As the United States prepares to withdraw troops from Afghanistan at the end of the year, China is increasingly interested in developing its diplomatic relationship with the Islamic Republic. Earlier this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a rare trip to Kabul to meet with his counterpart. During that encounter, both sides highlighted the importance of stability in Afghanistan not only for economic reasons, but for security outcomes in Central Asia — including China’s restive Xinjiang province. To that end, Beijing announced on Friday that it had appointed a special envoy for Afghanistan, under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The special envoy’s role will be primarily to ensure that China does all it can to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a safe-haven for South-Central Asian militants that may end up destabilizing China’s western provinces.
The appointee to the new position is Sun Yuxi, a Chinese diplomat with ambassadorial experience in Afghanistan and India. He is familiar with Afghanistan, having established a rapport with the government there. A Chinese Foreign Ministry statement noted that “China and Afghanistan are traditional friendly neighbors. China pays great attention to developments in Afghanistan and is committed to deepening both countries’ strategic partnership, and so decided to appoint a special envoy.” China has used special envoys in the past to manage its diplomacy in the Middle East. It appointed a special envoy “on the Middle East Issue” in 2002 to help facilitate the Arab-Israeli peace process. The incumbent in that position is Wu Sike. China has also appointed special envoys to Africa and Myanmar.
The Foreign Ministry’s announcement justified the creation of a special envoy position by stating that it would “ensure lasting peace, stability and development for Afghanistan and the region.” The statement did not provide any specifics on how Sun could possibly achieve this bilaterally.
China’s diplomatic plan for Afghanistan post-2014 does not just include bilateral cooperation with the Afghan government. It has also hosted trilateral diplomatic meetings with Russian and Indian representatives on how their three countries might cooperate in Afghanistan following a U.S. withdrawal. All three powers support the signing of the delayed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the governments of Afghanistan and the United States as that agreement will allow a small contingency of U.S. troops to stay on in Afghanistan. China’s investments in Afghanistan over the past decade have largely benefited from the presence of U.S. and NATO troops. A big concern for China with the pending troop withdrawal is whether Afghanistan’s indigenous security forces will be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of the Taliban in the country.
The issue of Uighur militancy in the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands will necessitate cooperation from the Pakistani government as well. China and Pakistan have begun to broach the subject of counter-terrorism cooperation. It is likely that Sun’s role as special envoy will also involve some interaction with Pakistan.