He has coined a new term ‘Fen Fa You Wei’, meaning ‘striving for achievement’. Since then Xi has hardened China’s position towards its adversaries and on territorial disputes.


Strategy of Peace in Pieces


In July 2014, China appointed former Ambassador Sun Yuxi the Special Envoy for Afghanistan Affairs and in November 2014, the State Councillor responsible for China’s domestic security, Guo Shengkun visited Afghanistan for discussions that focused primarily on guarding against and combating the terrorist forces of the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). In the same year, during the Istanbul Process Dialogue, Chinese premier Li Keqiang gave five suggestions to bring stability in Afghanistan. Beijing also stressed on promoting political reconciliation with Taliban.


China’s guarded approach towards Afghanistan has two reasons. It does not want to antagonise Taliban so that it does not come under a direct attack from Taliban. It also does not want Taliban to once again revive its link with the ETIM. It believes Taliban has shunned its relations with the ETIM and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) terrorists. And more importantly, it would not like to enrage Pakistan by openly opposing Taliban.


China has meticulously attempted to balance its relationship with both the Afghan government and Taliban. In 2016, China’s Army Chief Fang Fenghui announced roughly US$70 million of military aid to the Afghan government while simultaneously engaging Taliban diplomatically by acknowledging them as a political force and not a terrorist group. China does not want a total defeat of Taliban, which is in sync with Pakistan’s policy; hence a convergence of strategic interests of these two countries makes them ‘all-weather friends’.


China would prefer a political deal in ending the conflict. Beijing’s constant pressure has kept its long-time ally Pakistan peacefully engaged. Although Afghanistan sees Beijing’s leverage over Pakistan as a valuable asset but hitherto it has not yielded any fruitful result.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.