While the dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban has entered a phase of stalemate, China continues to be one of the most important actors involved in the efforts of pushing the parties to talk. But what are the reasons and the implications of such Chinese policy?
Of the various regions with which China shares its borders, the area known as AfPak always had a major importance. Yet, it is especially over the past few years that this region – that spans across Pakistan and Afghanistan and borders China’s Xinjiang province – has seen its relevance increase even more in the strategic calculations of Beijing in South Asia.
Since the ‘80s – with the Soviet-Afghan war and the advent of jihadist terrorism – the area has emerged as source of instability and insecurity for the whole region, and it is such a volatility that is giving it priority in China’s geopolitical choices (and worries). In the eyes of Beijing, in fact, the instability of an area that is at its south-western borders represents a double threat with which it necessarily has to deal – and in front of which it cannot delay an effective response.
On one side, there is the threat posed to China’s national security. This threat mainly takes the form of the influence that Afghan and Pakistani terrorist groups exert on extremist groups of Uighurs active in the Xinjiang which in more than one occasion have resorted to terrorism to express their opposition to Beijing.
On the other side, there is the threat posed to China’s economic interests. Due to its geographic position, the AfPak region plays a primary role in the trade relations that China maintains with the Central Asian countries from which it imports oil and gas. In addition, it is vital for the implementation of the silk road economic belt – a crucial development and economic project elaborated by China in and for Eurasia.
The stability of the AfPak region is therefore a priority for the Chinese government due to economic and security reasons.
It is for these reasons that over the past few years Beijing has deepened its role in the region’s dynamics and it is in this context that we shall place (and explain) the strategy followed by China with respect to the issue of the dialogue between the Taliban and Kabul. Since the beginning of last year, China has proposed itself as key player in that delicate and complex process aiming to seek a direct negotiation between the two conflicting parties. In the specific, it has intervened by exploiting its influence over Islamabad (explained by the numerous trade agreements and investment plans that bind Pakistan and its economic growth to China) to convince the Pakistanis to review their afghan policy and encourage the Taliban to talk.
Such a direct intervention on China’s part is especially meaningful as it represents a turning point in the Chinese foreign policy and has relevant implications at regional level.
Traditionally resistive to any direct involvement in the political and diplomatic landscape of South Asia, China is now facing a phase of re-definition of its afghan policy: firm to protect its economic and security interests, Beijing has elaborated an approach centered on a greater political direct involvement. This new approach on the Chinese side has favored the emergence of new dynamics in the game of alliances in the region: under President Ghani Afghanistan has abandoned the traditional line followed by Karzai and has moved away from the Indian ally while getting closer instead to China and Pakistan.
Equally important is then the fact that China’s decision to avoid unilateral interventions and join the Group of Four signals a renewed cooperation with the United States in the AfPak area. In Afghanistan – after all – the strategic interests of Washington and Beijing point in the same direction, with the consequent overture of cooperation opportunities that might impact positively on the negotiation possibilities.
However, the efficacy of the new afghan policy implemented by Beijing will depend on a series of factors.
First of all, there is the relation between China and the United States. As said, the more the two countries will be able to take advantage of and work on their common interest in the AfPak’s stabilization, the more China will have in its hands the right cards to play a decisive role.
Secondly, there is the issue of the relationship between China and Pakistan. Beijing’s role, indeed, will largely depend on its capacity of using its political and economic pressure to have Islamabad to moderate its afghan policy (traditionally based on the support given to the Taliban in an anti-Delhi key).
Furthermore, much will depend on the consistency of the Taliban front. Since last summer, when the death of Mullah Omar was confirmed and Mansour became the group’s new leader, the Taliban are internally fractured and this fracture represents the main obstacle to dialogue. The success of negotiations will thus depend on the capacity of the Group of which China is part of identifying reliable interlocutors.
Moreover, it is to underline how this new Chinese involvement will not come without risks.
The main risk lies in the fact that an excessive involvement of Beijing in its support to Kabul and – more broadly – in the whole issue of the regional fight against terrorism might exasperate even more the tensions within Xinjiang and strengthen the Uighur radical groups’ hostility to Beijing.
In addition, intervening ever more in the Afghan issues, China risks undermining its friendly relations with many of the countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, each of which has in Afghanistan its own political and economic interests that they are more than determined to defend. Among the SCO countries, indeed, the Afghan issue has always been a major source of tension because of its undisputable relevance, and the Chinese intervention might widen differences and diffidence and slow down cooperation also in other areas and on other matters.
Finally, there is to consider the element of the USA and NATO presence in Afghanistan. The more the presence of Western forces is reduced (both in terms of actual numbers both in terms of the tasks and missions to be carried out), the more China – due to its new foreground role – risks finding itself exposed to pressure as far as the possibility of a future ground intervention is concerned. Beijing’s credibility as regional actor might risk being compromised if China did not prove capable of finding a successful balance between its desire of stabilizing the region and its rejection of any military intervention.