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Analysis: China eyes role in Afghan peace process

Farhad Peikar
The new Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, is seeking new avenues to bring peace to the war-rattled country. This time, Kabul turns to Beijing to help it bring Taliban insurgents to the…
28.10.2014  |  New York

President Ghani arrived in China for a four-day visit, his first official trip since taking office in late September. (Last week, he visited Saudi Arabia for a religious pilgrimage.) While the president will attend a regional conference and meet with Chinese investors during his visit, Ghani’s core objective is to win Beijing’s support in coaxing Taliban leaders to jump-start peace talks with his government.

 The Afghan government’s resort to a China-led mediation comes on the heels of failure by other countries, which also tried to broker peace deals and find political solutions with the Taliban. A US-led negotiation process with the Taliban in Qatar failed last year after former President Hamid Karzai withdrew from the talks. Karzai reacted in fury after the Taliban presented their newly opened political office as an embassy in televised coverage.

 During the past six years Kabul has also tried to reach out to the Saudi Arabian king, Turkey, and other Islamic countries to use their influence and bring the Taliban, who have repeatedly refused to recognize the Afghan government, to peace talks.

 The leadership councils for all three main insurgent groups (Taliban, Haqqani network, Hezbi Islami) are believed to be based in Pakistan, and any credible peace process would require wholehearted support from Islamabad—something Kabul has failed to obtain in past attempts.

 “In the past ten years we focused more on the trilateral of the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It didn’t work,” Afghan Interior Minister Umer Daudzai told NDTV last week. “We focused on the Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey trilateral, it worked in some respects, but it did not work in reconciliation.”

 “We all know the nature of Pakistan-China relationship and the amount of investment China is doing in Pakistan, so that gives us a new hope that trilateral [talks] may lead us to a comprehensive solution of our regional problem- a comprehensive solution for the so-called insurgency and terrorism. A solution that is sustainable and a solution that is indigenous, that is regional and one we can embrace by heart.”

Achieving peace in Afghanistan has become urgent. U.S. and international troops are set to end their combat mission against Afghan insurgents in the next two months, and the Taliban remains a strong force. Many powers, particularly China, fear that victorious insurgency in Afghanistan could impede economic ambitions and destabilize the region. 

Homegrown terrorism

Beijing fears that a Taliban military victory in Afghanistan could embolden the Chinese Uighur population, who are predominantly Sunni Muslim and have long struggled for independence. Beijing has done little to conceal its concerns about the possibility of Uighur Muslim separatists finding safe havens in Afghanistan in the event the Taliban gain a foothold in the country.  The Uighur separatists have been blamed for a series of attacks inside the mainland in the past years, including a knife massacre at the Kunming train station that left nearly 30 people dead in February.

Beijing maintained contact with the Taliban even when the ultra-Islamic regime was isolated from the rest of the world. In 2000, Beijing sent its Pakistan-based ambassador to Kandahar, where he met with Taliban’s one-eyed leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. Although the meeting did not yield fruit for either side, it marked the first foreign state dignitary to meet with Mullah Omar.

 Coincidentally, a Chinese delegate was in Kabul to sign economic deals with Taliban on the same day al-Qaeda terrorists crashed their hijacked planes into the World Trade Center.

 Beijing’s past dealings with the Taliban and other Islamic extremist groups shielded China and its overseas investments from global extremist networks. However, Beijing doubts the Taliban would bar the Uighur militants from using Afghanistan as their safe haven.

Economic outlooks

China is a leading foreign investor in Afghanistan’s largely untapped mining industry. China Metallurgical Group Corp. (MCC) won the contract for Afghanistan’s largest copper mine, Mes Aynak, in 2007. The mine, located in the troubled eastern region of the country, is worth an estimated 3 billion dollars. China has also secured oil and gas exploration rights in northern Afghanistan worth around 700 million dollars.

 An insecure Afghanistan could also serve as an impediment to Chinese regional ambitions or at least slow down economic projects that are aimed at strengthening regional integration. Beijing unveiled its “New Silk Road” vision earlier this year, which will connect Western China to Northern Europe, passing through Central Asia, Middle East and Turkey. Afghanistan could potentially receive many economic investments through the new Silk Road vision, but the continuation of insurgency in the country would not bode well for expansion of trade and fast delivery of Chinese goods along the new route.

Chinese leverage

The worsening security situation in Afghanistan could have implications for other regional powers such as Russia and India, but unlike China, neither of these two countries have as much leverage with the Taliban or much influence on Pakistan, where militants are allegedly given safe havens.

 China has preserved contact with the Taliban since the ultra-conservative Islamic regime was ousted in the US-led military campaign. However, since the US-led countries began withdrawing their forces two years ago, China has increased its already burgeoning diplomatic efforts in order to prepare itself for post-2014 scenarios.

 Until recently, China concentrated on mitigating its domestic security concerns and that of its investments in Afghanistan and the region. The threat of a security vacuum may prompt Beijing to be an aggressive regional player. Kabul also wants its superpower neighbor to use its leverage with the Taliban and Pakistan to play a more active role in peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

 It is with this understanding that China has stepped up its cooperation with Kabul. In July, Beijing appointed a special envoy to Afghanistan, Sun Yuxi, while and increased its role in the training of Afghan security forces and diplomats. Later this week, Beijing is also holding- for the first time- a multilateral conference, known as the Istanbul Ministerial Process, to discuss regional security, economic and political issues.

 Ghani began his presidency with a trip to Beijing, but the new Afghan leader knows China will not be able - or willing - to replace the United States and its allies in Afghanistan. The U.S. alone has spent $104 billion rebuilding and supporting Afghan security forces and civil institutions since 2001. While the 10,000 US residual forces are slated to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016, Washington is expected to prop up the central government in Kabul by giving $5 to 8 billion annually for at least a decade.

 In comparison, China has only provided Kabul with a few hundred million dollars in aid over the past decade. However, Beijing could invest in Afghanistan’s vast natural resources, including copper, iron ore, silver, gold, coal, and gems, which is worth an estimated 3 trillion dollars.

 In the immediate future, President Ahmadzai is clinging more to the hope that Beijing can broker a peace deal with the Taliban than any quick economic aid or further investment.

 Although it remains unclear if Islamabad would support Chinese involvement in the Afghan reconciliation process, with severe economic and security interests at stake, it is unlikely that China will continue outsourcing its major regional security tasks to Pakistan.