China: Peacemaker in South Asia?

China's neutrality offers a real possibility of reconciliation in Afghanistan.

Chinese Special representative for Afghanistan, Deng Xijun listens to Afghan Foreign Minister, Salahuddin Rabbanion (unseen) as he chairs the second round of four-way peace talks meeting at the Presidential palace in Kabul on January 18, 2016. A second round of four-country talks aimed at reviving peace negotiations with the Taliban began in Kabul on January 18, even as the insurgents wage an unprecedented winter campaign of violence across Afghanistan. Delegates from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States convened in the Afghan capital for a one-day meeting seeking a negotiated end to the bloody 14-year insurgency. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai / AFP / SHAH MARAI        (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese Special representative for Afghanistan, Deng Xijun listens to Afghan Foreign Minister, Salahuddin Rabbanion (unseen) as he chairs the second round of four-way peace talks meeting at the Presidential palace in Kabul on January 18, 2016. A second round of four-country talks aimed at reviving peace negotiations with the Taliban began in Kabul on January 18, even as the insurgents wage an unprecedented winter campaign of violence across Afghanistan. Delegates from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States convened in the Afghan capital for a one-day meeting seeking a negotiated end to the bloody 14-year insurgency. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai / AFP / SHAH MARAI (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese Special representative for Afghanistan, Deng Xijun listens to Afghan Foreign Minister, Salahuddin Rabbanion (unseen) as he chairs the second round of four-way peace talks meeting at the Presidential palace in Kabul on January 18, 2016. A second round of four-country talks aimed at reviving peace negotiations with the Taliban began in Kabul on January 18, even as the insurgents wage an unprecedented winter campaign of violence across Afghanistan. Delegates from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States convened in the Afghan capital for a one-day meeting seeking a negotiated end to the bloody 14-year insurgency. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai / AFP / SHAH MARAI (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

On Feb. 6, the third meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), a coalition between the United States, China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, which has the shared goal of reducing violence and establishing lasting peace in Afghanistan, took place. At the meeting, a roadmap for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban was agreed upon by the participants. China has traditionally operated on the principle of non-interference in other countries, and as a result, has kept out of Afghanistan’s internal affairs. However, an array of interests in Afghanistan and the region stand behind China’s active role in the negotiations.

On Feb. 6, the third meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), a coalition between the United States, China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, which has the shared goal of reducing violence and establishing lasting peace in Afghanistan, took place. At the meeting, a roadmap for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban was agreed upon by the participants. China has traditionally operated on the principle of non-interference in other countries, and as a result, has kept out of Afghanistan’s internal affairs. However, an array of interests in Afghanistan and the region stand behind China’s active role in the negotiations.

While a newcomer to such a large role in South Asian politics, it has a unique position in these negotiations because it enjoys a trusted relationship with the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the Taliban.

China has a long history with the Taliban, beginning with trade relations in the 1990s, while the Taliban was in power in Afghanistan. For China, to a large degree, the raison d’être for this relationship was that it wanted the Taliban to keep a check on Uighurs going to Afghanistan for militant training. In November 2000, Lu Shulin, China’s Ambassador to Pakistan, met with Mullah Omar to obtain guarantees from him that the Taliban “would not allow any group to use its territory” to attack China. To this extent they continue to maintain contact with the Quetta Shura, the Afghan Taliban’s leadership (based in Pakistan’s Balochistan province). Early last year, secret meetings between the Afghan government and the Taliban were organized by China in Urumqi, in order to restart the peace process.

Historically, China has stayed out of the fray in Afghanistan’s “great game” politics. Hamid Karzai repeatedly tried to persuade China to use their influence with Pakistan to restrain the Taliban, to no avail. President Ghani made his first official trip abroad to China where he received promises of economic help as well as participation in the “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” peace process.

China’s strategic relations with Pakistan span over 60 years, encompassing economic, military, and political dealings. China is Pakistan’s largest arms supplier and helped to build the nuclear power plant in Chashma in the Mianwali District of Punjab province, as well as the Karakoram Highway that links both countries. Pakistani leadership described the relationship in laudatory terms as being “Deeper than the deepest sea, higher than Himalayas, sweeter than honey and stronger than the strongest steel.” China intends to use their economic might to influence Pakistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and Afghanistan through promises of aid and investment.

Beyond a desire to see stability in its geographic neighbor and stop opium flooding its markets, China has an even more pressing reason than its bilateral relationships for seeking peace. The conflict in Afghanistan has bled into its own borders, radicalizing China’s Uighur community, which comprises at least 43 percent of the population of Xinjiang Province on its western border. Many Uighurs who have spent time in Afghanistan, in many cases training with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, are involved in the violent insurgency movement within Xinjiang. The use of Uighurs in the Islamic jihad movement in Afghanistan has remained a matter of low-lying tension between China and Pakistan, as China believes that Pakistan is not doing enough to control them. Over the past several months, Beijing has expressed fears that hundreds of Uighurs have left Xinjiang and joined IS in Iraq and Syria. Last year, the Thai government also accused the Uighurs of being behind the bombing at a Bangkok shrine, which killed over 20 people. While China has severely clamped down on the Uighurs and their religious freedom, it has also realized that its counter-terrorism solution is reliant on greater peace and stability in the region.

China has multiple interests in Afghanistan: exploiting its untapped natural resources including iron and copper; a commitment to $330 million in aid; and building a closer economic relationship, given Afghanistan’s proximity to Central Asian countries, where China has committed billions of dollars in trade agreements as part of its Silk Road initiative. In 2015, China signed over $46 billion in deals with Pakistan alone as part of “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC),” which will consist of road, rail, fiber optics, and energy networks. However, a peaceful and stable Afghanistan is a necessary prerequisite for trade that extends China’s economic reach by enabling the selling of goods and services into Central Asia and Europe.

Increased Chinese economic investment is good for Afghanistan as well. In 2007, China Metallurgical Group Corporation, a state-owned enterprise, bought a $3 billion copper mining concession in Mes Aynak, about 25 miles southeast of Kabul. But so far, this investment has not yielded any profit due to the insecurity of operations in an area beset by Taliban insurgents. China has also offered to build a railway from Kabul to Xinjiang. With this, Afghanistan has the possibility of becoming an important transportation hub for the larger Chinese project of OBOR, as well as a market for its goods. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stated in a speech last year at the Council of Foreign Relations, “Without Afghanistan, Central Asia, South Central Asia, East Asia and West Asia will not be connected.”

The current arrangement of the QCG offers potential to achieve progress in the region, with the United States acting as a guarantor for the Afghan government, and China playing the same role for Pakistan during the negotiations. Chinese participation in these talks allows China to establish formal engagement with the United States in Afghanistan, with a mutual outlook toward regional security. It also will diminish Afghan suspicions about Pakistani intentions during the discussions. Finally, it indicates that China has decided that it can no longer leave the Islamists in this region, whether in the form of the Taliban or the East Turkmenistan Movement supported by the Uighurs, to be dealt with solely by Pakistan.

The Afghan government is desperate for a quick breakthrough in the peace process, reflected in statements made by Hekmat Karzai, the deputy foreign minister, who called for a two month deadline at the start of the QCG talks. To make sure that this is not a “one-sided affair,” as the Taliban have called the talks, it is important to get the Taliban to the table as soon as possible, even if that means the Afghan government offers some concessions to them. While the QCG talks themselves are happening in rapid succession due to fears of the oncoming Taliban spring onslaught, the QCG participants will have to wait and see whether China’s intervention in the process will bring the Taliban to the table and ultimately bear fruit for the people of Afghanistan.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Twitter: @MinhasNajma

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