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Can China Save Afghanistan?

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China Power

Can China Save Afghanistan?

The 2014 Istanbul Process, hosted by China, is a litmus test of regional support for Kabul in the post-NATO era.

Can China Save Afghanistan?
Credit: DoD photo by Sgt. Tammy K. Hineline, U.S. Marine Corps/Released

As Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wraps up his state visit to China this week, Beijing is preparing to host a bevy of international leaders for the fourth ministerial meeting of the Istanbul Process. With U.S. and NATO forces preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan, the future of the war-torn country may rest in the hands of its neighbors. China, as this year’s host for the Istanbul Process, has a chance to play a major role in pushing for concrete action from the only regional coalition dedicated to Afghan security.

The Istanbul Process is a regional cooperation mechanism designed to support “a peaceful and stable Afghanistan.” Its 14 member countries are spread throughout Central and South Asia as well as the Middle East: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and the United Arab Emirates. This is the first year the annual ministerial conference has been held in China, providing a golden opportunity for Beijing to take the initiative in shaping Afghan security in the post-NATO era. As a senior U.S. State Department official, told Reuters, the Istanbul Process meeting in Beijing is “a real demonstration of China’s commitment to Afghanistan, to its role in the region and one that we greatly welcome.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying noted the potential for this year’s meeting in a press briefing last week. “The 4th Ministerial Conference of Istanbul Process on Afghanistan is of great importance as it is the first big international conference on Afghanistan hosted by China, and also the first significant international conference on Afghanistan since the sworn-in [sic] of the new Afghan government,” she said. Hua added, “By hosting this conference, China hopes to showcase the world’s support [for] the peaceful reconstruction in Afghanistan, and build consensus of regional countries on strengthening cooperation on Afghanistan and jointly safeguarding security and stability in Afghanistan and the region.”

As my colleague Ankit noted earlier this week, now is the perfect opportunity for China and Afghanistan to elevate their partnership. With the U.S. and NATO largely withdrawing, the new administration in Kabul is looking for new partners to fill the gap. Ghani chose China as the destination for his first state visit since being inaugurated as Afghanistan’s president, a fact that Chinese media have pointed to as evidence of Beijing’s importance to Kabul. Meanwhile, China (and other regional countries) need to step up their contributions to Afghan stability, lest they find a failed state (and haven for militants) on their doorsteps.

Andrew Wilder, the vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Center for South and Central Asia, has more hope for the bilateral aspect of Ghani’s trip than for the Istanbul Process itself. In traveling to China, Ghani wanted “tangible commitments of increased economic and political support” to help fill the gap left by withdrawing U.S. and NATO forces, Wilder told The Diplomat via email. Ghani was rewarded with major new commitments from Beijing – a pledge of 2 billion RMB ($327 million) in aid to Afghanistan through 2017, which will more than double the $250 million China has thus far contributed to Afghanistan since 2001. In addition, China promised to provide personnel training for 3,000 Afghanistan professionals as well as helping develop Afghan agriculture, hydroelectricity, and infrastructure.

Odds are that the Istanbul Process itself won’t have such eye-catching results. “To date, the Istanbul Process has resulted in various committees being formed and joint statements being agreed upon, but little in the way of tangible outcomes,” Wilder says. There’s hope that China, thanks to its role as regional heavyweight, can help push for more concrete commitments from regional partners, but the political situation makes that difficult. One of the largest issues will be getting long-time rivals India and Pakistan to agree on a roadmap for Afghan security. “One of President Ghani’s biggest asks of the Chinese will undoubtedly have  been for them to use their influence to try to convince the Pakistanis to do whatever they can to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table,” Wilder comments. But it remains to be seen how far China is willing to go to pressure its longtime “all-weather friend.”

Even if the Istanbul Process makes concrete progress, their aid is likely to avoid the area where Afghanistan may need the most help: military assistance, including support for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Regional partners have been reluctant to provide military support for Kabul; with the U.S. and NATO now withdrawing all but a handful of troops, Afghanistan may struggle to fill the new security void. Beijing is not likely to push for change either, as “China in particular has been reluctant to pick up some of the slack in terms of ANSF support created by the decreasing US/NATO assistance levels,” Wilder says.

A Global Times article (republished by People’s Daily) hammers this point home: “However, we can’t say U.S. influence is withdrawing from Afghanistan and that China will overtake its role in Afghanistan… Even when the last U.S. soldier leaves, China will never take on the role played by the U.S. and NATO and act as a powerful meddler.” China has promised to work together with Ghani’s administration to fight against militants, but (as in the case of efforts against Islamic State) Chinese military support is likely to be limited.

Beijing argues that, when it comes to Afghan security, it’s unfair to ask China to clean up the mess made by the U.S.  “A common perspective [in Beijing] with regards to the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan was that ‘you broke it – you need to fix it before you leave,’” Wilder notes. “The reality, however, is that U.S. and NATO forces are for the most part leaving, and Afghanistan’s neighbors and other regional actors need to play a more constructive role in helping to stabilize Afghanistan because they will be the ones who pay the heaviest price if it falls apart.”