As Afghanistan Transitions, China Reconsiders its Stake

In April 2013, China announced it would host the fourth Foreign Minister’s Meeting of the Istanbul Process on Afghanistan in 2014. That meeting, which will take place this August in Tianjin, will represent China’s most significant regional engagement on Afghanistan to date. China’s decision to host is part of a broader pattern of increased engagement, suggesting a shift in Beijing’s posture toward Afghanistan. China has indicated that it intends to become increasingly involved in discussions on the role of the region and international community after NATO’s combat mission ends in 2014. What is causing this shift in policy and, at the end of the day, what are China’s real interests in Afghanistan?

The U.S. and China have a limited history of direct cooperation on aid delivery, but their interests align to a much greater degree in the regions to China’s West than they do in those to China’s East. The two powers are already collaborating on a number of joint projects in Afghanistan related to agriculture and the training of health workers and diplomats, and while these efforts are significant, there is potential for much deeper cooperation in the future.

Since July 2012, the Center on International Cooperation (CIC) has worked with partners in Beijing and Shanghai to host a series of bilateral and trilateral talks with officials and scholars from the U.S., China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The process has aimed to improve both countries’ understandings of the other’s outlook and policy on Afghanistan and to explore areas for possible cooperation. From this process, it is clear that U.S. and China have three main shared objectives in Afghanistan: combating terrorism, encouraging stability, and promoting regional cooperation.

China’s leadership long considered engagement in Afghanistan a geopolitical trap best avoided and viewed U.S. intentions in the region with suspicion. Maintaining strong ties with Pakistan remains a top policy priority for China, a fact that has often shaped China’s engagement in Afghanistan. For decades, China saw Afghanistan largely as an extension of its “all-weather” friendship with Pakistan. However, as the end of 2014 approaches, Beijing has come to view the potential for Afghan instability as a direct threat to China’s domestic security and economic growth, particularly in its western provinces. This has led China’s leadership to reassess its approach to Afghanistan.

China has traditionally been most comfortable engaging on Afghanistan through existing bilateral and trilateral channels. China has actively promoted its China-Russia-India and China-Pakistan-Afghanistan trilateral dialogues, but has also started to signal a willingness to increase its involvement in multilateral and regional discussions. The Istanbul Process Ministerial Conference in Tianjin will involve a wide range of regional players in discussions about improving regional coordination and cooperation in support of Afghanistan’s transition. Taking a leadership role in this process plays to what China considers its diplomatic strengths and sends an important signal to the region about its commitment.

China’s greatest concern is the potential for instability in Afghanistan to undermine its own domestic security. During his February visit to Kabul, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted that Afghanistan’s stability has “an impact on the security of Western China, and more importantly, it affects the tranquility and development of the entire region.” China’s predominately Uighur Xinjiang Province has been the scene of escalating inter-ethnic and separatist insurgency. International analysts widely believe these tensions are heightened by China’s immigration and economic policies, but China views the region’s separatist movement as primarily supported by alienated Uighur militants beyond its borders that are receiving military training from extremist groups in neighboring countries. Of particular concern is the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which is widely believed to have received support from al Qaeda and has been linked to violent attacks inside China.

China is extremely concerned that, if terrorist safe havens are allowed to flourish in Afghanistan, Uighur separatists (who have seen their ability to operate severely restricted by ongoing NATO operations) will be able to refocus their efforts on China. Partially in response to these concerns, China is now supportive of the U.S. Bilateral Security Agreement and a long-term international security presence in Afghanistan, a change from its prior position. China views political reconciliation to be key to Afghanistan’s future stability and thus is very supportive of efforts to reach an accord between the Afghan Government and the Taliban. This view is at odds with many in the region who believe political settlement with the Taliban will only embolden extremist groups.

Directly related to its regional stability concerns, China’s plans to accelerate development in its western provinces in large part hinge on its efforts to strengthen economic ties with Central Asia. During his tour of Central Asia in September 2013, President Xi Jinping proposed a new “Silk Road economic belt” to expand policy coordination, improve transportation corridors, and increase economic cooperation between China and key Central Asian states. As China expands its economic footprint in Central Asia, there is great potential for Afghanistan to benefit, but China remains very hesitant to increase its investments until it can ensure the security of the investments it has already made. Chinese companies have already signed two large resource extraction agreements with the Afghan government, but both are currently on hold and have yet to produce the economic windfall that Kabul had hoped.

The U.S. and China have a common interest in working together to support stability in Central Asia, but successful cooperation depends on improving communication between the two countries. CIC strives to further that dialogue by working closely with our Chinese partners and, in the coming months, we will be expanding our trilateral engagement to include new regional partners and to broaden the scope of discussion. At a time of uncertainty over Afghanistan’s future, the U.S. and China’s ability to play a constructive role in the region will be more important than ever.

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Apr 24, 2014
Thomas Zimmerman