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The latest round of the Quadrilateral Group (Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the USA) is being held in Islamabad this week. This round builds on an effort instigated by Beijing earlier in 2015 and has been one of the hallmarks of Afghan President Ghani's presidency. The question, however, is whether China has the power to be a decisive player in Afghanistan that it has been increasingly hinting at with its role in these talks.
China has long been playing a productive role in the country. Whilst Beijing maintains awkward relations with Washington across the Pacific Ocean, on land, it is undertaking joint training programmes with the United States for Afghan diplomats and officials. It has helped facilitate discussions between Afghanistan and Pakistan and has helped soothe relations between Islamabad and Delhi. Most significant, however, has been the official diplomatic track that it has helped open between the government in Kabul and the Taliban. Though unofficial contacts existed previously, President Ghani’s ascent to power in September 2014 gave the relationship renewed impetus. This included a focus on a key role for China in the Afghan peace process, a point highlighted by Ghani’s first formal overseas trip being to Beijing.
This was not the first time discussions between the government in Kabul and the Taliban had been mooted. Previous dialogue tracks through institutes like Pugwash, in Chantilly, France or through the Taliban Doha office had not appeared move very far forwards with little evidence that the Taliban were taking the negotiations seriously. In contrast, the track opened with Beijing’s support appeared to draw its influence directly from the heart of the Taliban in Pakistan. Consequently, there appeared to be greater confidence that those talking were able to deliver what they were discussing. This was a key aspect to make the talks genuinely useful.
Beijing’s particular role in this was in ensuring that Pakistan did all that it could to facilitate the discussions. ‘All weather’ friends whose relationship is the source of much hyperbolic rhetoric, China and Pakistan have long been attached at the hip. More recently, China has focused its economic firepower on Islamabad with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in 2013 to develop the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), in essence a trade and infrastructure corridor stretching from Kashgar in China to the newly built Gwadar Port.
Swept into the broader Belt and Road initiative that is the keynote foreign policy initiative of the Xi Jinping administration, CPEC was grandiloquently allocated $46 billion in investment when President Xi visited in 2014. Whilst there is some creative accounting going on with the exact numbers, the injection into Pakistan’s faltering economy is nonetheless massive. But while it showed the world that Pakistan had other options beyond the West, it also substantially strengthened Beijing’s hand in Islamabad.
This shift of influence towards Beijing is not something that is only observed in Pakistan. Across the Eurasian continent, Beijing’s growing weight and economic power projection is visible. From President Xi’s recent visit to Tehran, to the growing list of economic officials meeting with the heads of the specially created $40 billion Silk Road Fund, to the roads, rail and pipeline being laid across Central Asia, China is the coming power. But sitting at the centre of this larger Belt and Road vision is Afghanistan, a country that has historically stymied outside powers influence and continues to face a brutal civil war at home. Talking to experts sitting in Beijing, they will point to Afghanistan as a potential spoiler in the larger Silk Road Economic Belt (the ‘Belt’ of the ‘Belt and Road’), worrying about its instability radiating out to disrupt the trade and economic corridors being built out from China’s western regions.
This in part helps explain China’s interest in Afghanistan – quite aside from the obvious fact of sharing a direct border with the country and the fact that historically Uighur militants angry at Beijing’s dominance of Xinjiang (China’s westernmost region) have used Afghanistan as a staging point for camps to train.
But while China’s interest in Afghanistan is clear – its commitment to playing a forward role in stabilising the country has been less clear until now. By stepping forwards to support the peace talks, China is finally making a move towards playing the role that is clearly commensurate to its regional position and power. Unfortunately, however, this is unlikely to be enough. If China truly wants to help stabilise Afghanistan it must not only continue to support the peace talks, but also explore a greater role in providing support for the ANSF (not only through non-lethal aid, but also financial support), find ways of investing in Afghanistan’s small to medium enterprises (as well as bring some resolution to the larger stalled mineral projects undertaken by Chinese enterprises), clarify how Afghanistan fits into the ‘Belt and Road’ and finally continue to act a regional mediator between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
None of these are quick fixes. But for China the option of backing out is limited. Unlike far away Western powers, Beijing will share a border with Afghanistan come what may, meaning China’s stake in the country is an immoveable one. In the short term, President Ghani’s window of opportunity is closing rapidly and he will be unable to effect some influential change before prospects of peace conclude with the start of the fighting season. If Beijing is to capitalise on its current advantageous position in Afghanistan, it needs to start to push forwards on all fronts to help move the talks from discussions about roadmaps between Afghanistan and Pakistan to talks and then a dialogue between Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. This is the only way Afghanistan will be able to bring its lengthy conflict to a close.
Raffaello Pantucci is Director of RUSI’s International Security research group