The war in Afghanistan has wreaked more havoc than anyone could have imagined when it began over 18 years ago. Today, the country faces one of the biggest humanitarian crises ever witnessed, where the problem of displacement caused by constant fighting has been compounded by the conditions of severe drought. Persistent calls for peace have been drowned out by the sound of incessant fighting and endless bombings. The Taliban, the foremost perpetrator of insurgent violence in country, have gone from a movement opposing the depredations of Afghan warlords in the early 1990s, to ruling Afghanistan, to resurrecting as an insurgency to be reckoned with. Now they are now negotiating the future of Afghanistan with the United States, with no sign of Afghan government involvement in the process. Regardless, violence continues unabated, and in fact has intensified manifold since the announcement of the Taliban’s annual spring offensive earlier this year.
At a time when the coalition of Afghan and U.S. forces is failing to contain the violence, humanitarian aid organizations are becoming the target of cold-blooded attacks, and peace negotiations seem to have plateaued, it is important to look for alternate means of potentially ensuring peace in Afghanistan. China is increasingly being thought of as a credible way out of the current security quagmire, for a number of reasons – both strategic and economic in nature.
Although China and the then-Kingdom of Afghanistan established diplomatic relations as far back as 1950, for China, Afghanistan’s importance remained limited to economic engagement. China invested in the vast natural resource repository that Afghanistan was, and still is, home to, until the Russian invasion in the 1980s. Chinese involvement in the spheres of politics and and security in Afghanistan was minimal. After the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, and the establishment of an interim government in Afghanistan, China and Afghanistan did try to institute good neighborly relations by reaffirming their 1960 Treaty of Friendship and Nonaggression in 2006. However, even with the resurrection of the Taliban in the early 2000s, and the ensuing widespread insurgent violence, China did not sanction a physical military presence in the conflict-ridden country.
Having said that, the arc of China’s Afghan policy has visibly evolved from calculated indifference to active engagement, as Beijing’s interests in the region are expanding at a fast pace. First, China is wary of the geographical proximity between Afghanistan, home to the Taliban and a number of other transnational terrorist outfits, and its Uyghur Muslim-predominated Xinjiang region, which Chinese authorities claim is the breeding ground for the “three evils” plaguing the country (terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism). Second, China fears that the chronic political and strategic instability in Afghanistan may derail the progress of Beijing’s transcontinental infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to connect China with the countries of Southeast, South, and Central Asia; the Gulf region; North and East Africa; and Europe. Third, China’s growing involvement in Afghan issues exemplifies the Chinese aspiration to alter the global perception in favor of China as a powerful regional, and perhaps even a global, player, which has the potential to resolve the problem of the longest-standing insurgency South Asia has ever witnessed.
In theory, China is undoubtedly one of the most well-placed states to drive the Afghan peace process toward progress, for it exercises strategic leverage over the country that often hosts and provides material and ideological patronage to the Taliban — Pakistan. China provides Islamabad with much-needed economic assistance, lately in the form of the $62 billion strong China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that will help stabilize a flailing economy, reduce conditions of rampant poverty and deprivation, and contribute to the overall development of Pakistan’s socioeconomic milieu. However, although China has stated on many occasions that the resolution of the Afghan problem hinges on the country establishing cordial relations with Pakistan, and vowed to collectively combat the menace of terrorism, China has not yet made considerable efforts at facilitating such an arrangement. It seems to have followed a selective approach to combating terrorism, by getting Pakistan to crack down on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which counts China as its main target, but not the Afghan Taliban walking free in Pakistan.
On the economic front, although China is the biggest foreign investor in Afghanistan, it has failed to capitalize on the gains made in the form of a $3 billion copper extraction contract in the province of Logar, or the road and rail infrastructure it has painstakingly developed in Afghanistan. The lack of progress is due to the volatile security situation in the country, coupled with a low export capacity. Moreover, China has been unable to fully integrate Afghanistan as a member state into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to provide impetus to the assemblage of a regional consensus to drive the Afghan peace process, or even utilize existing multilateral forums such as the Quadrilateral Group Cooperation (QGC) with an aim of providing diplomatic heft to the will of the Afghan government, and thereby a push toward reconciliation.
China, along with the United States and Russia, has proclaimed in an official joint statement that it seeks and fully supports an “inclusive, Afghan-led peace process,” and has explicitly committed to the cause of Afghan peace and reconciliation, ready to provide “necessary assistance” as needed. Yet so far, China seems to lack the will to implement those promises made on paper. To be clear, China undeniably has the potential to positively influence the present trajectory of the peace process, and persuade Pakistan to lend its unequivocal support to talks between the insurgents and Afghan officials, a step that is crucial to ensuring long-term stability in Afghanistan. However, to accomplish such a feat, China would first have to clearly lay down its strategic priorities with conviction – and decide whether it wants to safeguard the prospects of its transcontinental economic ventures by mollycoddling Pakistan, or it is ready to take a pragmatic, long term view of regional security by vowing to combat all sources of terrorism equally.
Shubhangi Pandey is a Junior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Program at Observer Research Foundation. Her research focuses on Afghanistan, particularly exploring internal political dynamics, developments related to terrorism, and the role of nonstate militant actors in the region, including the security dynamics of South Asia.