A member of the Afghan Special Forces keeps a watch as others search a house during a combat mission against Taliban, in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, July 12, 2021. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Following the review of United States-Taliban peace deal in April, the Joe Biden administration announced that the US will withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, marking the end of ‘forever war’.
The US invaded Afghanistan shortly after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the US, and since then has had an active military presence in the country. US troops started evacuating in the first week of July, and will complete the process by August. Pentagon recently reported that 90 percent of the troops and equipment have been withdrawn.
Until 2014, China’s interaction with Afghanistan was minimal based on the rhetoric of adherence to a non-interference principle. The US withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan under the Obama Administration in 2014 resulted in a shift in Chinese policy toward Afghanistan.
Beijing’s domestic security concern with the fear of rising Islamic extremist groups in the Xinjiang Province has played a part in China’s willingness to become a ‘mediator’ for reconciliation between the current Afghan civilian government and the Taliban. For example, Uighur radicals trained and supported by groups in Afghanistan played a major role in the Urumqi Bombing in 2014. In the same year, China appointed Ambassador Sun Yuxi as its first special envoy to Afghanistan.
Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai is also said to have motivated China to play an active role in Taliban-Afghan peace talks.
China’s ‘neutrality’ policy, helps Beijing extend invitations to delegations of the Afghan government and also provide visas to the Taliban. This gives China an edge and the recognition as a facilitator for providing a neutral ground for the reconciliation process. This has lead the Taliban to trust China, and call it a friend, so much so that the Taliban recently pledged to not host Uyghur militants from Xinjiang.
Beijing’s support for the ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned’ peace reconciliation, with no history of ‘military intervention’, leads both the Afghan government and the Taliban to work more comfortably with China. Kabul has more confidence in Beijing as a mediator, rather than other international actors.
China’s involvement with the Afghan peace involves efforts at a multilateral level. China is a part of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group consisting of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US, and a trilateral diplomatic forum with Pakistan and Afghanistan. China emphasises more involvement of the United Nations, as well as it urges the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) members to play a ‘positive role’.
With the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing is escalating its investments in Central Asian connectivity projects, such as the Afghanistan National Railway Plan (ANRP), the Sino-Afghan Special Railway Transportation Project (SARTP), Five Nations Railway Corridor, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Instability in Afghanistan has proved a major hurdle to possible investments in construction and mining of natural resources. Thus, it is of China’s own interest to engage more in Afghanistan.
More Space For China
Though China has denounced US military deployment in Afghanistan, it is not thrilled with the US' eventual departure. It termed the US troop withdrawal as a “hasty move”, and that “it might complicate the evolution of the situation in Afghanistan.” Such as reaction stems from Beijing’s concern about the Taliban’s inability to control the various extreme groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the possibility of the Taliban going back on its promise and allowing the Uyghur groups to operate from Kabul. These concerns come with the background where China has in the past failed to yield favourable results with the continued presence and training of Uighur nationalists in Afghanistan.
The US military presence in Afghanistan, which was a necessary check on the Taliban, worked for Beijing’s favour. It has to be seen how the absence of US troops will affect China. However, Washington's withdrawal of troops has allowed Beijing to criticize US as the “irresponsible power”.
Events in Afghanistan also provide an opportunity for China. If Beijing can stabilise Afghanistan after a US withdrawal, it will give other countries facing unrest the message that the China model of ‘political settlement’ is more conducive than ‘Western intervention’, ultimately extending China’s influence in similar crises around the world.
The concern would be if China does not work towards furthering democracy in Afghanistan. Considering the Taliban’s rise in power and its commitment to restrict the Uighur nationalists, China could focus on being on the side of the Taliban, which does not weigh in favour of democracy.Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.