Posts Tagged ‘China foreign policy’

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.

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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

afghanistan-india-pakistan-map

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