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THE fingerprints of Beijing are becoming quite visible on the peace process in Afghanistan to the utter disdain of the US state department. This is what most of the American think-tanks had been predicting for the past one decade. But the irony is that, in spite of all their attempts to keep the Chinese out of the Afghanistan theatre, Beijing has been quite successful in carving out a tangible role in the whole equation. In a relatively short time, the Chinese have achieved some key strategic objectives in Afghanistan, creating a sort of panic in the American camp.
The recent visits of US secretary of state Michael Pompeo and other senior officials to Kabul is an expression of this panic. One very strong perception has been created among most of the Afghanis, including the Taliban that China is very serious in its intentions to bring about peace and stability in Afghanistan. This is true to a large extent and there is plenty evidence to validate this perception. In the middle of June, a deal was brokered between the Afghan government and the Taliban for a three day ceasefire on the occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr — an important religious holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. This was perhaps first such truce, however temporary, in the recent history of Afghanistan war.
The credit for this ceasefire deal goes to Beijing’s back-door diplomatic efforts. Although both Pakistan and China have never acknowledged it publicly because both the sides wanted to give the impression of ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned’ but everyone in Kabul was talking about the positive role played by Beijing, in collaboration with Islamabad, to stage this ceasefire. But the successful Eid-ceasefire episode, for obvious reasons, has pushed a panic button in the US camp. The Americans were not expecting that Chinese will move swiftly to score a big positive through temporary ceasefire. It has clearly demonstrated that the Americans were underestimating the growing Chinese penetration and their ability to strike the right chords in Afghanistan.
At the start of June, Chinese president Xi Jinping met Afghan president Ashraf Ghani especially on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Qingdao Summit and vehemently pledged to continue to provide assistance for Afghanistan’s economic and social development within China’s due capacity, and further reassured Beijing’s backing to Kabul’s peace overtures towards the Talibans. This was the fifth such meeting between the two presidents — reconfirming the fact that Beijing is now very much integral part of the peace process in Afghanistan.
Three major strategic compulsions have pushed China to indulge in the Afghan imbroglio in a big way. The One Belt and One Road is perhaps the most vital part of Xi Jinping’s Vision 2050 and he is eager to ensure that the OBOR initiative is executed without any impediments. The continuous instability in the vicinity of the OBOR is likely to hamper this ambitious project. China is keen to ensure the peace and stability is realised in Afghanistan, owing to its close proximity to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which in turn is the most crucial component of the OBOR.
A stable and peaceful Afghanistan is extremely crucial for the One Belt One Road project and Xi Jinping seems to be very serious in this regard. The second strategic coercion behind China’s interest in the Afghan peace process is related to its own pre-emptive action plan to muffle the possibility of infiltration of the Jihadist groups to its Xinjiang province from the border areas of neighbouring Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Reportedly, many Jihadist groups from Central Asian countries and Xinjiang — including Uighur Nationalists, East Turkestan Islamic Movement — have established close logistical, training and tactical collaborations with the Afghan Talibans.
The unabated war in Afghanistan is likely to further motivate these jihadist groups to expand their activities across the border into Xinjiang. This is what Beijing wants to nip in the bud. The third strategic objective of China’s Afghanistan policy is to counter and neutralise the growing influence of India. China does not want to see India, for obvious reasons, to expand its military and political sway in Afghanistan.
Against this backdrop, Beijing is playing a very active role now in Afghanistan. One key advantage to China is that it is being considered ‘the only neutral’ player by all the stakeholders in Afghanistan. This ‘neutrality image’ is the key selling point for Beijing to actively pursue reconciliation in Afghanistan. Unlike, the United States, which has drastically changed its outlook of Afghanistan under the unilateralist foreign policy doctrine of Donald Trump, is a highly controversial player in this scenario and seems to be fairly helpless to put Afghanistan on the road to peace.
Same is the case with other stakeholders like Pakistan, Iran, India and Russia. China, owing to its goodwill and neutral image in Afghanistan, is in a much better position to drive the process at a reasonably fast pace. In December 2017, China initiated trilateral talks along with Pakistan and Afghanistan to discuss the prospects of peace and development. China is using Islamabad’s influence to engage the Taliban positively — the ceasefire at Eid-ul-Fitr has proved it. So far, this ploy has worked well for China, and the Taliban are responding to this arrangement.
China’s approach is very pragmatic and it does understand that the Taliban have a control over 70 per cent of the territory in Afghanistan and no workable peace deal can be successfully achieved without fully involving the Taliban as legitimate players. The issues pertaining to the foreign forces’ stay in Afghanistan, foreign jihadist fighters’ expulsion, incorporation of the Shariah in the constitution and power sharing setup are some of the key complexities that are thwarting all the efforts towards a durable and viable peace agreement in Afghanistan.
Washington appears to be almost exhausted in Afghanistan. There is not a single point on the basis of which Washington can claim even partial success. Beijing saw a vacuum and readily filled it, and now the Americans are fuming over this new development. The reality is that Beijing has shrewdly sculpted a driving role for itself in the Afghanistan affairs and now it is quite difficult for the old regional and international actors to undermine it. The Chinese have learnt a new art of indirectly controlling the global hot-spots and that too with the ‘unwelcome’ consent of the United States.
Donald Trump is celebrating his historic summit with Kim Jong-un in Singapore as the success of his new-found personal diplomacy, but it would have not been possible for him to do so without Beijing’s consent and nodding. Same is going to be repeated in Afghanistan, but this time China will not remain in the background. In fact, China is fast emerging on the fore front and taking the charge of peace process. Without firing a single bullet or sending a single troop, Beijing has assumed the role of big brother and main guarantor of peace, which is generally acceptable to all the players there. Despite their reluctance, Washington, is gradually acclimatising itself with these emerging geo-political realities in Afghanistan where China is now in a better position to dictate the momentum of the peace process.
The problem with the Americans is that they do understand and acknowledge that China’s involvement is essential and critical in the reconciliation process, but, at the same time, they do not want Beijing to hijack the whole situation. So far, China has proven to be a capable actor with enough weight to push the reconciliation process forward. Even Washington, despite mutual distrust and suspicion, will have no choice but to voluntarily vacate the driving seat for Beijing to facilitate this.
Dr Imran Khalid is a freelance contributor from Karachi, Pakistan.