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From Bystander To Peacemaker

China, the Taliban, and reconciliation in Afghanistan

China’s proposals to facilitate the Afghan reconciliation process – and signals from Kabul and Islamabad that peace talks may soon be underway – pose the question of what a more serious Chinese diplomatic role in Afghanistan can be expected to achieve.

Li talks with Ghani during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing

(c) REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Despite being technically neighbors, connected by a small, remote, and closed border, China has historically maintained a minimal relationship with Afghanistan. The only points at which Beijing has taken on an active role there are when it has been confronted by security threats, whether the Soviet presence in the 1980s or the presence of Uighur militant training camps in the late 1990s. Over the last decade, with the exception of some resource investments – which have yet to become productive – China sat out the conflict in Afghanistan. It wanted neither a Western victory that might entrench a US military presence in its backyard, nor a Taliban victory that would pose risks to Xinjiang and the wider region. As a result, its financial and political contributions to Afghanistan were at best tokenistic, the minimum necessary to avoid alienating anyone.

But following the US announcement of a drawdown of troops, China’s political calculus has shifted. Its anxieties about “encirclement” have been superseded by fears that Afghanistan will once again become a safe haven for East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) fighters; that proxy contests between Pakistan and India will escalate; and that the entirety of China’s western periphery will be destabilized.

The last three years have consequently seen a steadily increasing level of political engagement on China’s part, including the convening of an assortment of bilateral and trilateral meetings on Afghanistan in the region, senior-level visits to Kabul, closer coordination with the United States, and the signing of a bilateral partnership agreement with the Afghans. This culminated in China’s hosting of the “Heart of Asia” ministerial process in October 2014, the first multilateral gathering to take place since the new Afghan government took office. Aside from visiting Mecca for Umrah, China was the first overseas destination for Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani.

China Taking “Ownership”

The Beijing meeting was notable as much for the political symbolism of China taking on “ownership” of the post-2014 situation in Afghanistan as for its substance. China was one of the few countries to increase its aid contribution significantly at just the moment when others were reducing their own. But there was another development of particular note: China formally offered its involvement in reconciliation talks with the Taliban. This was not just a notional suggestion – representatives of the Taliban were there in Beijing at the time, and followed up with a more widely-publicized visit by officials from its Qatar office in November 2014. While a Taliban spokesman disavowed any suggestion that a new reconciliation process was now underway, the initiative has nonetheless given momentum to debates over the extent of China’s dealings with the Taliban, and the prospect that Beijing might succeed where previous peace efforts have fallen short.

For China, this is a burden that has been reluctantly assumed. Involvement in a reconciliation process exposes it to political risks in the region that it had previously been very careful to avoid. While Beijing has taken on an important role in negotiations with North Korea and North and South Sudan, and with insurgent groups in Myanmar, Afghanistan and the world of Islamic militancy is a much messier and more unfamiliar one. China has offered to take on this responsibility because it sees that it is perhaps the only external power that might be able to bridge some of the political divisions that exist between the parties to the conflict. Most importantly, it has longstanding ties with the Taliban leadership and a close relationship with the Taliban’s principal backer, Pakistan.

China’s dealings with the Taliban go back to the group’s period of rule in Afghanistan. Despite being sponsored by Beijing’s closest partner in the region, Pakistan, China was disquieted by the Taliban’s seizure of power and did not join the small list of countries to extend diplomatic recognition to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1997. Instead, it backed the UN Security Council’s comprehensive package of sanctions that followed the Al Qaeda bombings in East Africa. More of a concern than the Taliban’s hosting of Al Qaeda, however, was the fact that it allowed Uighur militants to operate training camps in Afghanistan, which Beijing claimed were responsible for “scores” of terrorist attacks.

US Tomahawk Missiles For Sale

Yet Pakistan assured China that the Taliban leadership was open for negotiation on this front. As it grew ever more isolated, and ever more desperately in need of money and international legitimacy, China was one of the few places it could turn. An early opportunity for contacts was provided when the Taliban sold China one of the US Tomahawk missiles that landed in its territory during the strikes in 1998. More formal exchanges followed, with a Chinese diplomatic delegation flying to Kabul the following year, meetings with PLA representatives, and a consistent channel that was maintained through the Taliban’s embassy in Islamabad, its principal outpost for dealing with the rest of the world. The Taliban’s ambassador there described his Chinese counterpart as “the only one to maintain a good relationship with the embassy and with [Taliban-run] Afghanistan”.

Striking a lasting deal with the Taliban, however, would require direct contact with its emir, the reclusive Mullah Omar. The crucial meeting was undertaken by the Chinese ambassador in Pakistan, Lu Shulin, who became the first senior representative of a non-Muslim country to meet with the Taliban’s leader, after a preparatory trip by representatives of the Chinese intelligence services. In December 2000, Lu visited Kabul and Kandahar, where he was assured by Mullah Omar that the Taliban “would not allow any group to use its territory” to conduct operations against China. This was not consistently enforced, and largely resulted in Uighur militants joining camps run by other groups, but it did mean that these groups were no longer permitted to operate their own autonomous facilities. Mullah Omar was hoping that the Chinese, in turn, would be willing to oppose a new UN sanctions package – and while Beijing was unwilling to veto the resolution, it did abstain, and – more importantly – moved ahead with a set of commercial interactions that would mitigate the impact of sanctions. The subsequent period saw Chinese telecoms companies setting up in Afghanistan, work on dams and electrical grids, and plans for a more extensive set of economic and technical cooperation.

Many of these interactions would be derailed by 9/11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan, but this did not bring an end to contacts between the two sides. Beijing continued to see value in maintaining the basic parameters of the deal that was reached with the Taliban leadership. In exile, the Taliban would still not extend support to Uighur militant groups, and China would make a political distinction in the language it used to describe the Taliban and outright terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda. China also provided it with arms, including anti-aircraft missiles, landmines, rocket-propelled grenades, and armor-piercing ammunition, all of which showed up in sufficiently notable numbers to prompt diplomatic protests from the US and the UK governments. Chinese meetings with the Taliban largely took place in Pakistan, and Chinese officials claim to have been the only country other than Pakistan itself to maintain a continuous relationship with the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s leadership council.

Intensifying Contacts

These contacts intensified considerably after 2011, however, when Beijing started to contemplate the realistic prospect of US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The rationale for dealing with a group that seemed set to become an even more important political force in the country was clear, and Chinese officials and quasi-governmental representatives met with Taliban officials with growing regularity, not only in Pakistan, but also in Doha and in China itself. Beijing also started divulging the existence of its previously secret meetings to Western governments, many of which had been pursuing Taliban contacts of their own. Chinese officials made tentative suggestions to their US counterparts that Beijing’s channel with the Taliban could prove useful.

Nonetheless, China was reluctant to move forward with any initiative until Afghanistan’s election process was settled and there was a government in Kabul that could act as a serious counterpart. That would come in October 2014, when Beijing’s offer to act as a facilitator for reconciliation talks was formally extended. The track for talks also moved firmly and publicly to the Taliban’s Qatar office, which had been established as its channel for reconciliation meetings during the abortive process with the United States, first initiated by Germany. The Taliban confirmed that a delegation, headed by Qari Din Mohammad Hanif, a former planning minister, had visited China in November, and the Chinese foreign minister publicly stated during a visit to Pakistan in February 2015 that China would “support the Afghan government in realizing reconciliation with various political factions, including the Taliban.”

Expectations of immediate success are low. The Taliban is still expected to test the new Afghan government out during the spring fighting season rather than putting its political energies fully into reconciliation efforts. But China has several assets when it comes to helping to forge an elusive political settlement in Afghanistan.

It is the only country to have good working relations with every imaginable party to the conflict: the Afghan government, the Taliban, the former Northern Alliance forces, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, the Central Asian states, the West, the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and virtually anyone else that might be included on a long list. The one partial exception is India, but many of Beijing’s diplomatic efforts in the last couple of years have focused on reassuring New Delhi that, whatever their differences, the two sides have important concerns in common in Afghanistan. China’s historically detached role vis-à-vis Afghanistan leaves it with little baggage, though it has been sufficiently engaged – whether during its support for the mujahideen in the 1980s or its interactions with the insurgency – for its intelligence services to have a level of familiarity with the conflict’s leading protagonists. China also has significant economic resources that it can readily deploy. In principle a functioning Aynak copper mine would be worth more to Afghanistan’s central government revenue than much of the aid it has received, and there are large investment projects that would provide benefit to other forces in Afghanistan if a settlement could be reached – a Chinese “peace dividend” of sorts. Economic matters have been a consistent subject of discussion between China and the Taliban.

The Most Intriguing Factor: Chinese-Pakistani Relations

But the most intriguing factor for many of the parties involved – including the Taliban itself – is China’s relationship to Pakistan. Historically, China had virtually outsourced elements of its Afghanistan policy to the Pakistanis, and Islamabad believed that it could conduct its policies there without much interference from its “all-weather friend”. That equation has now changed. China has started weighing in more actively on Afghanistan with its Pakistani counterparts, and expects them to take Chinese interests into account. These are not identical: Pakistan has been keener to see a level of consistent instability in Afghanistan than a settled government under Indian influence, whereas China prioritizes stability in the country far more highly. When talks between the Afghan government and leading figures in the Quetta Shura, such as Mullah Baradar, have seemed in danger of moving forward – especially without Pakistan’s involvement – Islamabad has put a block on the process. That will be far more difficult to do if China is steering it. For the Afghan government, the daylight between China and Pakistan gives some hope that Beijing could use its leverage to keep certain of these tendencies in check, and even the Taliban values the additional breathing room it may gain with its Pakistani backers. During Chinese president Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Pakistan, he made clear that the promises of a huge $46 billion investment package in a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor depended on the country being secure and at peace with its neighbors.

Unlike in past years, China is encouraging Pakistan down a path that it already appears tentatively willing to take. Islamabad’s relations with Kabul have improved dramatically since Ashraf Ghani assumed the presidency, and there is a far greater need to cooperate with the Afghan government since the Pakistani Taliban headquartered itself across the border: incidents such as the Peshawar school massacre now originate on Afghan soil. As a result, Pakistan’s army has signaled that it is leaning on the Afghan Taliban to enter peace talks. And there are indications from both the Taliban and the Afghan government that, if the process moves ahead, China may continue to play a role. Afghan officials have suggested Beijing as the venue for negotiations, and Taliban representatives have been quoted saying that they “trust China more than any other country.” This does not necessarily mean that it will be embroiled in the political complexities of navigating a deal. This is still a part of the world in which China lacks expertise, and its most important contribution is more likely to be in helping the talks to start and ensuring that potential spoilers do not undermine them. But given the huge difficulties there have been in getting even the basic preconditions for a reconciliation process in place, that would be no small accomplishment. Chinese officials are apprehensive about raising expectations, but the shift in the country’s status is a dramatic one. Within the space of a few years, China has moved from being a third tier actor in Afghanistan to being one of its greatest hopes for peace.