By Raffaello Pantucci
First published by RUSI Newsbrief, February 27, 2015
After years of fence-sitting, Beijing appears to have finally decided to admit that it is willing to play a role in Afghanistan’s future. While the exact contours of the part it seeks to play are still uncertain, China’s willingness to be seen to be involved in brokering peace in Afghanistan is surprising for a nation that continues to profess non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs as the core of its foreign-policy credo.
It also remains unclear exactly how China can help to bring the Taliban to the peace table: while it may have the links to both the government in Kabul and the Taliban, it is uncertain that it knows how to bring them together, beyond offering a platform for talks. This activism is nonetheless likely to be welcomed by Western powers. Yet high expectations are not warranted; even if China does ultimately prove that it knows what to do with these talks, its efforts in Afghanistan will ultimately seek to advance its own interests rather than those of the West.
In February, news emerged that the Taliban were undertaking discussions in Pakistan as part of a reconciliation effort aided, in part, by China. This built on news last November that China had itself hosted a Taliban delegation in Beijing. Although this earlier revelation (confirmed during this author’s meetings in Beijing) was a surprise to many, it reflected a longstanding, behind-the-scenes understanding amongst Western policy-makers that China had direct links to the Taliban. The fact that these links became publicly known (although Chinese officials remain circumspect when discussing them in public) only suggests that China is willing to be more open about its possible role in Afghanistan – a development potentially accelerated by the formal conclusion of ISAF operations in the country.
The first public sign of Chinese mediation efforts came with the suggestion in November that China’s special envoy to Afghanistan – a career diplomat and former ambassador to India, Italy, Poland and (separately) Afghanistan – had visited Peshawar (or Doha, reports vary) to move talks with the Taliban forwards. Then came the visit of the Taliban delegation (following Beijing’s hosting of the Heart of Asia process meeting later that month), led by Qari Din Muhammad Hanif, a former minister in the Taliban government and possibly including representatives of both the Quetta and Peshawar Shuras of the Taliban, and potentially others from Pakistan. It was only in February, however, that Taliban spokesmen were willing to confirm that the meeting had taken place, with the same delegation apparently then in Pakistan continuing discussions there.
The revelation that China has maintained direct contact with the Taliban was no great surprise; these contacts predate the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. In December 2000, a Chinese delegation headed by then-Ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin met with Mullah Omar in Kabul to lobby the Taliban authorities not to support anti-Chinese Uighur extremists based in Afghanistan, which were then a source of major consternation for Chinese security officials. China was also amongst those that lobbied, unsuccessfully, to prevent the Taliban from destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas. Nor was such contact limited to simply making demands of the Taliban, with Chinese telecommunications companies ZTE and Huawei both having signed contracts to undertake work in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
In July 2001, a delegation of Taliban-associated businessmen undertook a reciprocal visit to China, and on 11 September 2001 itself, a delegation of Chinese officials was in Kabul to sign a number of memoranda of understanding with the Taliban Ministry of Mines. Whilst these economic ties were largely voided in the wake of 9/11, they nevertheless show a credible link between the two and a longstanding Chinese interest in the Afghan economy.
Even in the wake of the US-led overthrow of the Taliban regime contact persisted, apparently directed out of China’s embassy in Islamabad, with relevant officials paying regular visits to Peshawar. Though initially largely handled through Pakistani interlocutors, it is understood that, over time, direct links between Chinese officials and the Taliban were consolidated. The exact nature of these exchanges is unclear, though for China they appear to have provided a means to enlist Taliban help in addressing the problem of Uighur extremists and in protecting their investments in Afghanistan, while also hedging against a persistent Chinese fear that permanent American bases in Afghanistan might be part of a strategy of encirclement.
Chinese concern that Uighur extremists in Afghanistan or Pakistan’s lawless areas might use these countries as a springboard to launch operations within China is not without some basis; indeed, there is recent evidence of this. In July 2011, for example, Memtieli Tiliwaldi was identified by the Chinese government as having belonged to a group that launched bomb and knife attacks in the city of Kashgar, Xinjiang. Weeks later, Uighur extremists in Pakistan, operating under the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), released a video purporting to show Tiliwaldi at a training camp run by the group. Such clear links are difficult to draw in relation to subsequent attacks, though China occasionally make claims that terrorist incidents in Xinjiang have connections – either in practical or ideological terms – to extremist groups based outside of China. More recently, Chinese security officials have begun to focus on the fact that such links also flow through Syria and Iraq (where there is evidence that ethnically Chinese and Uighur extremists are fighting) and Southeast Asia (where cells of Uighurs have been identified attempting to connect with militants in Poso, Indonesia). Alongside these emerging connections, however, the existence of links between Uighur extremists and both Afghanistan and Pakistan remains a key source of concern.
As importantly, Afghan authorities have long wished for China to play a more positive role in their country, particularly in the hope that the latter will use its historically strong links to Pakistan to persuade Islamabad to reduce its support for the Taliban. During newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s inaugural visit to Beijing last October (his first official international trip), he specifically lobbied China to use its relationship with Pakistan to help build peace in his country. At the same time, Afghan security officials have repeatedly attempted to show their Chinese counterparts that Pakistan is playing a double game with them – using intelligence to highlight occasions on which Pakistani officials appeared to be supporting (or at least turning a blind eye to) Uighur extremists. Recently, for example, Afghan officials announced that they had repatriated fifteen Uighurs discovered within their territory – three in Kabul and twelve in Kunar Province. They had apparently been trained in Pakistan’s Waziristan, though it was unclear what their ultimate goal had been.
This revelation might be part of the reason that China has chosen to play a stronger hand in Afghanistan. The news that Uighur cells could be training in Pakistan and moving across the border into Afghanistan, presumably with the ultimate aim of conducting some form of attack in China, suggests that the discreet infrastructure of contacts that China had established to defeat such networks was not, in fact, working. The reported presence of Uighurs in Kunar, in particular, suggests a failure of China’s relations with the Taliban, while the presence of individuals training in Waziristan shows a simultaneous failure by its Pakistani ally. All of this bolsters China’s perceived need to play a more prominent role in negotiations to bring the chaos in Afghanistan to a resolution.
However, while there is now an apparent correlation in the positions of China and the West in Afghanistan, Western hopes should not be excessively raised. Chinese officials admit that they are not clear on the exact nature of internal Afghan or Taliban dynamics, and remain concerned about a potential backlash against greater engagement, making them unlikely to push as hard as the West might hope. At the same time, in seeking to ensure the region’s stability (of which Afghanistan is a key part), China is primarily focused on denying Uighur extremists safe havens from which to operate, as well as developing its Silk Road Economic Belt trade corridors. It is less concerned with the Western emphasis on good governance (though there is growing discussion in Beijing about the importance of this in ensuring stability). And it is certainly not concerned about the perceived legacy of the West’s investment of over a decade’s worth of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Instead, China’s interests in Afghanistan are ultimately national, reflecting an increasing desire on the part of Beijing to enhance stability on its western periphery on its own terms.
More broadly, however, the most interesting aspect of China’s activity in Afghanistan is the fact that it has shown itself willing to play this sort of role in a foreign nation. This clearly highlights the degree to which Chinese foreign policy is evolving and opening up to the world. The danger is that China is embarking upon this role in a country that has for generations proven impervious to external activism. The larger concern must therefore be what it might mean for Chinese foreign policy should this effort fail.
Director, International Security Studies, RUSI.