China Joins the ‘Great Game’

During the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent visit to China, the two countries agreed to jointly fund a disaster response center in Afghanistan. It was just the latest sign of China’s increasingly prominent role in that country, which also includes trying to jump-start peace talks with the Taliban.

Germany has been a key US ally ever since the ouster of the Taliban 15 years ago, sending troops, as well as being one of the top aid donors. Germany’s intensifying interest in a stable Afghanistan is understandable Germany has recently become a destination for record numbers of Afghan asylum seekers. But what is China’s goal?

Historically, China has favored a non-interventionist approach overseas, while being accused of providing loans with no regard for the human rights situation in a given country. Beijing generally steers clear of messy negotiations between warring parties, but in the case of Afghanistan, it has stepped into the fray, joining the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, which was set up to negotiate with the Taliban and also includes the US, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Experts cite a mix of economic, political, and especially security concerns that account for China’s interest in Afghanistan. They say China could be a key player in future peace talks because of its close relationship with Pakistan, a country that Afghanistan accuses of harboring and even supporting Taliban leaders.

“So far, Afghans feel that China is as sincere as it can be, given its long history of friendship with Pakistan,” said Omar Samad, a former Afghan government advisor who has also served as ambassador to Canada and France.

The Pakistan question

To many Afghans, the roots of their country’s problems stretch across the border to Taliban strongholds in the frontier areas, and even further, into the halls of Pakistan’s military and intelligence headquarters.

The Taliban leadership is known as the Quetta Shura after the city in Pakistan's Baluchistan Province where it’s been based since its ouster in 2001. When a US drone strike killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour in May, he was traveling by road in that province. The role of Pakistan’s intelligence and security agencies in the organization of the Taliban and their takeover of Afghanistan in the 1990s has been well documented by journalists and authors such as Ahmad Rashid.

Pakistan’s involvement in any peace talks is key, and that would require a “shift” in policy that Afghanistan cannot initiate on its own, Samad said.

“An answer has to be sought in collaboration, within an alliance with the US, other Western countries, other relevant and influential countries – including China,” he said.

A new Great Game?

So why is China getting into what Samad referred to as a “new ‘Great Game,’” a reference to the machinations between the British and Russian empires that played out in Afghanistan at the turn of the century? What does China stand to gain through its involvement in the nascent peace talks?

“It is only natural for us to care about the stability and security of Afghanistan,” was the official response to IRIN’s question at a Foreign Affairs Ministry briefing in Beijing.

“As a friendly and close neighbor of Afghanistan, China sincerely hopes that the Afghan people can live in peace, stability, and security, and benefit from the country's development,” said Hua Chunying, the ministry spokesperson.

While there’s no reason to doubt the goodwill of the Chinese government, others say there is a bit more to it.

When IRIN asked about links between militant groups in Afghanistan and western China, Hua Chunying did not answer and the question was stricken from the official transcript of the briefing.

There is a militant Islamist separatist movement in China’s western region of Xinjiang, which is home to the Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighur minority. The region borders Afghanistan, and Uighurs have reportedly fought and been captured there.

Those security concerns are at the forefront of China’s increasingly muscular stance on Afghanistan, said Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan scholar at New York University and former special advisor to the US and the UN.

“Uighur separatists receiving military training and experience with Afghan and Pakistani militant groups, and the need for closer cooperation with the Afghan government,” he said.

The US decision to scale down its military presence and NATO’s withdrawal have also pushed China to take a greater role in attempting to stabilise Afghanistan, said Du Youkang, a former diplomat to Pakistan who is now director at Fudan University’s Center for South Asian Studies.

There are also economic and political incentives. China’s Silk Road Economic Belt strategy, for example, aims to develop infrastructure that will help connect Eurasian economies, allowing China better access to new markets.

“China will not be able to implement these plans without peace and security in the region,” noted Rubin.

China’s quandary

The Quadrilateral Coordination Group is so far only discussing a roadmap to peace talks, and even that process has been off to a sputtering start. In April, a Taliban delegation in Pakistan said it was ready to meet with officials. The Afghans refused to take part, and accused Pakistan of refusing to use its influence over the Taliban to push for peace.

As a close ally of Pakistan and a supportive partner to Afghanistan, China could be the one country to bring them together. That would involve leaning on Pakistan to be an honest broker between Afghanistan and the Taliban. But will China play its hand?

“China’s best role would be to bridge the gap between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which would include some kind of pressure on and security assurance for Pakistan,” said Rubin. “But Pakistan is practically China’s only ally and it is essential to Chinese security and economic planning, so thus far I see little sign that China will do so.”

In any regard, the process will be a long one, so China’s role may have time to evolve. In the immediate term, Afghanistan is facing a political crisis, warned Samad. Factions within the Government of National Unity, which was formed to stave off civil conflict after disputed elections, are squabbling over reforms meant to decentralize power.

Afghanistan’s military is fighting hard to hold off insurgents, including the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State, without the support of the 130,000 foreign soldiers that were stationed there at the peak of the NATO mission. The economy has also collapsed in the wake of their departure.

Given the political, economic, and security situation playing out right now, the Taliban has little incentive to talk, and rather more to take advantage of the chaos. The Afghan government is also so consumed by its multiple crises that it is in no position to push for negotiations.

“Peace talks are on the back burner right now,” said Samad. “How can you engage in any type of peace process when you have so many balls up in the air?”