What Role Might China Play in a Grand Bargain in Afghanistan?

Posted: February 15, 2019 in NSI
Tags: , , ,

More belated posting, this time a short piece for a larger report done by NSI, a company that seems to do reports and papers for the US Government. It looks at the question of Negotiated Settlement in Afghanistan: Elements of a Grand Bargain. The other chapters are done by various prominent Afghanistan experts.

What Role Might China Play in a Grand Bargain In Afghanistan?

Director, International Security Studies, RUSI

Chinese analysts have historically seen Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires. This basis has meant their willingness to engage in grand bargains based on negotiating with actors whom they realize may only have a fleeting grasp on power means that their preferred willingness has been to focus on making sure that they have good, or workable, relationships with as wide a range of actors as possible. At the same time, they have increasingly put in place a growing volume of tools to ensure that their own specific security equities are covered. From Beijing’s perspective, the idea of a grand bargain in Afghanistan is an interesting one, but will only be one they will invest effort into once it is demonstrated that it is going to work, and once everyone else is on board.

Beijing’s equities in Afghanistan are relatively narrow. Their principal concern used to be direct security threats from Uighur militants using the country as a base to launch attacks within China. Over time, they have strengthened their relations with the relevant parts of the Afghan security apparatus and hardened their specific border with Afghanistan. Nowadays, the assessment in Beijing is that the Uighur threat is one that is more relevant in a Syrian context than in Afghanistan. Their current preoccupations with Afghanistan are more regional in nature. Of greater concern than what is going on within Afghanistan is what impact Afghan instability might have in Central Asia and Pakistan.

Chinese investments in Afghanistan have continued to remain relatively small. There are two prominent large mining projects, while numerous Chinese infrastructure firms have delivered projects on behalf of international financial institutions in the country. Additionally, there is a relatively limited degree of lower level engagement, including gemstone trade, some import and export of white goods and agriculture products, as well as other household products and construction materials. None of this amounts to what Beijing perceives as a major stake.

This is reflected in Beijing’s approach towards the country, where it has visibly invested in hardening its own border as well as Afghanistan’s nearby border regions (in Pakistan and Tajikistan), while only providing relatively limited broader support to Afghanistan’s security forces.

This context is all important to understand to be able to properly evaluate Beijing’s willingness to be involved or support a grand bargain within the country. Beijing is interested and concerned about what happens in Afghanistan, but it sees this through a narrow regional lens, rather than a grander national security context. This is reflected in the fact it has yet to demonstrate a willingness to take a strong leadership role within the country.

This is not to say that Beijing has been entirely delinquent in its action within the country. Aside from the above mentioned efforts, and a growing willingness to seek to bring Afghanistan within the broader context of the Belt and Road Initiative, China has shown a strong appetite to engage with other regional powers in the country. China has sought to get institutions like the SCO and CiCA more involved, it has a greater plurality of regional configurations around the country—China-India, China-Afghanistan-Pakistan, as well as extra-regional partnerships like India, US, UK or Germany— and played a role in others regional efforts, for example Russia, Iran, or the Istanbul Process.

Yet none of these are decisive, and there is a sense that Beijing might be seeking to dilute its responsibility through this large range of engagements. In some cases, it is even possible that Beijing sees Afghanistan as a useful security policy case study to engage with a partner it cannot find other formats to positively engage with. This might help explain the highly positive, but ultimately indecisive, Chinese engagements with India and the US in the country. Beijing has deeply contentious and conflictual relationships with both Delhi and Washington, yet is able to use Afghanistan as a context in which it can attempt to develop a collaborative relationship. This is positive (but not decisive) for Afghanistan, and it is not yet clear that this is evidence of a strong commitment by Beijing.

Within the context of a grand bargain, the likely envisaged role for China would be to support bringing the harder partners to the table. For example, Beijing’s strong relationship with Pakistan could help ensure Islamabad played a positive role in any deal in the country, and that it ensured its proxies within Afghanistan played along. At the same time, Beijing could use its long-standing links to the Taliban to play a more direct role in this regard.

But what is important to note is that these connections and relationships that Beijing has are both long-standing and not as total as is sometimes painted. Beijing struggles to get Pakistan to provide adequate security to its interests within Pakistan, while at the same time being frustrated by some of the Pakistani state’s decisions and planning around CPEC. It is no more likely able to guarantee Islamabad’s acquiescence to control its proxies in Afghanistan than anyone else. At the same time, were Beijing able to exert such influence over the Taliban directly, why has it not used these relationships more forcefully before now? It has maintained a steady relationship to ensure its interests are protected, but as has been seen, Uighur militants have still historically been able to operate from Afghanistan.

The key point here is that Beijing is only willing to play a role insomuch as it advances its interests. And Beijing’s interests in Afghanistan at the moment are seen from Beijing as being manageable. They have a security situation that is problematic, but largely contained within Afghanistan, and they have hardened their borders around it. They continue to play a role, and are pushing some investment and economic activity in the country, but they have chosen not to showcase the country as a place in which they are going to take a leadership role. The commitment involved in taking that sort of a position is something that is beyond their interest.

This all highlights the role that China would play in any grand bargain. It would support a deal, as long as all the parties involved were agreed and in commitment to deliver it. It would likely be willing to play a role in supporting building this, but it will continue to maintain other relationships while it is doing this—in other words, Beijing is unlikely to cut off any links in favour of one deal over another (it has in past severed relationships with groups, but learned over time that this approach unless bound to a specific and achievable goal, is not sensible in the medium or longer-term). This helps explain Beijing’s willingness to play a role both in efforts in Afghanistan with both the US and Russia or India and Pakistan at the same time. China does not want to choose and to therefore set itself up for potential failure. It is better to continue to engage with everyone.

At the same time, this does not mean China is not willing to take a role, but it will avoid choosing sides or taking any leadership role. This reality is likely to persist until there is a blunt and clear western forces withdrawal from the country—something that might change Beijing’s calculus. Until that moment, China would continue to hedge and would play a similar role in any current grand bargain thinking.

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