Soon after his inauguration as President of Afghanistan in 2014, Ashraf Ghani paid a trust-building visit to China. During his trip, Ashraf Ghani maintained that China is a “strategic partner of Afghanistan in the short term, medium term, long term and very long term.”
Three years later, President Ghani met his Chinese counterpart on the sideline of 17th Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Astana, Kazakhstan privately for fifteen minutes. A confident Xi Jinping assured Ghani that the People’s Republic of China decided to send Wang Yi; the foreign minister to Kabul in order to talk upon bilateral issues, including peace with Pakistan. Utilizing its unique regional geopolitical leverage on all actors, China is trying to take all the credit in the Afghan peace process.
What strategic objectives made China to have a greater role in Afghanistan? Beijing’s Concerns are multidimensional and can be summarized in four major policy aims. Primarily, China has its eyes fixed on Afghanistan’s minerals, exploitation of which would meet Chinese Economic ambitions in the region. Beijing has advantages over any other possible investor, because utilizing and transporting minerals out of Afghanistan is cost efficient given its geographic location.
The second policy objective for China is establishing a regional transit route, in which ignoring Afghanistan is inevitable. China is also concerned about a minor Uighur terrorist group who is active on its border with Afghanistan and would welcome any action to suppress and destroy them. Finally, in the broader picture, China aims to become a Thucydides trap for the U.S. in the region in spite of new significant breakthroughs between Washington and Beijing during Trump’s trip to China last week.
China has failed once before in its attempts to invest in large-scale projects in Afghanistan. A three billion investment contract was signed on the Aynak copper mine in 2008, by a consortium of Chinese state-owned companies. In addition, another contract for 25-year was signed with China’s National Petroleum Corp covering drilling and a planned refinery in the northern provinces of Faryab and Sar-e-Pul which allowed CNPC to extract 1950 barrels per day. However, these projects were never implemented due to insecurity issues. Now, China intends to invest in Aynak copper and Amu Basin Oil projects.
Both Afghanistan and China are interested in integrating transit routes, initiated by Afghanistan, such as Lapis Lazuli Corridor, Trade and Transport Route between Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. The Afghan Railway Network — in which the Afghan government wants to build a railway line starting from Sher Khan Bandar (port) in Kunduz province to Mazar-e-Sharif and then to Aqina-Heart which is also part of Chinese regional initiative. To that end, China started operating the first cargo trains to Afghanistan, through Hairatan and Mazar-e-Sharif, as part of its “One Belt One Road” initiative this summer. Besides, pumping gas from rich sources in Central Asia into Gwadar port in Baluchistan of Pakistan; a mega Chinese project fits well into China’s ambitious regional expansionism strategy.
Beijing is fearful of the growing discontents among its 20 million Uighur ethnic group Muslim population specifically in erstwhile Turkistan and presently Xinjiang who are believed to have established links with extremist groups such as East Turkistan Islamic Movement, functioning along the Durand Line in Afghanistan-Pakistan tribal areas.
Notwithstanding, there is good news as the US and China has signed deals worth more than $250 billion after Trump’s and Xi’s visit in Beijing, Chinese efforts in Afghanistan are aimed at restricting US influence in the region. The question remains whether the US uphold China’s involvement in Afghan peace process in a hegemonic political game in the region as Chinese authorities have a tremendous influence on Pakistan and Afghanistan is still closer to the United States. Thus, bringing Kabul and Islamabad onto the same page over an Afghan solution is easy neither for Beijing and nor for Washington.
On the other hand, Afghanistan focuses on fostering closer economic ties with its giant neighbor on the east. Lacking strong political support, the already weak government in Kabul courts Chinese investment in the country and would like to press China to use its influence with its ally, Pakistan to help broker a peace deal with the Taliban. As in a South Asian political scenario, China weighs much to leverage Pakistan and can convince Islamabad to rein in jihadists for a peace deal with Kabul.
Since the beginning of the “global war on terror” sixteen years ago, for the first time all actors seems to be on the Afghanistan’s side on fighting terrorism. While Afghanistan’s government was successful in achieving consensus on isolating Pakistan, the matter of sanctuaries and safe havens of terrorists groups in Pakistani soil is still unresolved. The new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia which was announced by President Trump late this summer had strong stand against Pakistan’s support of terrorism in the region. The second blow to Pakistan came from the most recently declaration by BRICS in which the existence of terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Haqqani network claimed within Pakistani territory.
Though China asks power blocs to acknowledge and give full credit to Pakistan’s efforts in the war on terror as she is a victim of terror. However, it is believed that Pakistan might be a victim of terrorism, but the terrorist groups are all “made in Pakistan” if not “made by Pakistan”. Beijing knows that these are the rotten eggs of Pakistan’s chicken. Therefore, much pressure is required to be placed on Pakistani military apparatus to rein utilizing terrorist groups as a foreign policy tool and let the aroma of peace and harmony displace war and terrorism in the region.
*Nassir Ahmad Taraki is an Afghan scholar who studies defense and strategic studies at University of Pune, India. He can be followed on twitter as @nassirtaraki