On December 26, 2017, the first China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue was held in Beijing. The two most important takeaways from this trilateral dialogue were Beijing’s “read[iness] to play a constructive role in improving Afghanistan-Pakistan relations” and decision on “extending CPEC [the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor] to Afghanistan.”
This is the first time that China has been willing to play the mediator and facilitator role between Kabul and Islamabad. But it was decades ago, during the Cold War, that both top Pakistani and Afghan government officials first urged China to play such a role — to no avail. Moreover, although the recent trilateral foreign ministers’ dialogue was proposed by China in mid-2017 amid tense Afghanistan-Pakistan ties, Afghanistan put forward the original idea for tripartite meetings among the three countries in 2012. Why is China only responding now?
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Beijing’s interest in the smooth bilateral ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan can be traced back to the Cold War era. According to a Chinese foreign ministry document, which was later declassified and included in the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive, on March 8, 1962 Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai told the Pakistani ambassador to China that Pakistan should ease tense relations with its neighbors, notably Afghanistan and India. According to the summary, Zhou said, “Why can’t the dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan be mitigated? As I have been informed, Afghanistan is a small country, a backward country, and completely unwilling to antagonize [Pakistan]; if Pakistani-Afghan relations were eased, Pakistan would have no need to maintain such immense military expenditures.”
The Pakistani ambassador accepted the idea of Chinese arbitration in the Afghanistan-Pakistan disputes, saying that one day when China was “strong and had 2 or 3 atomic bombs” then “at that time, with China’s support, it would be possible to resolve the Pakistani-Afghan disputes.” However, Zhou replied that the ambassador was “speaking of a future far too distant.”
Interestingly, Zhou was more pro-Afghan at this specific meeting. He told the Pakistan ambassador that “our opinion is different from yours. Afghanistan’s circumstances are not the same as India’s.” However, when asked by the Pakistani ambassador for suggestions to improve Afghanistan-Pakistan relations, Zhou replied that “to raise suggestions will constitute interference.” Instead, he said that disputes with neighbors should be settled directly and without any third-party interference.
Clearly, at this early stage China was not interested in mediating between Afghanistan and Pakistan, although it was concerned about the state of their relationship. There were several reasons for this.
First, Pakistan was yet to become China’s strategic partner. Relations between China and Pakistan evolved after 1962, when the Sino-Indian war broke out.
Second, Iran, Turkey, and the United States played the peacemaker between Kabul and Islamabad during this era, and were considered more influential than China at those times.
Third, China itself was not willing to play a mediator role abroad, as indicated by Zhou’s remarks to the Pakistani ambassador.
With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the government-to-government ties between Afghanistan and China deteriorated. Beijing supported the insurgents (the Afghan Mujahideen) against the Soviets and the Afghan government. As the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the communist regime led by President Najibullah was under immense pressures from the Mujahideen. During the siege of Khost, the first provincial capital to fall into the Mujahideen’s hands, Najibullah wrote a letter to the Chinese president asking for his assistance in ending the crisis. The Afghan president believed that Pakistan was behind the insecurity in Afghanistan and the siege. But Beijing remained silent.
Later in the the Afghan Civil War, Afghan President Ustad Rabbani also asked China twice to help the Afghan government amid Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s alliance with General Abdul Rashid Dostum and then the Taliban’s siege of Kabul. Again, China didn’t move, because Hekmatyar was considered a Pakistani ally and a favorite in Pakistani strategic circles.
AfPak Mediator: Help Wanted
Both Afghanistan and Pakistan have looked for a common friend to ease the tense bilateral ties between them. This was the case during the Cold War, and has been particularly true since 2001.
Since 2001, Kabul has sought help from Turkey, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The Afghanistan-Pakistan-Turkey trilateral talks, initiated in 2007, paved the way for the Heart of Asia summit, while the tripartite discussions with the United States and the United Kingdom eased tensions for the time being. The United States was in the best position to arbitrate and mediate between the two neighboring countries. More than any other country, the United States was involved in Afghanistan with its blood and money, and in the early 2000s it had more tools to influence and persuade Pakistan than anyone else (including China). But Kabul’s efforts to find a mediator were in vain.
Later, the Afghan government looked to China. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai proposed trilateral meetings among Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan in 2012. China strongly backed the proposal. Since then, the three countries have held trilateral meetings at the general directorate and deputy minister level. Moreover, the track 2 and 1.5 triangular diplomacy has also taken place since 2012 with series of meetings.
Chinese Mediation Under the National Unity Government
Under the National Unity Government, for the first time in history, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China are all ready to accept Beijing as a meditator for the improvement of Afghanistan-Pakistan ties. In this regard, late 2016 and 2017 were a busy and an active period for Chinese diplomats and notably Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
At Beijing’s request, in June 2017 both Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed to establish two platforms: a crisis prevention and management mechanism, and the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers dialogue. The bilateral crisis management mechanism was meant to enable both sides “to maintain timely and effective communications in case of any emergencies, including terrorist attacks,” and ease the tense environment “through dialogue and consultation.” The China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers dialogue, which was inaugurated on December 26, would “discuss all aspects of Afghanistan-Pakistan relations with special focus on economic cooperation.”
Moreover, after seven years the Shanghai Cooperation Organization contact group on Afghanistan has been resumed, meeting on October 11, 2017. The Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) on Afghanistan, bringing together Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and the United States, is yet to be revived as promised during Wang’s shuttle diplomacy visits to Kabul and Islamabad on June 24 to 25, 2017.
There are several factors behind the increasing importance of China’s mediator role.
First, bilateral ties between Beijing-Kabul and Beijing-Islamabad have made it easy for both Afghanistan and Pakistan to trust China.
Second, as China’s interests are expanding in the region with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and CPEC, its international role and obligations are also growing. Compared with the past, China is far more ready to play a role abroad, especially in the AfPak region. On a related note, the $57 billion CPEC project has given China far more influence in Islamabad.
Finally, although Afghanistan-Pakistan ties have seen lows and highs, recent border clashes and harsh rhetoric recalls the Cold War-era politics between the two neighboring countries. Border clashes are more routine and more severe than at any point in the past decade. Therefore, Beijing had to step in for the benefit of all three countries. The ground is ready for such mediation, and it is the right time for Beijing’s shuttle diplomacy.
The Geopolitics of Beijing’s Mediation
In supporting Beijing’s mediator role, Kabul hopes to improve its security situation, as well as its economy. Kabul is very enthusiastic about seeing its intra-Afghan and inter-regional projects included in the BRI and CPEC because its regional integration projects are very much aligned with these big Chinese plans. Chinese President Xi Jinping also expressed his support for Afghanistan “playing a greater role in promoting the regional economic integration and connectivity” when he met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Astana on June 8, 2017.
Meanwhile, Pakistani military officials would be very much pleased with Beijing playing an active role in Afghanistan because China’s involvement can decrease Indian influence. The head of the Defense Committee of the Pakistani Senate has expressed that “China is in a good position to play the role of an honest broker or mediator between Pakistan and Afghanistan. We welcome this role, just like the Afghan government has welcomed it.”
India might be alarmed by the extension of CPEC to Afghanistan. New Delhi has publicly and officially opposed the project because it passes through Pakistan-administered Kashmir. However, Kabul thinks it can cooperate with both CPEC and India’s preferred transportation route through Chabahar port. India might understand Kabul’s position, but its concerns will considerably rise if, through Beijing’s mediation, Afghanistan-Pakistan ties see a breakthrough. It is regrettable that both India and Pakistan thinks that closer relations either between Kabul and New Delhi or Kabul and Islamabad puts the other in a corner. This will be a challenging situation for the Afghan government.
The United States, on the other hand, has expressed its support for Beijing’s mediation. After Wang Yi’s visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan in June 2017, the U.S. State Department said that “the United States encourages all regional partners to play a positive role through engagement and support for the Afghan government… we share an interest with all regional states, including China, in seeing Afghanistan become increasingly secure, and politically and economically stable.”
Chinese Mediation: The Way Forward
Though all three parties agree on the benefits of Chinese mediation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is one potential stumbling block in the process: Beijing’s limitations. In his meetings with both Afghan and Pakistani officials, the Chinese foreign minister stressed that Beijing “never interferes in the internal affairs of other countries, never imposes China’s will on others and never involves [itself] in geopolitical rivalry.” Kabul has learned from the Quadrilateral Peace Talks that the real problem is not getting promises from Pakistan, but the fulfilment and implementation of pledges. China might need to take a more active role than it is comfortable with to ensure promises are kept.
Ahmad Bilal Khalil is a researcher at the Center for Strategic and Regional Studies, Kabul. He is the author of an upcoming book on Sino-Afghan relations: 1955-2017 in Pashto. He tweets at @abilalkhalil