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China’s Belt and Road Meets Trump’s Afghanistan Plan

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China’s Belt and Road Meets Trump’s Afghanistan Plan

Could China play the good cop while the U.S. plays the bad cop?

China’s Belt and Road Meets Trump’s Afghanistan Plan
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by HMC Josh Ives

In August, U.S. President Donald Trump announced a new Afghanistan strategy. Featuring an extra 4,000 U.S. soldiers and additional NATO troops in Afghanistan, the new policy was tough on the issue of tackling terrorism. Even military autonomy is improved under the plan, enhancing the authority for U.S. armed forces to target terrorists and criminal networks as well as expanding the scope of unmanned aircraft and special operations.

The security situation in Afghanistan is getting worse. Conflicts between the U.S.-led alliance and the Taliban have become even more violent since the new policy was introduced. Under the new policy, a series attacks were launched, including one that killed the leader of a Pakistani Islamist militant group, Omar Khalid Khorasani. In response to those attacks, in October, more than 70 people were killed and more than 170 others wounded in two Afghan provinces in attacks carried out by the Taliban. On December 17, another 11 Afghan police officers were killed in a Taliban attack.

At this moment, China and the United States should be partners in Afghanistan, based on their common interests: Both the United States and China need a peaceful Afghanistan under a secular government.

As far as China is concerned, the close economic ties between China and Afghanistan require a peaceful Afghanistan. China is Afghanistan’s third-largest trading partner. According to the Central Statistics Office of Afghanistan, bilateral trade reached over $1 billion by 2015. China and Afghanistan signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative in 2016 and China committed to make $100 million in Belt and Road investments in Afghanistan, based on IMF data.

Under the Belt and Road, the two neighboring countries have been cooperating in a number of projects, including the first cargo train from China to a northern Afghan city and a direct flight between Kabul and Urumqi. Moreover, Afghanistan is situated in the heart of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). That means any conflict in Afghanistan will pose a threat to China’s large investments in Pakistan and Central Asia. As part of the BRI, Beijing is investing upwards of $46 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. China also invested $8.89 billion in the Central Asia in 2013 according to the “One Belt And One Road” country investment value ranking. With the implementation of the Belt and Road, China can no longer feasibly extract itself from interests linked to Afghanistan.

As for the United States, although the Trump administration decided to pour more troops into Afghanistan, Washington’s final purpose is to withdraw fully. The United States has spent nearly $841 billion, or more, on the 16-year war in Afghanistan, but peace is still elusive. Trump has argued, in the past, both for and against a withdrawal.

The United States must prevent Afghanistan from being used as a platform for transnational terrorism or a source of regional instability. Drawing lessons from the hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Trump seems to have realized he can fully withdraw U.S. troops only when the Afghan government is capable of controlling the domestic situation and defeating terrorists alone. The United States is endeavoring to build Afghan’s military capabilities now; most of the newly added U.S. troops in Afghanistan as serving as advisers to Afghan forces in basic military units to help enhance the country’s military build-up. It is clear that the United States can neither pour more resources into the Afghan black hole nor withdraw from Afghanistan too quickly. Thus the only way is to promote peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government and accept the Taliban as part of the political sphere in Afghanistan.

What should not be ignored is that both the United States and China hope Afghanistan remains a secular regime. Afghanistan and Pakistan, along with Central Asian countries have long been haunted by terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism, which are named the “Three Evils” by Beijing. The Taliban is characterized by the harsh enforcement of their interpretation of Islamic Shariah. Although the Taliban proclaimed that they do not work together with Islamic State (ISIS) on several occasions, the Taliban itself is a fundamentalist movement. Taliban chiefs even train boys to enforce their fundamentalist Shariah teachings in a string of of schools in their strongholds in Afghanistan. Terrorist groups such as ISIS also promote the spread of terrorism and religious extremism in the country.

Both China and the United States cannot put up with the spread of religious extremism. The U.S. does not want to see Afghanistan become a hotbed of new extremist organizations or continue to be a paradise for terrorists. As for China, Beijing always takes issues related to “Three Evils” seriously since Uyghur separatists involved in militant groups have a tight relationship with the Taliban and other extremist groups in the region. China always highlights the issue of “Three Evils” within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This summer, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged members to fight against the “Three Evils” in Afghanistan and other regions as India and Pakistan joined SCO.

The United States and China need to fight together in this regard.

In fact, cooperation between the United States and China could be achieved based on two assumptions. The first is that the long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is not in line with China’s national security interests. Thus China should provide some help to enable the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as soon as it can. Such help cannot be troops but can be diplomatic efforts.

The second assumption is that there is a relationship between China and the Taliban, since China regards the group as political opposition rather than a terrorist organization. It was said a senior Taliban delegation secretly visited China in 2016 to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. Thus it is possible that the Taliban will accept China as an intermediary. What should be highlighted is that only the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is on the list of foreign terrorist organizations released by the U.S. Department of State; the Afghan Taliban is considered an insurgency. This special label makes diplomatic contact and peace talks between the Taliban, the United States, and the Afghan government possible.

Peace cannot be achieved only by the United States. To deal with the regional instability in Afghanistan, there is a golden opportunity for the United States and China to cooperate. Xi could play the good cop while Trump is playing the bad cop.

Yu Fu is research assistant in the School of International Studies, Academy of Overseas Chinese Studies, Institute for 21st Century Silk Road Studies at Jinan University in China. She also works as a Special Research Fellow of the Institute of Chinese Borderland Studies, Grandview Institute, Beijing, China.