By Baisali Mohanty
As Afghanistan receives renewed strategic focus, the international community faces daunting challenges in establishing security and stability in the country. With the Trump Administration announcing a more robust South Asia strategy premised on more troops on the ground and tougher line against Pakistan, competition between the major actors could intensify. In this context, China is likely to play a critical role. From engaging minimally with Kabul since the early 2000s to a proactive Afghan policy after the period of Taliban rule, China’s interest has grown, especially since 2014.
In a strategic environment where India, Russia, Iran and Pakistan are significant stakeholders, China is carving a role that bequeaths status, enabling Beijing to perform a consequential role in establishing regional stability through multilateral cooperation.
Over the last three years, Afghanistan has benefited from significant Chinese contributions in development assistance and aid. China, besides confirming an aid contribution of over $1.5 billion, has gone a step further in conducting joint patrols with the Afghan authorities – looking to fill the vacuum which the complete draw-down of US forces from Afghanistan will herald.
During a recent visit to Beijing in June 2017, the Chinese foreign minister confirmed its support to peace building and the mediation process between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Engaging in several multilateral and regional efforts towards Afghanistan, China has additionally played an active role in the Heart of Asia process, initiated in 2011.
China went a step further to host the Heart of Asia Istanbul Conference in October 2014, describing it as ‘historic…, and a testament to the collective efforts by both China and Afghanistan to better relations and forge closer cooperation in the region’.
Since 2014, China has been enthusiastically participating in regional security and economic cooperation in Afghanistan. Beijing extended support to Afghanistan’s full observer status at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in 2012 and has mooted full membership since 2016.
In 2017, a number of state-level visits has re-energized Afghan-China ties. Early this year, in a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Afghan counterpart Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, the head of states pledged to boost bilateral cooperation within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Additionally, the Afghan Minister of Public Works Mahmuod Baligh and Vice-Chairman of China Road and Bridge Corporation Lu Shan signed the $205 million deal during a ceremony in the Afghan Presidential Palace. In November last year, the Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao visited Kabul to celebrate 60 years of diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and China.
Moreover, China has played a key role in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, with the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan, since early 2016. Through its bilateral and trilateral engagements over Afghanistan, China seeks to ensure a dominant status for itself by proactively parting in the peace building and governance in Afghanistan.
Status of a state is hugely reliant on legitimate recognition, for which these institutional forums serve as the primary mechanism. It is inter-subjective and relational.
In February 2015, the first round of the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue (TSD) hosted in Kabul. Preceding the TSD were consultations and discussions between China, Russia and India in 2014. This highlighted an urgency in Beijing to gain significant advantage, diplomatically and economically, from involvement in Afghanistan.
China’s BRI has the potential to ameliorate Afghanistan’s deficit in infrastructure and natural resources. During Abdullah’s visit to China, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed on the BRI. Recently, China started operating the first freight trains to Afghanistan between Hairatan and Mazar-e-Sharif. In 2015, the Chinese government announced more than 500 scholarships for Afghan students to study in China and train 3,000 Afghan professionals in fields such as anti-drug trafficking, agriculture, counter-terrorism and diplomacy.
There has been a strong push by Beijing to negotiate with the Taliban, considered a lesser evil than the Islamic State. In March 2017, a Taliban delegation visited China. The foreign minister, Wang Yi, has affirmed that China is willing to play a ‘constructive role’ in the Afghan peace process.
In any bargaining over states’ relative status, each state will leverage its comparative advantage. China has made strong efforts to be a key stakeholder in multi-party talks. International fora perform the role of status markers, providing legitimacy to that status by assigning positive recognition.
In the multiparty talks hosted by Moscow in December 2016, China was a key player. India did not receive an invitation from Moscow for the first conference, meanwhile Beijing enhanced its efforts to accommodate the Taliban, as well as forge stronger ties with the Afghan government. The three participant nations agreed to remove certain ‘Taliban figures from the UN sanction list as part of efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement’. They underscored the urgency of accommodating the Taliban as a ‘necessary bulwark’ in the global fight against the Islamic state.
China has intensified engagement with Afghanistan, generating concerns among the other major players in Afghanistan. Russia and India have set distinct goals in Afghanistan and in the coming years multilateral engagement over Afghanistan will have far-reaching consequences, as China seeks a higher status and an enhanced global role.