China sprung into unprecedented diplomatic action to defend Pakistan, its ally, after the anticipated speech of President Donald Trump on future U.S. policy in Afghanistan and South Asia. U.S. President had declared that Washington would not be silent any more about militant ‘safe havens’ in Pakistan and warned Islamabad it had much to lose if it continued to ‘harbor terrorists’.
Beijing quickly reminded international community that Pakistan was battling terrorism and had made ‘great sacrifices’ and ‘important contributions’ in the on-going war. If remarks of spokesperson of Chinese foreign ministry were not enough, China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, who outranks Chinese Foreign Minister, pointed out to Rex Tillerson, U.S. Secretary of State, that since Pakistan ‘plays the important role in Afghan issue’, thus, its ‘reasonable security concerns’ should be respected. He also reiterated the Chinese view that ‘political dialogue’ is the only way forward to for resolving conflict in Afghanistan.
The extra-ordinary public support to Pakistan comes on the heels of growing Chinese involvement in the region in recent years. Gradually, China has stepped up its engagement with Afghanistan, its western neighbour to secure its security and economic interests. China shares a border with war-ravaged Afghanistan. Over the last decade China has been battling militancy in its western region of Xinjiang, which is inhabited by Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim population. China worries that its Muslim population is radicalising under the influence of groups outside China, who motivate them to engage in violence in Xinjiang. East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is the most prominent militant group carrying out attacks in Xinjiang. Chinese security officials are concerned about links between militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the ETIM.
In addition to it, China also seeks stability in Pakistan, a national security interest. A stable Pakistan requires peace and stability in Afghanistan and recognition of its security concerns in Afghanistan. Beijing has expressed understanding of Pakistani security interests, and has sought to persuade Pakistan to play a constructive role in peace process in Afghanistan.
On the other side, Beijing is also invested in economic development in Afghanistan. China is expanding its economic footprint in the Central Asia and South Asia through Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China is seeking overland trade and transit corridors through Central Asia and across Eurasia linking mainland China all the way to Europe. Similarly, Beijing is investing in Pakistan’s energy and transportation infrastructure under the framework of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Moreover, China has also proposed constructing railway-linkages between Afghanistan and Pakistan. These economic dreams cannot realize with an active war in the region. A war, that, can also jeopardize economic investments in Pakistan, in particular.
Efforts at mediation and regional cooperation
The first signs of growing Chinese interest in mediation emerged in early 2015. At that time majority of U.S. forces were withdrawing from war-torn Afghanistan and China publicly offered to mediate in peace negotiations between Afghan government and Taliban. Wang Yi, Chinese Foreign Minister, announced willingness of Beijing to ‘play a constructive role’ and ‘provide necessary facilitation’ to realise reconciliation in Afghanistan. The offer to ‘facilitate’ reconciliation process reflected Chinese acknowledgement of its contacts with Taliban in Afghanistan. Beijing engaged Taliban due to its own security concerns about links of Uighar militants with Afghanistan-based groups. Offering to mediate brought into open China-Taliban engagement.
This offer was preceded by first high-level Chinese involvement in a multilateral process related to Afghanistan in October, 2014. Beijing played host to the Ministeral meeting of the Heart of Asia/Istanbul Meeting to promote cooperation for peace and stability in Afghanistan. It was first act of political symbolism marking commencement of a new phase of China’s Afghan policy of active engagement for a political settlement in Afghanistan.
China continued to make efforts for peace and stability in Afghanistan through various regional and international mechanisms. Beijing has been supporting peace, reconciliation and stability in Afghanistan through multilateral forums such as Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Heart of Asia or Istanbul Process and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA). Similarly, at the regional level China has hosted a tri-lateral grouping of China-Afghanistan-Pakistan, and bilateral consultations with Britain, Germany, India, Russia, Pakistan and the United States on Afghanistan. China was a core participant in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (GCG) comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, U.S. and China, as a vehicle to address mistrust between Kabul and Islamabad, and holding direct negotiations between Afghan government and the Taliban.
In addition to these platforms, China also hosted a delegation of Taliban for consultations. Beijing also arranged back-channel talks between Taliban and the representatives of Afghan government to push forward the reconciliation process in May, 2015. These talks ultimately led to what became known as the ‘Murree talks’ in July, 2015. Pakistan hosted a meeting between representatives of Afghan government and Afghan Taliban in July, 2015. China and the United States attended the meeting as observers. These talks broke down when news of the death of Mullah Mohammad Omar, Taliban’s supreme leader were leaked.
Efforts were revived again and in early 2016. QCG held several rounds of talks in Kabul and Islamabad. After months long discussions it was decided that group will reach out to the Afghan Taliban, who were open to negotiations. Before any forward movement could take place, the United States killed Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in a drone strike in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. It broke down peace talks once again.
On the security front, China led a new regional sub-group called Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism made up of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China. It reflects Chinese interest in deepening regional cooperation to address threats of extremism, terrorism and separatism through bolstering cooperation among military forces of four nations. As ETIM militants were driven out of Pakistan into northern Afghanistan, Beijing decided to engage in capacity-building of Tajikistan to enable it to defend its border with Afghanistan.
Pakistan and China’s Afghan foray
Amongst the neighbours of Afghanistan, Pakistan has most stakes in peace and stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been directly affected by the conflict in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been a participant and a victim of civil conflict in Afghanistan. Pakistan has advance its national interests in Afghanistan. At the same time, Pakistan has been forced to fight for stability and internal security due to its involvement in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s diabolical policy is result of its predicament: it can’t fully dis-engage from Afghanistan and neither can it complete shape course of events in that country. Compulsions of geography and presence of Pashtun populace on both sides of Pak-Afghan border compel Islamabad to remain engaged in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, presence of diverse ethnic groups and active involvement of other regional countries in Afghanistan mean that Pakistan also attempts to advance its own national security interests, often at a heavy cost. Pakistan cannot afford to walk away from Afghanistan.
Pakistan has paid a strategic price of supporting the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. As Taliban regrouped after being driven out of government in 2001, Pakistan attempted to walk on a tight-rope: it was an ally of the U.S. and provided ground and air corridor to facilitate U.S. troops and at the same time, it turned a blind eye to the presence of Afghan Taliban on its territory. Pakistan acknowledged maintaining contacts with Afghan Taliban and Haqqani leadership, both groups fighting the U.S. forces. Pakistan claimed that U.S. forces will withdraw and leave Afghanistan. Islamabad, however, is a permanent neighbor, thus, its national security interests don’t dictate military action against Taliban and Haqqani network.
Due to double-edged Pakistani policy, Washington, in recent years, have blamed Pakistan for its troubles in Afghanistan. The U.S. has come to belief that if Pakistan moves against Taliban and Haqqani network, peace would ensue in Afghanistan. President Trump also repeated the same during his address on U.S. strategy towards Afghanistan and South Asia. Trump threatened to penalize Pakistan for continued support to groups active in Afghanistan. Islamabad, however, posits that peace can only be achieved through a political settlement giving Taliban due share in the political system of Afghanistan.
As the Pakistan-U.S. rift deepens, role of Beijing becomes crucial for a political reconciliation process in Afghanistan. China itself, views its role as the facilitator and mediator of the dialogue. Pakistan, however, is a party to the process. Islamabad had stressed on acknowledging and addressing its security concerns in Afghanistan. In essence, Pakistan has made it clear that without respecting its security concerns no process for reconciliation can move forward. In this emerging regional scenario role of Beijing to ensure redressal of Pakistani security concerns for resolution of Afghan conflict becomes crucial. Similarly, Islamabad and Beijing need to exchange views of following aspects of emerging situation in Afghanistan:
• Possible escalation of conflict in near future and its impact on regional security environment
• Implications of increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan on the on-going war
• Contours of a political reconciliation process between Taliban and Afghan government in changed scenario
Earlier, Kabul and Washington had hoped for a constructive role from Beijing to impress upon Pakistan. This has now changed in the emerging regional scenario. At present, Islamabad is banking on Beijing to support its security interests in Afghanistan. Need of the hour is for Islamabad and Beijing to engage directly as Pakistan formulates its response to Trump’s South Asia policy.
Faisal Ahmed is an IPI Resident Scholar specializing in Southern Asia.