Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

As usual have been distracted in real life to get around to posting here, so have a bit of catching up to do. That and the fact that the world seems to be becoming utterly consumed by this virus nightmare, makes you wonder what the longer term consequences of everything really are. But in any case, been writing for a few new outlets and here is the first of a few pieces that emerged recently. First up is a blog post for the French Institut Montaigne, an interesting think tank that is close to President Macron. Thanks to Mathieu and Viviana for their invitation and work on this. Looks at the already faltering peace deal in Afghanistan and China’s general appetite on engagement within the country.

The US-Afghanistan Peace Agreement and a Detached China

Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 02.44.33 1

It has not taken long for the strains in the US-Taliban agreement to show. Within hours of signing the agreement, Afghan authorities appeared to be contradicting one of its key pillars. Within days, there was a noticeable return to violence, with the Taliban attacking government positions, the US striking Taliban forces and civilians getting killed. As more time has passed, perspectives are appearing to become more entrenched. What has been noticeable, however, has been the largely quiet response from Beijing, one of Afghanistan’s potentially most consequential neighbors that has played a relatively limited role in the country until now. A question lingering in the back of most regional planning is at what stage might Beijing ultimately step forwards to play a more proactive role.

An agreement for bringing peace

The agreement itself – at least the published part – appears fairly thin gruel. The rather clunky title “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America” reflects the immense complexity that undoubtedly underpins the broader effort to get to the position where the two sides were able to sign a document. The fact it has taken such a short period of time for the seams to show is a reflection of the rush with which it was assembled. This was an agreement to paper over an intense American desire to leave Afghanistan.

And to some degree this perspective is an understandable one. Washington has now been engaged in Afghanistan for almost two decades, and it is hard to see where the end of this conflict might lie. Simply slugging on may exhaust further American blood and treasure without changing much.

At the same time, the precipitous nature of the US withdrawal as it is currently structured appears to answer a US political need and calendar rather than any Afghan interests. For President Trump, an agreement with the Taliban and withdrawal from Afghanistan will be another foreign policy victory he will add to the list that he will no doubt repeatedly shout about on the campaign trail – adding a cowed Taliban to the roster of dead terrorist enemies (which includes ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s leader Qasim al-Rimi and Iranian General Qasem Soleimani).

The impact of such a precipitous withdrawal is not clear. Many point to the fact that it took a few years for President Najibullah to hang after the Soviet withdrawal, with many ascribing the end of foreign aid to his government as the final nail in his coffin. But Afghanistan today is not the same country it was almost three decades ago, and the Taliban are not the same organization they were two decades ago. And in contrast to then when China was a far weaker power still emerging on the international stage, Afghanistan now borders one of the world’s fastest-growing economies (Coronavirus excepted). In many ways, it could be Beijing’s response now that will help shape Afghanistan’s future – be this in terms of investment in infrastructure, encouraging bilateral trade and playing a more proactive role in stabilizing the country in political, economic and security terms. How Beijing steps forwards could shape Afghanistan’s future.

China’s circumspection

So far, Beijing has been circumspect in its response to the peace negotiations. They have not been hugely positive, nor very critical. Rather they have said they will support the process and welcome a clean resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan. In gently critical pieces they suggest that the United States has more responsibility around blame than the Taliban, though they are very careful to not to point too many fingers.

This careful approach is a product of the fact that Afghanistan appears to be one of the few places where the US and China might still effectively cooperate. Notwithstanding tensions elsewhere, Beijing and Washington were able to craft a series of engagements in Afghanistan which they delivered together. However, this approach has been sorely tested since the arrival of the Trump administration and their single-minded and aggressive focus on China. This has extended to harsh criticisms of China’s activity around its western periphery with Secretary of State Pompeo attacking China’s activity in Central Asia during a visit last month, following blunt comments by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of South and Central Asian Affairs Ambassador Alice Wells about China’s activity in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In blunt terms, she excoriated China’s involvement in Afghanistan during a Congressional hearing. While she acknowledged China’s willingness to engage on peace talks, in no uncertain terms she stated “I think that it is fair to say China has not contributed to the economic development of Afghanistan. We have not seen any substantial assistance from China. The Belt and Road is just a slogan.” Just over two months later in a public discussion at the Wilson Center, she repeated these statements as part of a broader assault on China’s Belt and Road activities. When asked about Afghanistan she responded “I haven’t seen China take the steps that would make it a real contributor to Afghanistan’s stabilization, much less stitching it back into the Central Asia and the international community.

Unsurprisingly, this generated angry commentary in the nationalist Chinese Global Times newspaper which attacked Ambassador Wells and accused the United States of continually failing to provide an “efficient resolution to boost the Afghan peace process.” In an interesting contrast, the newly installed Chinese Ambassador to Kabul Wang Yu responded to Ambassador Wells with a detailed presentation about China’s contribution to Afghanistan, including detail about the collaborative efforts that the US and China had done together. This more conciliatory approach likely reflects a desire by China to be seen as at least leaving itself open to cooperating in Afghanistan.

China no longer fears a US withdrawal

At the same time, however, it is not clear that Beijing has much plan to step forwards into the Afghan mess. Beijing has spent considerable time and effort over the past few years strengthening the various sides of the border that it shares with Afghanistan – it has provided investment and equipment support to Tajik border forces, Pakistani security forces in Gilgit-Baltistan, and hardened its own direct border.

It has provided support for Afghan forces in Badakhshan (in the form of camps, equipment, training and some joint patrolling), and it has sought to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) more engaged in the country. Particularly notably, it also instigated the creation of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) that brings together the Afghan, Chinese, Pakistani and Tajikistani Chiefs of Military Staff and has started to explore doing joint training exercises together.

All of this means that China is not too concerned about security problems in Afghanistan having a direct impact back on itself, or what concerns it might have it has now created buffers against. And any problems they might generate in Central Asia or Pakistan are likely already factored into the regional instability that China expects in these regions. As a result, from Beijing’s perspective, there is little to be concerned about with regard to Afghanistan becoming a source of instability for China. It would appear that China’s security apparatus heeded Xi Jinping’s reported closed-door 2014 declarations about protecting the country from trouble from Afghanistan in the face of potential American draw-down.

This stands in contrast to the past, where Beijing was very alarmed by the prospect of an abrupt American withdrawal and did little about it. When such talk circulated in the early 2010s, Beijing started to panic, worried it would be left with chaos on its border though at that stage was not very confident about what would need to be done beyond hedging through Pakistani proxies. Flash forward and Chinese analysts are far more sanguine about Afghanistan. The government may survive, the Taliban may come in, fighting may break out, but China is unlikely to be impacted by much of this. Its limited investment projects in the country have not really delivered much, and while it is a positive aid contributor to the country, it has not taken the burden on that it might. No-one in Beijing is advocating for the PLA to deploy in the country. Rather, this time around, it would seem as though China is distancing itself from the American withdrawal, positioning itself as the honest broker who will be there and friends with whoever takes power. And in the event of complete chaos, China has now strengthened its direct borders insulating it from direct trouble.

Keeping the Afghan problem at bay

Earlier discussions of China acting as a ‘security guarantor’ seem to have fallen by the wayside, and China seems to have given up the role of hosting the intra-Afghan talks. Beijing, it could be concluded, sees little good coming from the abrupt American withdrawal and wants to be as disassociated from the mess as possible. This would fit with the largely flat comments to have emerged from the MFA and Xinhua in the wake of the talks as they essentially wait the situation out.

What is also clear, however, is that the goodwill that had been generated between the US and China over Afghanistan has likely gone. From Beijing’s perspective, everything is now shaped through the lens of its conflict with the United States and COVID-19. Within this context, it might actually be preferable for the United States to stay bogged down in Afghanistan as this will distract Washington’s attention from China. Afghanistan used to be a place for potential cooperation, but this is likely not the case anymore. But Beijing is no longer fussed. This time China has laid its groundwork and is in a far more comfortable position to weather any chaos that might follow the implementation of the US-Taliban agreement. Washington may think this is a problem on China’s doorstep, but Beijing has hedged itself against most eventualities.

Next up, a report for RUSI with Veerle which captures the findings from a project looking at UK-China cooperation in Afghanistan. A theme that we have been working on for some time, and will likely continue to work on going forwards in one way shape or form. The full paper is available here, and the online intro is posted below.

An Outline for UK–China Cooperation on Afghanistan

Veerle Nouwens and Raffaello Pantucci
Conference Reports, 18 December 2019
China, Afghanistan, International Security Studies, UK

On 29 April 2019, representatives from the UK, the People’s Republic of China, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan held a seminar in Beijing to discuss cooperation on development in Afghanistan. Initially conceived as a trilateral format (between the UK, China and Afghanistan), the addition of participants from Pakistan and Uzbekistan expanded the format to help adequately address some of the regional connectivity questions.

The event was co-hosted by RUSI and the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) and was attended by representatives from the UK embassies in Kabul and Beijing, representatives of the governments of China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, as well as representatives from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Aga Khan Foundation. The seminar focused on five key questions:

• How can the UK and China best prioritise areas of cooperation in Afghanistan?
• What are Afghanistan’s rail infrastructure needs?
• What is the connectivity landscape between Central and South Asia, and what role might Afghanistan play as a bridge between the two regions?
• How can Afghanistan engage with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)?
• How can the UK and China cooperate in the space of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan or other third countries?

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Asian Development Bank/Wikimedia Commons

More catch up posting for the South China Morning Post, this time looking again at China’s role in Afghanistan. I now realize a typo in here, specifically in when the attack that killed BLA leader Aslam Baloch took place. It was about a month after the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi, rather than the ten days I had put here. Also, the phrase ‘Visiting Beijing earlier last year, the outrageous narrative being advanced around Afghanistan was that America was making things worse and was largely the source of problems within the country’ – was not exactly as I meant to phrase it. The word outrageous was one that I meant to be expunged, but I was late to the editorial process.

Does Beijing grasp the portent of embracing Afghanistan and the Taliban?

Raffaello Pantucci says it is not clear that Beijing fully appreciates the role it is taking on by trying to broker peace in strife-torn Afghanistan

The 2018-19 period has been noteworthy in one way: it has seen a flurry of activity between China and Afghanistan.

During that time, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his colleague, Ambassador Deng Xijun, have racked up the air miles doing shuttle diplomacy between Kabul, Islamabad and hosting people in Beijing.

The result of all this manoeuvring was a successful trilateral meeting in Kabul between the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Pakistan and China – a parley which appears to have helped accelerate the latest round of peace negotiations in Afghanistan’s seemingly endless conflict.

Yet amid the positive mood, it is still not clear what China’s expectations and plans are for Afghanistan. Nor is it clear that Beijing has fully appreciated the central role into which it is increasingly stepping.

The first question to ask is: What has spurred this new surge of Chinese diplomacy?

The answer is simple, and sits in the White House.

Visiting Beijing earlier last year, the outrageous narrative being advanced around Afghanistan was that America was making things worse and was largely the source of problems within the country.

This view needs to be considered in context, as it was the moment at which the broader US-China relationship was going down the drain.

Everything involving the Americans was bad. But as the days have gone by, this anger has turned into an awareness that the US might actually be on the cusp of making a dramatic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

As this realisation took hold in Beijing, the next stage, therefore, was to comprehend that China needed to step up to play a more forward role in resolving the situation.

While the US stands detached from the conflict, Beijing remains hostage to geography and is obliged to maintain some engagement with Afghanistan – a commitment whose salience is only increasing through China’s long-term investments in Afghanistan’s neighbours – Pakistan and Central Asia.

This state of affairs helps explain Beijing’s new activism, and Ambassador to Pakistan Yao Jing’s willingness to increasingly champion the Taliban as a political group.

Talking to Chinese interlocutors about their country’s engagement with the Taliban used to be a taboo subject; now it has apparently become a topic of conversation.

Beijing has clearly concluded that the road to resolution in Afghanistan includes bringing the Taliban to the table – something that was likely discussed between Wang and Mohammad Umer Daudzai, secretary general of the Afghan High Peace Council, on his visit to Beijing late last week (a trip that followed Daudzai’s visit to Pakistan to meet Taliban representatives).

Beijing is seemingly using its contacts to expedite the peace discussions – a move that even the Taliban’s leaders have championed. What is not clear, however, is what incentives are being offered and whether Beijing has considered the consequences of its latest actions.

At this stage, it is likely that Beijing’s immediate security concerns around Afghanistan have been largely mitigated – not resolved, but managed.

China has invested in security forces along Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan; pumped money into similar structures in Gilgit Baltistan; provided training, funding and equipment to Afghan forces; and has hardened its own direct border with Afghanistan.

Sitting atop this activity, Beijing has created the Quadrilateral Coordination and Cooperation Mechanism, which brings together the chiefs of defence staff of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Tajikistan. There has even been talk this year of the four countries taking part in joint military training exercises together.

China’s is concerned about how Afghanistan’s instability might affect that country’s neighbours and Beijing’s larger investments in Pakistan and Central Asia. But even these issues seem to have some answer to them.

Just 10 days after the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi by a cell linked to the Baluchistan Liberation Army, the group’s leader (and admitted director of numerous attacks on Chinese targets), Aslam Baloch, was killed by a suicide bomber in Kandahar.

That ignominious end signalled that China had lethal friends in the region who were keen to show they could reach into the heart of China’s enemies and strike them.

It is still not clear what Beijing’s economic stake or interest is in Afghanistan.

Some of the routes of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” – Xi Jinping’s massive infrastructure plan – that cross the Eurasian continent would benefit from transit through Afghanistan. Beijing’s mineral extraction firms view the country’s natural resources with interest.

While talks continue about moving forward with belt and road projects, actual activity seems to be quite low. Trade routes are opening slowly, but the spigot of economic investment has not quite opened up.

Beijing seems to have concluded that for the time being, the answer to Afghanistan is to try to get a political structure in place that involves everybody and then see how things play out.

It will continue to dangle the carrot of economic investment, while knowing that its direct security equities are covered. This strategy will position Beijing fairly securely to let the consequences of a Taliban inclusive government play out.

The danger here is what a Taliban inclusive government might mean.

First, it is not clear that this arrangement would be acceptable to all other regional players. And even if it were, it is not clear it would help bring stability to Afghanistan. Much of the progress that has been made there might be wiped out, and the country might slip back into even greater chaos and warlordism.

Beijing may feel it has this eventuality covered through its current relationships, security structures and economic incentives, but this assumption is risky. Civil conflicts are by their nature brutal and unpredictable, especially in a country so intertwined with its region, and with such a sad and rich history of conflict.

Beijing may assume that by brokering a negotiation, it buys itself immunity from these problems. But as the US withdraws from the region, regional powers will increasingly look to China to resolve their issues.

It is not clear that Beijing fully appreciates the consequences of this potential responsibility.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London

 

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.

A piece from late last week as part of a short dossier ahead of the Afghan election done for a new outlet of an excellent Italian think tank called Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI). My contribution focused on China’s role in Afghanistan, a common theme which there should be more work on later in the year.

In addition, spoke to Norwegian paper Morgenbladet about Anjem Choudary’s release and the Sun about ISIS in Syria.

18 October 2018

lachinainafghanistan

Afghanistan remains an awkward fit within China’s Belt and Road Initiative concept. Look at most maps of Xi Jinping’s keynote foreign policy concept cutting a route across Eurasia, and they tend to go tidily around Afghanistan. But this masks China’s genuine stake in the country, the gradual shift that is visible in Beijing’s activity and finally, the potential importance of the country to China’s broader push across Eurasia.

Starting with national security, China has increasingly sought to harden its security presence in Afghanistan. But this has been focused for the most part on Chinese national interests, rather than providing broader security support to the country. Beijing has provided funding, equipment and training for Afghan forces in Badakhshan, in Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan, and helped build border bases for Tajik forces on their side of the border in Badakhshan. At a strategic level, China has fostered the creation of the Quadrilateral Coordination and Cooperation Mechanism(QCCM) which brings together the Chiefs of Army Staff for China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. The focus of the grouping the border region around the Wakhan Corridor which all three of them share.

The key to understand this is that China is not seeking to displace the United States or NATO as a key security provider for Afghanistan’s armed forces. The country is focusing on bolstering its links and the capability of the various armed forces that touch upon its border with AfghanistanThis posture focused on Chinese national security concerns can be seen in China’s previous security engagements with Afghanistan which have for the most part focused on building relations with local groups to ensure that China’s security equities – either its nationals and investments or its concerns about Uighur militants using the territory to plan attacks in China – are covered. 

Having said this, there is an equally noticeable gradual increase in China’s activity in Afghanistan. From largely seeing the country as a graveyard of Empires from which it prefers to keep a discrete distance, China has increasingly stepped forwards to play a role in the country. Chinese firms have won some large extractive projects – in the north CNPC won an oil concession in Amu Darya, while MCC and Jiangxi Copper famously won the Mes Aynak Copper mine in Logar. Construction firms like Xinjiang Beixin, CBRC and Gezhouba have all worked on major infrastructure projects in the country. And at the smaller end of the scale, Chinese traders have sought to exploit the gemstones in Afghanistan, while Afghan shuttle traders are a feature of the thriving community of developing world merchants in Yiwu.

And Beijing has actively sought tomend the previous omission of Afghanistan from the broader Belt and Road, hosting conferences in Kabul and Beijing on the topic. At the same time, China has used a multiplicity of regional groupings to bring different regional configurations together on Afghanistan. Large multilaterals like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), and the Heart of Asia (or Istanbul) Process have all seen Chinese leadership try to push different parts of them towards playing a role in Afghanistan. At a mini-lateral level, Beijing has brought together the Afghan and Pakistani Foreign Ministers, and engaged, separately, with the US, India, UK and Germany on Afghanistan.

All of this is a step change from earlier years when Beijing largely kept on the sidelines of any discussion around Afghanistan. To some degree this was part of a general reticence by Beijing to become too involved in any major international entanglements, but it was also a product of China’s habit of abrogating its Afghanistan policy to Islamabad. While Beijing continues to be responsive to Pakistan’s concerns in Afghanistan, it has increasingly struck out its own path. The key turning point can likely be seen in 2014 when Beijing realized that American-led NATO efforts in Afghanistan had a shelf life and were not likely to result in a tidy resolution in Kabul. And while Islamabad could provide some support to advance Beijing’s goals, it did not have total control. The United States instead, was not a continental power. It could eventually up and leave – as a physical neighbour, Beijing was a hostage of geography.

At the same time, the main running narrative from Beijing was one of Belt and Road. There was a gradual build up to this through Xi Jinping’s early years – with a major foreign policy work conference on peripheral diplomacy, a refocusing on Xinjiang and China’s border regions, some major foreign travel to South Asia by leadership figures (including in May 2013 the signing of the MoU that laid the foundation for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor), and finally in September and October 2013 the respective announcements of the Silk Road Economic Belt (in Astana, Kazakhstan) and the 21stCentury Maritime Silk Road (in Jakarta, Indonesia). In 2014, China decided to create a position of Special Envoy for Afghan Affairs, appointing seasoned diplomat and Afghanistan watcher Sun Yuxi to the role.

Yet while the appointment was a clear signal of focus by Beijing, it was made in a manner which seemed to suggest it was adjacent to the broader Belt and Road Initiative. At the time, the concept was still working itself out, so in some ways this was not surprising, but the net result was to create a sense of BRI not necessarily being something which encompassed Afghanistan.

The appointment of Ambassador Sun, however, did demonstrate a level of seriousness by Beijing in terms of trying to understand how to engage with Afghanistan at a more sophisticated level than just engaging with Kabul. The difficulty with a country like Afghanistan for a power like China which is still developing its civil service cadre, is to find individuals who are able to understand countries from the inside and figure out which levers deliver results. In a tribal country like Afghanistan, this problem is multiplied, with local power brokers as significant to guarantee success of projects as the central government. As an Ambassador who had served in the country for some time, Ambassador Sun had a good understanding of these dynamics and good relations across the board on the ground. He was also instrumental in getting Beijing’s efforts are helping try to broker negotiations between the Taliban, Islamabad and Kabul together – playing an important role in the creation of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) bringing together China, USA, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This was not unfortunately always the case with Chinese investments in the country. When CNPC embarked on its project in the Amu Darya region, they did it with a company which was not linked to the local power brokers, causing issues when their engineers deployed into the region to deliver the actual project. 

Over time, Beijing has learned these lessons, and is increasingly seeking opportunities to engage with Afghanistan in new formats and play a slightly more forward role. It has ensured that it has developed a range of relationships within the country amongst all the different factions, but at the same time ensured that it has prioritized strengthening its specific border with Afghanistan to make sure China is protected from overspill of security problems. Currently the focus is largely on bolstering capacity in neighbouring weaker countries (in Central Asia, or parts of Pakistan), while also continuing to show a willingness to talk about playing a positive role in Afghanistan. Beijing’s broader caution, however, remains and the country continues to refuse to take a clear leadership role with Kabul. A posture which is likely to continue until China sees with greater clarity what exact role the United States sees for itself in the longer run.

 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)

A short commentary piece for Reuters on what China is doing in Afghanistan. Been doing a lot of work on related topics which will eventually land. Also spoke to the Guardian about the deaths of a pair of British medical students who were killed alongside ISIS in Iraq, to AFP about a new ISIS video featuring a group of Uighurs in Iraq, to Sky News about a British ISIS suicide bomber in Iraq, and finally an interview on the radio for TalkRadio about his death.

Commentary: China’s expanding security role in Afghanistan

By Raffaello Pantucci

Stories have emerged once again of China’s military presence in Afghanistan. These reports come after China thwarted India’s attempt to get Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar added to the U.N. list of proscribed terrorist individuals, and China appeared to christen a new regional grouping after a meeting in Moscow with Pakistan and Russian officials to discuss the future of Afghanistan.

Seen from New Delhi, the picture could be interpreted as one of growing Chinese alignment towards Pakistan. In reality, these shifts mark the growth of China as a regional security actor whose views are not entirely dissimilar to India’s.

The main characterization of Beijing’s efforts in Afghanistan remains hedging. China continues to engage through multiple regional and international formats. Either through international multilateral vehicles like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the ‘Heart of Asia’ or ‘Istanbul Process’, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA); or through sub-regional groupings like hosting Pakistan-Afghanistan-China trilateral, bilateral engagements with India, Russia, the UK, Germany, the U.S. or Pakistan focused on Afghanistan (some including specific projects – like the American joint training programmes); or finally through Chinese instigated mechanisms focused on Afghanistan like the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG made up of Afghanistan, Pakistan, U.S. and China) or the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM, made up of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China).

Of this wide range of engagements, the final one is the most significant to note recently as it can be interpreted as a rejection of the SCO, a regional organization which was constructed to deal with regional security concerns around Afghanistan, but appears to have not delivered enough.

As a result in the wake of Military Chief of Staff Fang Fenghui’s visit to Kabul in March 2016, Beijing established a new regional sub-grouping to focus attention on Afghanistan’s security problems. It has met once at a senior level, and at least once at a more junior level since its establishment — reflecting a fairly high intensity engagement that until now has been held publicly in China.

This new regional sub-grouping is a reflection of a number of things. On the one hand, it is about China’s military becoming more engaged in a country that until now they have largely played a secondary role to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs lead. It is also a reflection of a growing concern in Beijing about the shift of Uighur militants to Badakhshan in northern Afghanistan from their previous Pakistani hideaways. This in turn helps explain China’s presence on the ground in Afghanistan as well as their desire to bolster Tajikistan’s capacity to defend its own border with Afghanistan.

The other side to China’s regional engagement is its economic investment — something that comes under the auspices of the Silk Road Economic Belt (through Central Asia and across Eurasia ultimately to Europe) and down the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Afghanistan has always sat awkwardly in between, but recently there has been a particular effort by Beijing to tie Afghanistan into the vision.

In Nov. 2016, Assistant Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou visited Kabul warmly welcoming Afghanistan into the vision and specifically suggested that Afghanistan consider train lines between Quetta and Kabul, and Peshawar and Kabul. It is not clear how these will happen, though soon afterwards the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) won a $205m contract, issued by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to build a 178 km road connecting northern Mazar-i-Sharif city to Yakawlang.

For Beijing, a stable and secure Afghanistan is both key to domestic security as well as its growing investments in Pakistan. And it is not always clear that Beijing finds operating in Pakistan easy. There have been stories of lawsuits, a local population who feel they are not being included in the process as well as human casualties as CPEC tries to bring development to Pakistan’s more isolated regions. China is discovering building CPEC is not a smooth ride.

But Beijing still prizes its relationship with Pakistan, aware that an unstable and paranoid Islamabad is worse than what they have at the moment. Consequently, Beijing will continue to support Pakistan vociferously and publicly – including in defending it from being publicly named and shamed as a ‘state sponsor’ of terrorism in the U.N.

Among the most persuasive reasons for China’s refusal to support the listing of Masood Azhar was the view that Beijing saw him as merely another in a long list of individuals that India sought listing. Given the lack of much impact around the listing of Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Hafiz Saeed, listing Azhar seemed a pointless enterprise for Beijing that would do little except make Islamabad feel cornered.

The lesson here is an important one for India to note. Beijing is not doing this as part of an anti-Indian alignment. It is rather out of national interest which seen from Beijing is about managing Pakistan and stabilizing it. This is a reflection of what China is already trying at home where the maxim that prosperity equals stability is a central driving concept, and is the ideological cornerstone of CPEC.

China is acting as a growing regional power with security interests it wants to deal with itself rather than abrogating such responsibility to others. It has tried repeated multilateral formats, peace talks, and now it is recognizing the need for greater security engagement.

New Delhi should seize this moment to enhance its engagement with Beijing on Afghanistan, using its long history of experience and contacts to find a way to help Afghanistan stabilize alongside China. Both countries are already major economic players in Afghanistan, and India has already contributed substantially in military terms.

About the Author

Raffaello Pantucci is Director, International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. He is currently working on a number of projects looking at Chinese influence and interests in South and Central Asia.

Slightly belated posting of a piece for the South China Morning Post looking at how Eurasia may lose out from a US-China falling out. Been very busy with a variety of projects which will produce some interesting outputs in the near-term future. The image is not the one used in the article, but one I found on ChinaMil about the same US-China HADR engagement, as I could not seem to download the one from the SCMP.

Why Eurasia will suffer if Donald Trump makes an enemy of China

Raffaello Pantucci says the US president’s hostile stance not only puts at risk overall ties with Beijing, but could also deprive Eurasia of the cooperation it needs to advance, and a counterweight to China’s potentially overbearing sway

chinaus-hadr

There is a dichotomy at the heart of US-China relations that is best captured by the term “frenemies”. The relationship is both contentious and competitive, while also intertwined and interdependent. The economic side of this discussion is well-worn, but the security one is often overlooked, with a simplistic view concluding that interactions are constructed on an interdependent economic relationship and a tense security one.

This misses recent developments that may exacerbate the potential for a tense bilateral relationship under US President Donald Trump.

There is no denying the tense security relationship between Washington and Beijing in the Pacific and the seas off mainland China. A complicated weave of treaties and relationships gives the US a strong security footprint in an area which China claims as its own.

Yet, look over land and a very different perspective emerges. In Afghanistan, China and the US have cooperated for years in trying to bring the Taliban to peace talks, and undertaken joint training missions to build up Afghanistan’s own security capacity. In Central Asia, the two have discussed how to cooperate, though so far there is limited evidence of progress.

In Pakistan, China has played a positive role – with US support – in ensuring the relationship between Pakistan and India does not boil over into conflict. And the US has occasionally eliminated militant Uygurs of concern to Beijing in drone strikes in Afghanistan or Syria – in a reflection of how much China and the US face a joint threat of terrorism.

And there have been some direct joint operations and cooperative efforts. In November, US and Chinese forces practised a humanitarian disaster relief exercise in Yunnan. The concept was that, in the event of a natural disaster, American and Chinese forces might be able to play a role in mitigating the fallout together.

All of these positive moves may now be under threat as both sides ratchet up tensions in the wake of Trump’s aggressive arrival in office. If the US president lives up to his promises of demanding a shift in the Sino-US economic relationship and a more confrontational approach over Taiwan aimed at further advancing this, it is perfectly possible that we may see China choosing to act in a more transactional manner over its links to the US in Eurasia.

If the relationship becomes too poisoned over the seas, Beijing may choose to refuse to play a productive role over land. China is still trying to work out what role it will play in Eurasia, and how it will enforce its will.

If it sees the US in a more competitive light, it is possible Beijing will start to conclude that it no longer wants to play a cooperative role with Washington. Rather, it will look to others, and start to strengthen its relations in a way to cut the US out of the region.

The potential loser in all of this is Eurasia – a region that needs greater cooperation from all sides if it is to realise the potential of the various proposed Silk Road and connectivity routes across the continent. The long-fallow US “New Silk Road” initiative to help Afghanistan reconnect to its region will dissolve further into irrelevance and American interests in Eurasia will be further reduced.

Currently, the region is dominated by Beijing’s economic push, but it requires greater investment and cooperation from a wider range of actors if it is to truly succeed. This includes both China and the US, which have different and important roles to play, and are both sought after by countries across the continent. If the two powers start to develop a more confrontational approach, it will limit connectivity but also deprive Eurasian powers of a key alternative to China’s potentially overbearing power across the continent.

The US and China have developed habits of close cooperation across Eurasia that have helped open up new markets and opportunities, and reconnect the world as never before. It has also shown how the US and China are able to play a productive and cooperative role together. If Trump forces a more confrontational and transactional relationship, it is likely that China will continue on its path across Eurasia alone or with other partners – a net loss for American power across the region.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute