Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a rare trip to Kabul a few days ago to discuss the future of the China-Afghanistan bilateral relationship. Wang also met with Hamid Karzai. Traditionally, China has framed its engagement with Afghanistan post-2001 around economic and technical cooperation. Despite that aspect of the bilateral relationship, Chinese leaders have always seen stability in Afghanistan – and Central Asia more broadly – as having a direct influence on security within China’s western provinces, particularly Xinjiang.
Wang, during a press conference in Kabul during his latest visit, emphasized that China’s cooperation with Afghanistan is motivated by Beijing’s interests in maintaining stability in Xinjiang. “The peace and stability of this country has an impact on the security of western China, and more importantly, it affects the tranquility and development of the entire region,” Wang said, according to Reuters.
Afghanistan and China share a small but significant border. The northeastern end of the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan connects the two countries, The terrain is widely inhospitable, making border control challenging. Additionally, Beijing is concerned that Xinjiang-bound insurgents could take advantage of Afghanistan’s porous border with Tajikistan and make their way towards Xinjiang.
Fortunately, China’s internal security concerns align its objectives in Afghanistan with those of the United States and other regional powers. That is why Beijing has urged Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign on to the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, which would maintain a small U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan following the general drawdown in 2014. Where a U.S. troop presence might normally inhibit Beijing’s ability to command influence, the benefits outweigh the costs in the Afghan case.
“We hope to see a broad-based and inclusive political reconciliation in Afghanistan as soon as possible, and China will play a constructive role to facilitate that…A divided country will have no future,” Wang added while in Kabul. Wang’s last visit to Kabul was in 2002 – he was then vice foreign minister.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement following Wang’s visit that addressed the gamut of bilateral topics Wang discussed with his Afghan counterpart Zarar Ahmed Moqbel Osmani while in Kabul. The statement notes burgeoning security cooperation between China and Afghanistan. “To strengthen cooperation in aspects such as anti-terrorism, the fight against the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and transnational crimes, the Chinese side will continue to offer training and material assistance to Afghan military and police, and hopes that the Afghan side continues to take effective measures to protect the safety of Chinese institutions and personnel in Afghanistan,” the statement notes.
Osmani for his part reassured Wang that Afghanistan “would never allow the ETIM to take advantage of the Afghan territory to engage in activities endangering China, and will continuously deepen security cooperation with the Chinese side.” ETIM claimed responsibility most recently for a November 2013 terrorist attack on Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
It remains to be seen how this reframing of China’s engagement with Afghanistan in terms of its internal security will affect the “all-weather” partnership between China and Pakistan. Pakistan and China’s strategic intentions in Kabul clash and, apart from a limited trilateral engagement with Afghanistan, the two allies have not taken serious steps to remedy this divergence of interests. China will host the next round of the Foreign Minister’s Conference of the Istanbul Process which is slated to take place in Tianjin in August. It is likely that Beijing may begin to confront Pakistan more directly about its policy towards Afghanistan.