Posts Tagged ‘China-Afghanistan’

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.

A brief post in the wake of Islam Karimov’s death in Beijing for the site I post everything China-Central Asia related. As ever, this is something I have a few bigger things in the pipeline about. Somewhat related, spoke to the Associated Press about the attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek, the Wall Street Journal about Anjem’s jailing, the Telegraph about the numbers of children being referred to Channel and Times about a new ISIS magazine.

Karimov’s Death Seen From Beijing

zhang-gaoli-karimov

Islam Karimov’s death is the realisation of a regional concern that many have long worried about: succession amongst leaders of the Central Asian states. The question of who comes next has been a persistent concern, particularly in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Beijing is not immune to these worrries. On every visit to Beijing in which Central Asia has been a focus of discussions, there have been inevitable conversations with Chinese Central Asia analysts who have been particularly perplexed about what might happen in a post-Karimov Uzbekistan. Yet, now that this scenario has arrived, China seems unperturbed and experts spoken to seem equally unconcerned. Seen from Beijing, Uzbekistan post-Karimov is a case of business as usual.

The biggest indicator of China’s reaction to Islam Karimov’s death is how the leadership responded to the news of his demise. It came at an awkward time for China, with Beijing policymakers and planners consumed with the preparations and meetings around the G20 Summit in Hangzhou. Consequently, the best that Xi Jinping could muster was a formal note through the MFA to acting President Nigmatilla Yuldoshev praising Karimov as ‘true friend’ to China. He later dispatched Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli to the funeral as his special envoy, while Prime Minister Li Keqiang paid his respects at the Uzbek Embassy in Beijing.


This set of moves could be read as dismissive, especially given the importance of respect in the Asian context. Zhang Gaoli is ultimately the seventh ranked member of seven within the Politburo Standing Committee. Therefore, in some ways, he was the most junior senior person Beijing could send. In contrast Tajik leader Rahmon, Afghan leader Ghani and Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev attended. If Beijing was to punch at this weight, then presumably Prime Minister Li Keqiang should have attended.

But at the same time, there are no other state funerals that China has reacted to in this way. The most recent possible comparison that comes to mind was the passing of Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, a leader who commanded such respect in life that he was able to muster meetings of the Politburo outside Beijing when he visited China. Yet when he passed away, Beijing sent Li Yuanchao. Like Zhang, Li Yuanchao was a Vice Premier, but only a member of the Politburo – a second tier of senior leadership made up of 25 of the most senior members of the Party. While important, Li is definitely junior to Zhang, a Standing Committee Politburo member – ie, one of Beijing’s most inner circle of seven who rule the country. Li, it is worth mentioning, appears to also have been Beijing’s representative at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, suggesting that he may be the unofficial Chinese representative to international state funerals.

Admittedly, this is a lot of ‘Pekinology’ tea-leaf reading. However, it does seem that Beijing’s leadership made some effort to show their respect to Uzbekistan in the wake of President Karimov’s passing, notwithstanding the fact that they were otherwise preoccupied with the world’s heads of state descending on Hangzhou for the G20 meeting.

Looking beyond this speculative analysis, there is further substance to Zhang Gaoli as the representative of China to Karimov’s funeral. As well as his role on the Standing Committee, Zhang is also head of the Leading Group for Advancing the Development of One Belt One Road, a group established in February 2015 which has been tasked with steering Xi Jinping’s great initiative across the Eurasian continent. Considering the importance of Uzbekistan within this context, it is possible that Zhang is in fact one of the more appropriate members to attend the funeral given the opportunity it also presented to interact with Uzbekistan’s likely new leadership. During his visit he – like the other eminent visitors who came to pay their respects – secured an audience with Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev in which they spoke about continuing ‘to promote the Belt and Road initiative, and enrich the connotations of their all-round strategic partnership by prioritizing economy, trade, energy, production capacity, traffic and security in bilateral cooperation.’

Interested to hear more about the broader context of Uzbek-China relations, I reached out to contacts in China working in the think tank and corporate sector about what they thought of Karimov’s passing. Professor Zhao Huasheng of Fudan University in Shanghai, one of the eminent dons of Central Asia research in China told me ‘I think it [Karimov’s passing] will have no significant impact on China-Uzbekistan relations, because there are no serious problems in bilateral relations. And there is no reason for the new leader not to maintain good relations with China. A peaceful and smooth transition of power is critical for stability in the country and for security in the region.’ The biggest prerequisite and issue on the table for Professor Zhao was that the country had a ‘peaceful and smooth transition of power.’ This view was confirmed by a couple of other Chinese experts spoken to, all of whom pointed to the fact that China’s pre-eminent concern was that Uzbekistan stayed on a stable trajectory. This in fact may have been the concern that had been expressed previously – with people worried that Karimov was the lid on a cauldron that might boil over without him, rather than the leader himself being the key lynchpin in the relationship.

There are in fact no indicators at the moment to suggest that the transition of power should be anything other than smooth, or that there will be an upending of Beijing and Tashkent’s warming relationship. While there has been some speculation that the likely successor (and now interim leader), PM Shavkat Mirziyoyev, may have an openness to a more productive and close relationship with Moscow than his predecessor, it is not clear this will come to China’s detriment. Mr Miriziyoyev has already established a relationship of sorts with President Xi as the individual who personally escorted President Xi Jinping to the airport when he visited Tashkent in June 2016, a visit during which President Xi was the first ever foreign leader to give a speech in the Oliy Majlis and the two leaders (President’s Xi and Karimov) together opened a railway line that China had helped build in the country.

Suffice to say all the indicators in China-Uzbek relations are positive (notwithstanding underlying concerns that are fairly common across the region towards the potentially overbearing nature of large Chinese investments), and it would be surprising if the new leader broke away from, or reversed, this relationship. Uzbekistan continues to want foreign investment, and China has proven a fairly reliable actor in this regard. While Moscow appears to be quite actively courting Tashkent in the wake of President Karimov’s death, Beijing is the one with the relationship on a steady upward trajectory. For Beijing, the priority remains that Uzbekistan stays stable and finds ways of incorporating and building into the ‘Belt and Road’ vision. Seen from Tashkent, there is no clear reason why this wouldn’t be a possibility.

Catching up on some old posting, going to put out a few things at the same time. All looking at China in Eurasia, a topic that continues to be a major focus. Of course, all of my work on this is stored on the China in Central Asia site, and this particular piece is something that was undertaken with my excellent RUSI colleague Sarah Lain.
Proceedings of a workshop held in New Delhi in March 2016 to explore the challenges that China’s strategic Belt and Road vision to connect Central Asia hopes to address.

In March 2016, RUSI, in collaboration with the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) hosted a workshop in New Delhi to discuss the challenges of connectivity facing China’s strategic Belt and Road vision, which aims to connect Central Asia  and develop strategic economic corridors across the region.

The workshop covered the different economic corridor concepts initiated by China and India and their aim of enhanced connectivity in Central and South Asia, how such visions will be realised and how they could enhance the security and economic development of the region.

The report summarises these discussions and provides insights into co-operation between China and its regional partners.

Re-publishing a paper from a little back that I did for the new Durham Global Security Institute looking at China-Afghanistan relations. It builds on a presentation on the topic, focusing mostly on the fact that China continues to play a fairly noncommittal game in the country. A topic which there is more to come and about which much more can be found on my co-edited site China in Central Asia. Beyond regional geopolitics, spoke to the Daily Mail about the threat from terrorists and weapons from Libya, NBC about threats to the Tour de France, and my book was quoted in the Independent.

Karzai-Yuanchao

China’s Big Hedge

In November of last year, Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao visited Kabul to celebrate 60 years of diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and China.[1] The most senior level visit to Kabul by a Chinese official since the now-defenestrated former Politburo member and security minister Zhou Yongkang visited in 2012[2] the visit showed China’s continuing commitment to Afghanistan, whilst also highlighting its limits. Sitting awkwardly in President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ vision, Afghanistan remains a foreign policy conundrum to China who continues to see the potential risks from the neighbouring country, but that Beijing understands it has a particularly central potential role to play and whose proximity negates a completely detached approach. The result has been a hedging policy in which China continues to show some level of commitment towards Afghanistan whilst not going so far as to taking on the mantle of leadership.

The Belt and Road

One of the central topics of conversation during Vice President Li’s visit to Kabul was the ‘Belt and Road’ concept. In official read-outs from the meetings, both sides agreed to work on cooperatively to help develop Afghanistan’s role in the vision and thereby deepen the link between China and Afghanistan.[3] ‘Belt and Road’ is the term used to describe the vision laid out by President Xi Jinping that is on its way to becoming his defining foreign policy legacy. First publicly raised during a visit to Astana, Kazakhstan in September 2013 when President Xi coined the term ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ to describe the trade, infrastructure and economic corridor emanating from China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang through Central Asia ultimately to European markets.[4] The next month during a speech at the Indonesian Parliament he built on this characterization to announce the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road that recreated the land model advanced across Eurasia out from China’s ports to the seas.[5] Over the next few months these trade corridors proliferated as a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, China-Mongolia-Russia corridor and a New Eurasian Landbridge were all increasingly discussed. In fact, the Pakistan corridor was one that had been agreed prior to the September speech and had been raised during a visit by Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Pakistan in May 2013 and signed in MoU form on a return visit by President Nawaz Sharif in July 2013.[6] But the corridor was only later identified and absorbed under the logic of the grander vision. The logic of these various routes was largely the same and drew from the same structure as the Silk Road Economic Belt laid out in Astana, but over time was increasingly all captured under the rubric of the ‘One Belt and One Road’ (OBOR) and is now abbreviated to the ‘Belt and Road.’

By announcing the initiative in Central Asia President Xi was adding his stamp onto something that had in fact been taking place for over a decade.[7] Since 2001 and the formal founding of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) China has increasingly been developing its presence in Central Asia, something that was spurred on even further in the wake of riots in China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang in July 2009.[8] The rioting took place as a result of deep tensions between the minority Uighur population (a community that is close in language, culture and ethnicity to the Turkic speaking populations of Central Asia) in the region and the growing Han Chinese population who have moved west over the past century. These two populations have lived uncomfortably next to each other for some time, with Uighurs increasingly feeling alienated from their own country. This has led to a push back which has expressed itself in a number of forms: people lashing out against the state in anger for real or perceived individual slights or in more organized fashion through terrorist groups and plots. In the first instance much of the violence was isolated in Xinjiang, and in particular in the southern predominantly Uighur corridor. But over time, it has increasingly spread around the country with violent incidents in Kunming and Beijing, an attack outside the country in Bangkok, Thailand and a persistent minority of Uighurs leaving China to seek to connect with extremist groups in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Southeast Asia.[9]

For China, the key to ameliorating the situation in Xinjiang is an economic solution.[10] Seeing economic development as the answer to these problems means a great deal of internal investment, but for this investment to work, Xinjiang needs to have trading partners. Sitting in landlocked Xinjiang, it is easier to look across the Eurasian landmass to Europe and see a quicker route to markets than going to China’s eastern seaboard ports. Consequently, this investment has to spill into Central Asia where Chinese infrastructure companies, banks, and traders have all worked to develop trade corridors to open up Central Asian markets and routes to Xinjiang and Chinese traders. This has happened at every level with small time shuttle traders going back and forth with bags of goods, as well as more entrepreneurial individuals establishing brands and opening factories. Over time, this has led to a steady increase in Chinese presence in the region which has led to not only a re-wiring of the regions infrastructure so that all roads lead to Urumqi (Xinjiang’s capital), but also meant that increasingly China has displaced Russia to become the most consequential actor on the ground.

But all of this has been taking place now for over a decade. Meaning that the nomenclature of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) is a case of President Xi placing his stamp of authority on something that was already underway – the development of an economic and trade corridor sweeping out from China’s west through Central Asia, ultimately to European markets. Seeing it as a successful model deploying foreign policy tools that Beijing could understand how to control (the deployment of capital through linked loans for Chinese firms to go forth and implement infrastructure projects), and based on some theoretical assumptions that are comprehensible. It also has the effect of helping keep the Chinese economy moving as the domestic economy slows down.[11]

But the important thing to remember about the SREB is that it is not a single path, but rather a latticework of routes out of China across Eurasia. There are roads going from Urumqi through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and onwards through other Central Asian countries, across the Caspian, Russia or Iran to Europe. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) essentially turns Pakistan into a corridor for goods to travel through Pakistan from the ports of Gwadar and Karachi to Kashgar, Xinjiang.[12] Whilst identified under a slightly different nomenclature, the CPEC is very much considered a part of the SREB vision, something exemplified by the fact that one of the first projects taken on by the specially created $40 billion Silk Road Fund established by Beijing was an energy project associated with the CPEC vision.[13] In total, billions have been promised and poured into these two routes (the SREB and CPEC) – with Pakistan alone attracting promises of around $46 billion over a number of years,[14] while President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan announced some $23 billion worth of deals during his last visit to Beijing in September 2015.[15]

Afghanistan in the middle

Problematically for Afghanistan, however, it is not entirely clear how the country fits into these ‘Belt and Road’ visions for the Eurasian continent. Whilst the central planning authority of China, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), has not actually published a formal route for the ‘Belt and Road’ vision, numerous maps have been printed in the Chinese state press. One thing that is common to most of these is that when they show routes emanating from China going westwards into Central or South Asia, they tend to go around Afghanistan. The SREB and the CPEC are clear corridors of investment and potential trade that China is pushing but they do not need in their current incarnations to necessarily touch down in Afghanistan. In fact, they can for the most part quite comfortably go around the country, following the natural regional geography that favours such routes. From Kashgar through Tashkurgan, down the Khunjerab Pass through Pakistan to Gwadar or Karachi ports, or through the Irkeshtam or Torugart crossings into Kyrgyzstan or the Dzungarian Pass or Khorogos into Kazakhstan and onto Central Asia. Sitting at the end of the Wakhan Corridor, the China-Afghan border is small and surrounded by mountainous areas meaning that the direct link to the ‘Belt and Road’s is not going to be the same as the one in neighbouring Central and South Asia, unless a very specific corridor is developed.

And while this navigation around Afghanistan has not been acknowledged by Beijing – and in some ways is contradicted by the repeated references to the ‘Belt and Road’ during VP Li and other formal China-Afghan interactions – it is visible in the on-the-ground investments and projects undertaken by China in Afghanistan. Currently, China’s projects in Afghanistan are dominated by a series of aid contributions, like the $79 million that VP Li offered during his visit to Afghanistan to build housing in the capital,[16] some similar contributions to Afghanistan’s security through equipment and training (most recently in declarations during a visit by Fang Fenghui, PLA Chief of General Staff [17]), and a few state owned enterprise (SOE) projects. Some smaller Chinese enterprises have sought to invest in the country, but find themselves hamstrung by a hesitant government and a difficult operating environment.

At the SOE level, the two main extractive projects being undertaken by Chinese firms are the exploitation of copper mines at Mes Aynak in Logar province and CNPC’s oil extraction project in Amu Darya.[18] The Mes Aynak project in particular is one that has become something of an epigram for Chinese efforts in Afghanistan – with a pair of Chinese companies, MCC and Jiangxi Copper, outbidding a number of others to win the contract in 2007, only for them to then sit on the project since then. Underestimating the security costs and overpromising in terms of additional infrastructure that they would produce around the site, the mine has been left unexploited and the company is now attempting to renegotiate the contract as well as backing away from some of the earlier promised infrastructure (that made the bid so attractive to Kabul in the first place[19]). The company head has met with senior Afghan officials and have been reported as complaining to others that it was pressured into undertaking the project by the central authorities in Beijing. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that the security situation around the area of the mine has gotten worse over time (and global copper prices have dropped), the project has nevertheless become hugely symbolic to many Afghans showing the high levels of Chinese promises that have gone unfulfilled.

The project in Amu Darya has faced fewer difficulties and actually been able to extract some hydrocarbons from the ground, though by choosing a partner in the Watan Group, CNPC failed to engage with the proper local actors when they invested in the project. This led to some difficulties with other power brokers in the north, and led to the project’s delay. Beyond this, CNPC had promised to build a refinery in the north of the country, but this has not been undertaken yet and it remains unclear to what degree the project has actually managed to move forwards.[20] Always seen as a relatively small investment for the company, the belief was that CNPC’s greater interest was to establish a foothold in the north of Afghanistan so that when future fields in the region were to open up they would be in an optimal position to win the contracts. CNPC is particularly bullish about these prospects given its substantial investment across the border in Turkmenistan in what is the same hydrocarbon basin.

Looking beyond extractives, Chinese firms have also bid and won contracts to undertake infrastructure development in Afghanistan. In particular, Xinjiang Beixin won a contract from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to undertake the rehabilitation of a part of the road from Kabul to Jalalabad. However, the company has encountered difficulties in doing the project and it is unclear at what stage they are at the moment. The company is one that is active across the region implementing ADB projects in difficult environments, but it is unclear they still have an appetite to complete the Afghan project.[21] Atop all of these difficulties at a state owned enterprise level, smaller traders and businessmen spoken to speak of lower level issues, from problems around visa issuances to Afghan businessmen wanting to travel to China, to standards imposed by China to the exports of Afghan goods, to a reticence by China to actively support its traders to go to Afghanistan. And none of this is to speak of the security situation in the country which intimidates even the most fearless Chinese traders.

China the Peacebroker

Amid much fanfare in July 2014 China created its first Special Envoy for Afghanistan appointing a prominent and popular former Ambassador to Kabul, Sun Yuxi, to the role.[22] Coming at a time when the west was clarifying its decreasing role in Afghanistan, the appointment was one that reflected an effort by Beijing to show its commitment to the country. As time progressed, it also became clear that one of Ambassador Sun’s key roles was to help facilitate a ramping up of China’s efforts to act as a peacebroker between the Taliban and the government in Kabul. With the election of President Ghani in October 2014, he immediately signalled the importance he placed on the relationship with China by making Beijing the first capital he visited in his new role on a formal trip.[23] During this visit he not only attended the ‘Heart of Asia’ process meeting hosted by China, but also laid the groundwork for the formal peace talk negotiations with the Taliban at a behind closed doors meeting hosted by the Chinese government.

By early the next year stories emerged that China was playing a more forward role in brokering peace talks and in conversations in Beijing, and officials spoken to at the time highlighted that they were willing to act as hosts for any future peace talks.[24] By May 2015, senior Taliban figures were meeting with representatives from the Afghan High Peace Council in Urumqi.[25] In July another round of talks was held in Pakistan at which Chinese participants also played a role.[26] A further mulitlaterla track two engagement took place in Norway in which both Afghan representatives and Taliban counterparts attended.[27]

In sum, it appeared as though the Chinese supported peace track was one that was bearing fruit, until abruptly in late July 2015 the news was leaked that the Taliban leader Mullah Omar had in fact died back in 2013. This action immediately scuttled the discussions as it set the Taliban in disarray as an internal leadership struggle surfaced as to who would be Mullah Omar’s successor. It also complicated China’s contribution as it abruptly meant it was not clear who exactly the relevant partner to engage with on the Taliban side would be and so therefore where China could play a role. Accusations of blame were passed between Islamabad and Kabul, but the net result was an uptick in violence that made it harder for the Afghan official side to negotiate in full confidence.

Chinese experts and officials spoken to at this time almost immediately fell back into pointing that it was up to the United States to step up and play a stronger role in supporting the Afghan government and national security forces.[28] They further pointed to the fact that until there was greater clarity on the Taliban side about who was being negotiated with, it was unlikely that talks were going to bear immediate fruit. This did not stop Chinese efforts, and while Special Envoy Sun Yuxi stepped down from his role, he was replaced by the recent former Ambassador to Kabul Deng Xijun who seemed set to continue to play a key supporting role in any peace talks.

Keeping Options Open

Beijing has managed to continue to play this role by maintaining contacts with all sides. Its longstanding contact with the Taliban are believed to continue behind closed doors, while Vice President Li’s public calls in Kabul on President Ghani, Chief Executive Office Abdullah and former President Karzai show that they are eager to maintain links to all of the key official players in Afghanistan’s future. This is further reflected on the international stage where China has not only engaged with Afghanistan on a bilateral basis, but also through multilateral vehicles like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (where China has played a championing role for the country. It was during Chinese Presidency’s that the Afghan contact group was created and later the country was made into an Observer), as well as through multilateral formats like an India-China bilateral where Afghanistan is discussed, an Afghan-Pakistan-China trilateral, and a willingness to engage with the United States to undertake joint training projects in Afghanistan. Most recently, during PLA Chief Fang Fenghui’s visit to Kabul, he spoke about the creation of a sub-regional security discussion between China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan to create a regional alliance against terrorism.[29]

China is choosing not to take sides and using this as a way to guarantee its interests. While it is not clear that Afghanistan needs to fit into the ‘Belt and Road’ vision, it is also equally clear that an unstable Afghanistan has the potential to be a major spoiler for the routes through Central Asia and Pakistan. Instability in Afghanistan is likely to have an impact and cause trouble across the border in both directions and this will have a clearer impact on China’s larger project, and ultimately on Xinjiang. Consequently, China has an interest in stability in Afghanistan and this helps explain its substantial and multifaceted approach towards the country.

In many ways, this is reflective of China’s broader approach in the ‘Belt and Road’ vision where as a result of the increased external economic push Beijing is finding itself playing an ever more influential role in its immediate neighbourhood. Yet Beijing policymakers have not yet apparently entirely understood what exactly what this means for their larger political role in these countries. Nowhere is this more than in Afghanistan where they are finding themselves drawn into an ever more significant role, but are instead electing to hedge. President Ghani’s open lobbying of Beijing from early in his administration shows Kabul’s eagerness to engage with Beijing, something that is being done with Western agreement and support (the US has undertaken joint training programmes with China in Afghanistan, and European capitals are working to engage with China to encourage greater efforts in Afghanistan). But while Beijing is continuing to play a positive role, it is not demonstrating a willingness to step into a strong leadership role, choosing to instead play a significant support role.

This is ultimately unfortunate for Kabul as China has many significant cards to play in Afghanistan – be this in terms of their strong relationship with Islamabad, the massive investment they could pour in and the industry they could mobilize to rebuild the country, or the potential opening up of Iran that they could take advantage of across Afghanistan. Whilst security remains something that China is not able to provide in adequate measure outside its borders, across Central Asia, China’s security presence and efforts are growing highlighting that this is an evolving reaction from Beijing. China’s recently passed counter-terrorism legislation offers a formal framework for Chinese security forces to go deploy outside the country to counter terrorist threats. But Beijing remains a hesitant player in Afghanistan, willing to play a significant role, but continuing to make sure that it has kept its cards close to its chest and left itself a deniable exit in the case of things going in a negative direction. China continues to be Kabul’s closest hesitant friend.

[1] ‘Li Yuanchao Attends Reception for the 60th Anniversary of China-Afghanistan Diplomatic Ties,’ Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 4, 2015 http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1311792.shtml ; ‘China promises to continue to playing constructive role in Afghan peace process,’ Xinhua, November 4, 2015 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-11/04/c_134780948.htm

[2] ‘Top Chinese security official makes surprise visit to Afghanistan,’ Xinhua, September 23, 2012 http://europe.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2012-09/23/content_15776032.htm ; Rob Taylor, ‘Top Official visits Afghanistan, signs security deal,’ Reuters, September 23, 2012 http://in.reuters.com/article/afghanistan-china-idINDEE88M03620120923

[3] ‘Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met with Li Yuanchao,’ Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 4, 2015 http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1311790.shtml

[4] ‘Chinese President delivers speech at Nazarbayev University,’ Xinhua, September 8, 2013 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/photo/2013-09/08/c_132701546.htm

[5] ‘Speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Indonesian Parliament,’ October 3, 2015 http://www.asean-china-center.org/english/2013-10/03/c_133062675.htm

[6] ‘Chinese premier raises five-point proposal for boosting cooperation with Pakistan,’ Xinhua, May 23, 2013 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-05/23/c_124750134.htm ; ‘Pakistan, China sign eight agreements, MoUs,’ The News, July 6, 2013 http://www.awaztoday.tv/News_Pakistan-China-sign-eight-agreements-MoUs_1_34980_Political-News.aspx

[7] For a good book summarizing the history of China’s relations with Central Asia, please see Marlene Laruelle and Sebastien Peyrouse The Chinese Question in Central Asia: Domestic Order, Social Change, and the Chinese Factor, (UK: Hurst, October 2012; US: Oxford University Press, December 2012)

[8] Edward Wong, ‘Riots in Western China amid ethnic tension,’ New York Times, July 5, 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/06/world/asia/06china.html?_r=0

[9] It is worth also pointing out that a great deal more Uighurs leave the country in unhappiness at their situation there. Seeking a better life abroad, they are economic migrants or people fleeing persecution who are simply trying to build new lives outside China. The majority appear to gravitate towards Turkey, with substantial diaspora communities also found in parts of Europe, as well as across Central Asia. The point being not every Uighur who leaves China unhappy becomes involved in terrorist activity. According to one prominent Chinese expert spoken to in early 2016, about 9 out of 10 Uighurs who left were seeking better lives. Author interview Beijing, January 2016.

[10] Most clearly laid out in 2010 at a work conference held in the wake of the riots. ‘Chinese central authorities outline roadmap for Xinjiang’s leapfrog development, lasting stability,’ Xinhua, May 20, 2010 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2010-05/20/c_13306534.htm

[11] ‘China eyes ‘Belt and Road’ to reverse trade slowdown,’ Global Times, May 28, 2015 http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/924034.shtml

[12] For the most recent maps showing the ambition and routes of the CPEC, please see the Pakistani Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms dedicated webpage: http://www.pc.gov.pk/?page_id=2731

[13] ‘Silk Road Fund’s debut investment in $1.65b Pakistan power project,’ People’s Bank of China press release, April 21, 2015 http://www.pbc.gov.cn/english/130721/2811777/index.html

[14] ‘China’s Xi Jinping agrees $46bn superhighway to Pakistan,’ BBC News, April 20, 2015 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-32377088

[15] ‘Kazakh leader says $23 billion in economic deals agreed with China,’ Reuters, September 1, 2015 http://www.reuters.com/article/kazakhstan-china-idUSL5N1172H620150901

[16] Michael Martina and Mirwais Harooni, ‘China’s vice president pledges support in rare Afghanistan visit,’ November 3, 2015 http://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-china-idUSKCN0SS1MN20151103

[17] ‘Afghanistan to give China military equipment wish list,’ Khaaama News, March 4, 2016 https://www.khaama.com/afghanistan-to-give-china-military-equipment-wish-list-0241

[18] Raffaello Pantucci, ‘Guest Post: China in Afghanistan: A Tale of Two Mines,’ Financial Times Beyond BRICS, December 4, 2012 http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2012/12/04/guest-post-china-in-afghanistan-a-tale-of-two-mines/

[19] There have also been rumours of corruption around the deal that have not been publicly verified.

[20] The most recently publicly accessible report from July 2014 indicated the project was suspended. Jessica Donati, ‘From New York heroin dealer to Afghanistan’s biggest oil man,’ Reuters, July 9, 2014 http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2014-07-09/news/sns-rt-us-afghanistan-energy-20140707_1_cnpc-security-firm-afghanistan

[21] Michael Martina and Mirwais Harooni, ‘Slow road from Kabul highlights China’s challenge in Afghanistan,’ Reuters, November 22, 2015 http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-afghanistan-china-road-idUKKBN0TB0X720151122

[22] ‘Ministry appoints special envoy for Afghan affairs,’ Xinhua, July 18, 2014 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-07/18/c_133494661.htm

[23] ‘Afghanistan’s new president starts landmark China visit,’ BBC News, October 28, 2014 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-29803768

[24] Nathan Hodge, Habib Khan Totakhil & Josh Chin, ‘China Creates New Avenue for Afghan Peace Talks,’ Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2015 http://www.wsj.com/articles/china-creates-new-avenue-for-afghan-peace-talks-1420564492 ; further confirmed by author interviews in Beijing. ‘China favours role in Afghan peace talks, appreciates Pakistan’s efforts,’ Dawn, August 15, 2015 http://www.dawn.com/news/1200627

[25] Edward Wong and Mujib Mashal, ‘Taliban and Afghan Peace Officials Have Secret Talks in China,’ New York Times, May 25, 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/26/world/asia/taliban-and-afghan-peace-officials-have-secret-talks-in-china.html

[26] Jon Boone, ‘Afghanistan and Taliban peace talks end with promise to meet again,’ Guardian, July 8, 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/08/afghanistan-and-taliban-peace-talks-end-with-promise-to-meet-again

[27] ‘Afghan, Taliban delegates attend Oslo talks on ending conflicts,’ Reuters, June 16, 2015 http://www.reuters.com/article/us-norway-afghanistan-idUSKBN0OW17B20150616

[28] Author interview in Beijing, July 2015

[29] Ibrahim Nasar and Jafar Haand, ‘Afghanistan welcomes Chinese anti-terror proposal,’ Voice of America, March 1, 2016 http://www.voanews.com/content/afghanistan-welcomes-chinese-anti-terror-proposal/3215160.html

It has been over a month since I posted anything here, but do not worry I have not been idle. To those who receive this via email, please forgive the coming blast as I want to catch up on myself a bit. Will save all the media discussions until the last one. First up is a short blogpost for Reuters about China-India-Afghanistan, very much building on the bigger project on the subject that have been a big focus of work for some time.

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A U.S. soldier from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment shields himself from the rotor wash of a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter after being dropped off for a mission with the Afghan police near Jalalabad in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan December 20, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/Files

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)

Landlocked in the heart of Eurasia, Afghanistan sits in between superpowers. Previously this was Russia and the United Kingdom, using its territory as a chessboard across which they would plot intrigue against each other.

During more recent history, it became a covert battlefield between Russia and the United States as the wider ideological struggle between communism and capitalism was played out. Nowadays, however, a new momentum is building behind cooperation between two superpowers whose domestic security is linked to Afghanistan’s stability.

Beijing and Delhi’s ability to cooperate in Afghanistan is likely to be a key axis through which long-term Afghan stability will come.

Both China and India are already active players in Afghanistan. In November last year, Vice Premier Li Yuanchao visited Kabul and offered a package of $79 million for housing construction in the city. Just over a month later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the city to inaugurate the Indian built Parliament building.

China has taken an increasingly prominent role in helping broker peace talks between the warring factions in Afghanistan, while both countries have offered differing levels of support for Afghanistan’s security forces. China has provided the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) with non-lethal support while India has instead provided attack helicopters and discussed the idea of reviving arms factories with Russian support.

Both are major aid providers to Afghanistan and have played important roles in the so-called ‘Heart of Asia Process’, and while current commodity prices (and the current uncertain political and security situation) have made it less attractive at the moment, both are hosts to large state-owned extractives firms who have the capacity, scale and appetite to try to mine Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.

Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao (L) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani attend a signing ceremony of mutual agreements in Kabul, Afghanistan November 3, 2015. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood/Files

Both have similar interests in Afghanistan — an eagerness for the country to have a stable heart of its region — and both have enunciated a desire for any peace process in the nation to be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. Whilst they might share extremely different relationships with key outside player Pakistan, they share a surprisingly concurrent view on some of the security problems within that country.

Cooperation between them at a more strategic level has long been moving in a positive direction – President Xi Jinping has made reaching out to India a priority, while Prime Minister Modi has reciprocated through a targeted effort to connect with China. Beyond rhetoric, joint counter-terrorism training exercises, positive border dispute discussions and cooperation on the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) all show how this relationship is one that goes beyond geopolitical rhetoric.

Yet notwithstanding these similarities, cooperation and collaboration on Afghanistan has remained remarkably limited. There have been some discussions, but little action. Both have continued to undertake their efforts in parallel while they have laid out much larger visions for a broader pattern of regional engagement — China under Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ vision while India through the Connect Central Asia strategy. But neither has particularly addressed the question of where Afghanistan fits into this, and have in fact enunciated visions that can go around Afghanistan.

For Beijing, the ‘Belt and Road’ can flow cleanly through Central Asia, across Russia or the Caspian to Europe, or go straight from Kashgar to Gwadar, turning Pakistan in a ‘corridor’ for Chinese goods. For Delhi, the investment into the Iranian port Chabahar can be read as an attempt to create a route for Indian interests and investments to get out of Central Asia bypassing Afghanistan. In other words, both are developing regional visions that can go around Afghanistan.

But at the same time, both realize that notwithstanding their ability to develop routes around the country, an unstable Afghanistan is going to be something that could destabilize the larger visions. And this is where greater cooperation is important. Focusing on playing a complementary role in supporting Afghanistan’s security forces through providing funding and undertaking niche training rather than solely the equipment provision they are currently undertaking would address a gap that the West is eventually going to want to stop providing.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) shakes hands with the Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul, Afghanistan December 25, 2015. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) shakes hands with the Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul, Afghanistan December 25, 2015. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/Files

And this points to a larger question which China and India both seem to recognize bilaterally, but have not engaged with enough together. Both see that the West’s appetite and attention in Afghanistan is waning, and while this may irritate them and only serve to reinforce a belief in the fickle nature of Western foreign policy, it fails to resolve the fact that Afghanistan sits in their neighbourhood.

The age of competitive geopolitical games is by no means over, but in Afghanistan there are the outlines of a future cooperative relationship between two of Asia’s great emergent superpowers. Both have a key interest in Afghanistan and have a different set of relations with Kabul that if handled correctly could be complementary. Beijing and Delhi are already re-shaping the world through their sheer size and growing clout in international affairs — in their immediate neighbourhood they could direct this weight to help Afghanistan find some stability at the heart of Eurasia.

Catching up on a lot of old posting, here is a report for my home institute RUSI that has been the culmination of a lot of work with Chinese and Indian researchers and RUSI colleagues (Emily and Edward) looking at the potential for Chinese and Indian cooperation in Afghanistan.

Communication, Co-operation and Challenges: A Roadmap for Sino-Indian Engagement in Afghanistan

by Shisheng Hu, Raffaello Pantucci, Ravi Sawhney and Emily Winterbotham

The politics of Afghanistan remain precarious. But if undertaken correctly, regional engagement by China and India can play a positive role in consolidating security and the economy

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Communication, Co-operation and Challenges: A Roadmap for Sino–Indian Engagement in Afghanistan  concludes a research project which brought together influential thinkers and experts from China, India, Pakistan, the UK and Afghanistan in a number of workshops in London, Beijing, New Delhi and Qatar, and outlines areas of common interest between China and India in Afghanistan. The project spanned several years, starting in 2012. While participants’ opinions and responses were therefore likely influenced by developments in Afghanistan at the time the workshops were held it is, however, still possible to draw out the key commonalities and divergences between each country’s participants to map out policy ideas for co-operation and ‘burden-sharing’ between India and China in Afghanistan.

Both China and India have unique and strong relationships with Afghanistan and, in addition to co-operative efforts, both countries can play a number of bilateral roles. This paper presents some ideas for thinkers and strategists in Kabul, Beijing and New Delhi on how to help Afghanistan move forward and achieve stability.

Catching up on some old posting for the week, first up a short piece for my home institution RUSI’s website. Was initially meant to go up a little bit earlier around the time of the talks themselves, but got a bit delayed. Also meant to tee up a bit some of the findings of a longer piece that will go up here soon and is up on the RUSI site already.

This aside, spoke to the South China Morning Post on the topic during the Afghan foreign minister’s visit to Beijing, as well as Reuters about ISIS online activity.

How China’s Power Runs Through a Peaceful Afghanistan

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary, 2 February 2016

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China is playing a positive role in Afghanistan, but needs to take a greater ownership and direction of the potential peace process. As a partner with positive relations in both Kabul and Islamabad, Beijing is well placed to play this role.

The latest round of the Quadrilateral Group (Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the USA) is being held in Islamabad this week. This round builds on an effort instigated by Beijing earlier in 2015 and has been one of the hallmarks of Afghan President Ghani’s presidency. The question, however, is whether China has the power to be a decisive player in Afghanistan that it has been increasingly hinting at with its role in these talks.

China has long been playing a productive role in the country. Whilst Beijing maintains awkward relations with Washington across the Pacific Ocean, on land, it is undertaking joint training programmes with the United States for Afghan diplomats and officials. It has helped facilitate discussions between Afghanistan and Pakistan and has helped soothe relations between Islamabad and Delhi. Most significant, however, has been the official diplomatic track that it has helped open between the government in Kabul and the Taliban. Though unofficial contacts existed previously, President Ghani’s ascent to power in September 2014 gave the relationship renewed impetus. This included a focus on a key role for China in the Afghan peace process, a point highlighted by Ghani’s first formal overseas trip being to Beijing.

This was not the first time discussions between the government in Kabul and the Taliban had been mooted. Previous dialogue tracks through institutes like Pugwash, in Chantilly, France or through the Taliban Doha office had not appeared move very far forwards with little evidence that the Taliban were taking the negotiations seriously. In contrast, the track opened with Beijing’s support appeared to draw its influence directly from the heart of the Taliban in Pakistan. Consequently, there appeared to be greater confidence that those talking were able to deliver what they were discussing. This was a key aspect to make the talks genuinely useful.

Beijing’s particular role in this was in ensuring that Pakistan did all that it could to facilitate the discussions. ‘All weather’ friends whose relationship is the source of much hyperbolic rhetoric, China and Pakistan have long been attached at the hip. More recently, China has focused its economic firepower on Islamabad with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in 2013 to develop the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), in essence a trade and infrastructure corridor stretching from Kashgar in China to the newly built Gwadar Port.

Swept into the broader Belt and Road initiative that is the keynote foreign policy initiative of the Xi Jinping administration, CPEC was grandiloquently allocated $46 billion in investment when President Xi visited in 2014. Whilst there is some creative accounting going on with the exact numbers, the injection into Pakistan’s faltering economy is nonetheless massive. But while it showed the world that Pakistan had other options beyond the West, it also substantially strengthened Beijing’s hand in Islamabad.

This shift of influence towards Beijing is not something that is only observed in Pakistan. Across the Eurasian continent, Beijing’s growing weight and economic power projection is visible. From President Xi’s recent visit to Tehran, to the growing list of economic officials meeting with the heads of the specially created $40 billion Silk Road Fund, to the roads, rail and pipeline being laid across Central Asia, China is the coming power. But sitting at the centre of this larger Belt and Road vision is Afghanistan, a country that has historically stymied outside powers influence and continues to face a brutal civil war at home. Talking to experts sitting in Beijing, they will point to Afghanistan as a potential spoiler in the larger Silk Road Economic Belt (the ‘Belt’ of the ‘Belt and Road’), worrying about its instability radiating out to disrupt the trade and economic corridors being built out from China’s western regions.

This in part helps explain China’s interest in Afghanistan – quite aside from the obvious fact of sharing a direct border with the country and the fact that historically Uighur militants angry at Beijing’s dominance of Xinjiang (China’s westernmost region) have used Afghanistan as a staging point for camps to train.

But while China’s interest in Afghanistan is clear – its commitment to playing a forward role in stabilising the country has been less clear until now. By stepping forwards to support the peace talks, China is finally making a move towards playing the role that is clearly commensurate to its regional position and power. Unfortunately, however, this is unlikely to be enough. If China truly wants to help stabilise Afghanistan it must not only continue to support the peace talks, but also explore a greater role in providing support for the ANSF (not only through non-lethal aid, but also financial support), find ways of investing in Afghanistan’s small to medium enterprises (as well as bring some resolution to the larger stalled mineral projects undertaken by Chinese enterprises), clarify how Afghanistan fits into the ‘Belt and Road’ and finally continue to act a regional mediator between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

None of these are quick fixes. But for China the option of backing out is limited. Unlike far away Western powers, Beijing will share a border with Afghanistan come what may, meaning China’s stake in the country is an immoveable one. In the short term, President Ghani’s window of opportunity is closing rapidly and he will be unable to effect some influential change before prospects of peace conclude with the start of the fighting season. If Beijing is to capitalise on its current advantageous position in Afghanistan, it needs to start to push forwards on all fronts to help move the talks from discussions about roadmaps between Afghanistan and Pakistan to talks and then a dialogue between Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. This is the only way Afghanistan will be able to bring its lengthy conflict to a close.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of RUSI’s International Security research group