Pakistani and Afghan media are reporting that Afghan Taliban leaders visited China for talks with Chinese officials late last year. Pakistan’s The News International, citing a report from the Afghan Islamic Press, reported that two Taliban representatives traveled to China in November. The purpose of the trip was to “share the Islamic Emirate’s stance with China,” according to a Taliban official. The delegation was reportedly led by Qari Din Muhammad, who is based at the Taliban office in Doha, Qatar (and has been involved in Afghan peace talks before).
The visit by Taliban members came on the heels of the 2014 Istanbul Process ministerial conference, held in China on October 31. That meeting coincided with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s inaugural visit to China, with Beijing pledging to provide Afghanistan 2 billion RMB ($327 million) in aid through 2017. Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to open “a new era of cooperation in China-Afghanistan relations” while Ghani indicated Kabul’s interest in working with China during the Afghan rebuilding process.
China-Afghanistan cooperation is determined largely by the stability of the security situation – and here the Afghan Taliban remains a major threat. Accordingly, in November 2014 China offered to mediate talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, a plan that would greatly increase Beijing’s involvement in the political side of the Afghan rebuilding process (to date, China’s interest has been mostly economic). According to Reuters’ report, based on Chinese government documents, the proposed forum would bring together officials from the Afghan, Pakistani, and Chinese governments as well as Taliban leaders. Under the plan, China “would invite the Taliban to China if Afghanistan agreed to it,” one Afghan official told Reuters.
Around the same time, Ambassador Sun Yuxi, China’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the BBC that China “would welcome the Taliban in any neutral venue such as in China. We will make negotiations happen but … the agenda must be proposed by President Ashraf Ghani.”
The reports emerging now from Afghan and Pakistani media suggest that China in fact hosted Taliban representatives last November, shortly after China’s proposal was first discussed at the Istanbul Process. It’s unclear to what extent Kabul was involved in these talks. Neither China nor the Afghan government has commented directly on the reports, but both sides have sent positive signals. According to Afghan Channel One TV, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s High Peace Council said, “We welcome such visits and praise them. We want to launch inter-Afghan talks.”
When asked about the reported Taliban delegation, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said that China “supports the ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned’ process toward peace and reconciliation and wishes to play a constructive role to that end.” Hong declined, however, to confirm that Taliban leaders had visited China.
Insecurity in Afghanistan is a major concern for China, which fears terrorists and militants gaining a stronghold on its western border. China’s Xinjiang province faces its own security vulnerabilities, which would be exacerbated by a prolonged conflict between the Taliban and Kabul. That immediate security concern may be why China is taking the on the unaccustomed role of mediator in internal Afghan peace talks.
Similar U.S. efforts to broker peace between the Taliban and the Afghan government achieved little, and it’s entirely possible China’s own initiative will lead to nothing. That’s what makes the talks so surprising – Beijing is not given to taking high-profile foreign policy risks. The behind-the-scenes nature of the process so far, with no formal recognition of a two-month-old meeting, speaks to intentionally lowered expectations for the Afghan peace talks, at least so far. Beijing, Kabul, and even the Taliban themselves have little to gain from trumpeting negotiations before there’s any sign talks are making progress. But keep an eye on China and Afghanistan in 2015 – this could be the relationship (and the year) that determines Afghanistan’s future.