An Afghan National Army soldier fires a RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launcher in Helmand province, Afghanistan
For the better part of the last forty years, Afghanistan has been embroiled in wars that have resulted in the deaths of well over one million Afghans. Yet at long last, it appears that there is a chance for durable peace in the troubled country. Pakistan and China have offered to mediate negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. While the talks scheduled to take place in March are certainly not guaranteed to yield results, a peaceful and stable Afghanistan is critical to Beijing’s security and economic interests in Central Asia.
With a festering Taliban-supported Uyghur insurgency in Xinjiang Province, which shares a narrow border with Afghanistan, Beijing has a vested interest in a stable Afghanistan that is able to help prevent the flow of fighters, weapons, and illicit substances from pouring into China. Despite this, however, China has not contributed in any way to the military efforts of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, refusing to even open a transit corridor on its behalf. While this of course fits with China’s generally non-interventionist foreign policy, China also opted for complete neutrality due to its belief that in post-war Afghanistan, the Taliban will remain a major player.
While China has condemned the Taliban after a number of its attacks and has occasionally supported the War on Terror in the United Nations, China has not taken a particularly harsh line against the group. Accordingly, China has also maintained warm ties with Pakistan, and by extension maintained communication channels with the Taliban, allowing it to be in the position it is today in which it can act as a mediator for talks. As Zhao Huasheng, a scholar at Fudan University in China, argues, China cares little as to whether or not the Taliban is an active participant in Afghan politics, so long as the involvement is legal and advances Chinese economic interests.
As bilateral trade between China and Afghanistan has increased from about $20 million in 2002 to $715 million in 2010, accompanied by recent agreements for billions of dollars in infrastructure investment in the near future, China’s economic ties, and therefore political ties, to Afghanistan are rapidly growing. While this is considerably less than the $2.1 billion in U.S.-Afghanistan trade in 2010, since 2011 that trade has drastically fallen to only $781 million in 2014. Similarly, U.S. aid has fallen since 2010, with roughly two-thirds of the U.S.’s $104 billion dollars in total investment going towards the Afghan security forces, which now incur expenses that the Afghan government will never be able to afford. Of the portion of U.S. aid that was spent on infrastructure and agriculture, billions were wasted on projects that ended in complete failure.
In contrast to this, the bulk of Chinese investment projects are for the development of railways and facilities for natural resource extraction. From these projects, the Afghan government is estimated to be able to make upwards of $7 billion over the next 25 years. This is a small amount compared to the amount of capital that would be involved in the construction of China’s ambitious New Silk Road trade route, however. While the initiative has aspects that are funded by the U.S., the lion’s share will be paid for by China, which will spend more than $100 billion to construct the Afghan and Pakistani portions of the network. This in turn will grant China an unprecedented ability to exploit the area’s natural resources, valued at nearly $1 trillion.
It therefore becomes clear why China chose to not aggressively pursue Uyghur fighters taking refuge in Afghanistan and Pakistan with the Taliban. By maintaining friendly relations with the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan and not alienating the Taliban, China will be able to establish the diplomatic and economic framework necessary for the New Silk Road. With Chinese influence now increasing, China has begun to aggressively repatriate Uyghurs from Afghanistan, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani pledged during his trip to China in October, notably also his first foreign trip as president, that Afghanistan would support China in its efforts to combat the Uyghur separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
Days after Ghani’s visit, a Taliban delegation arrived in Beijing, though details of the discussions have not been released due to their sensitive nature. However, this is the most significant step towards negotiations between the various factions since a 2013 U.S.-backed effort fell apart following the Taliban’s establishment of what was essentially an embassy in Qatar. Given the massive amounts of wealth that working with China would provide for Afghanistan, coupled with China’s willingness to work with all of the relevant parties, something the West has often been loathe to do, a Beijing-brokered agreement may be Afghanistan’s best chance at peace and stability since before the Soviet invasion of 1979.
If China is to fully implement its New Silk Road plan while also ensuring its own security, it is essential that a stable Afghanistan is created and that the country does not slide into civil war as it did after the Soviet withdrawal. Even though China has a close relationship with both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan have improved significantly at the expense of the Taliban since the election of Ghani, success in the upcoming talks is far from certain and deadly clashes between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban frequently occur. In order to ensure that fighting with the Taliban ends and China is able to obtain concrete assurances regarding its security, all parties will undoubtedly have to concede some demands for the sake of regional stability and economic growth.
Matt McGee is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, majoring in China & Asia-Pacific Studies and Government