By Asif Durrani
The ongoing peace process launched by the American special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is moving at a snail’s pace. There are uncertainties surrounding the process, primarily on the issues of US withdrawal schedule (Taliban’s demand) and intra-Afghan dialogue (US and Ashraf Ghani government’s demand). In such a scenario, a catalyst would be needed to galvanize the process. So far, China’s role in stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan has been understated. This is partly due to China maintaining a low-profile regarding ongoing contentious issues.
It is now widely acknowledged that China’s role in helping peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan is crucial in bringing about stability to the country. The US has already taken China into confidence along with Russia to ensure that all stakeholders are on the same page. Contrary to previous apprehensions about the US’ motives of staying in Afghanistan for an indefinite period, this move also shows that the US has tried to raise the comfort level of China and Russia in order to assure that it does not view Afghanistan as a listening post for the region any longer. In a way, the US has given strong signals to Afghanistan’s neighbours (China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran) to take the responsibility of stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan.
China has all the potential and clout to play a vital role in bringing the warring factions to the negotiating table. Recently, a Taliban delegation visited China which shows that the latter has realised that China, as a neighbor, cannot ignore the developments in Afghanistan. It has already taken noteworthy steps which can contribute to the stability of Afghanistan
Firstly, China has always maintained a friendly relationship with its neighbours including Afghanistan. After 9/11, China has been focusing on reconstruction assistance to the country which has grown in size and quality over the years.
Secondly, China has invested $3.5 billion in Afghanistan including the Aynek Copper and Amu Darya oil exploration projects. Under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is poised to build massive infrastructure projects to connect the major business centres in the world. Afghanistan provides the necessary bridge to link Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East. Building of rail and road projects would facilitate the BRI, attaining traction and making Afghanistan a transit country. This would also create business and employment opportunities in Afghanistan.
Thirdly, on the security side, China is concerned that its Uyghur Muslim-dominated Xinjiang region is in close proximity to Afghanistan. Already activists of East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) have been using Afghanistan as a staging ground for their activities in Xinjiang. China’s engagement with relevant Afghan stakeholders would ensure that ETIM activists are denied sanctuaries inside Afghanistan.
Significantly, China’s contacts with the Taliban has assumed added importance as the recent visit by the Taliban delegation to Beijing indicated that China is now an active player in the ongoing peace process. Like other immediate neighbours of Afghanistan, China has reportedly advised the Taliban to participate in the intra-Afghan dialogue and shun their rigid stance towards Ashraf Ghani’s government. However, in order to remain non-controversial, China would prefer to be a part of the multilateral process rather than going solo to maintain its good will with all the Afghan stakeholders, Afghanistan’s neighbours and international players.
Despite maintaining a neutral stance on Afghanistan in the past, China has been playing a substantive role in nudging the Afghan parties to come to the negotiating table, albeit behind the scenes. Other than that, both Pakistan and China have successfully convinced the neighbours of Afghanistan to make common causes on peace and security in the war-ravaged country. However, experience of the past four decades has made China and other neighbours extremely cautious about the peace process which, if mishandled, can be derailed on the slightest pretext.