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Generosities and hesitancies in recent China-Afghanistan relations

Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry lately publicised that China was funding a Mountain Garrison in the north-eastern mountainous areas between the two countries. The Ministry said that it had already started working on staffing and establishing process. The announcement came after a meeting between Xu Qiliang, the Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission and Afghanistan’s Minister of Defence, Tariq Shah Bahrami in Beijing late December 2017 and recently reiterated by the Chinese deputy ambassador to Kabul. As the security cooperation between the two countries has been ‘reaching unprecedented levels during the last few years, this development was considered as another step towards further enhancing the security cooperation.

In another development, the media found that a meeting on Afghan peace process was being planned in China. Previously, China’s Foreign Minister during the first round of the trilateral meeting with his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts proposed that China and Pakistan was considering the extension of China Pakistan Economic Coordiro (CPEC) to Afghanistan. This offer is considered as an important political support that China offers to Afghanistan. China also pushed Pakistan to join this regional development and connectivity project.

Afghanistan’s National Unity Government (NUG) in spite of the country’s widespread dependency on overwhelming support and presence of the US and NATO, welcomes aid, assistance and cooperation offered by different regional and international donors. The President is also promoting Afghanistan’s integration into different major regional connectivity projects. However, it still seems difficult for the government to instantly and confidently take action on the generous offers come from China. Although Pakistani and Indian media recently echoed the subject of possibility of Afghanistan’s inclusion into CPEC, but

Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister Chang Wanquan (2nd R) meets the visiting Afghan Minister of Defense Tariq Shah Bahrami (2nd L) in Beijing on Dec 26, 2017. Photo: (mod.gov.cn/Li Xiaowei)

the Afghan government subsided from giving any comment or formal stance. Even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t publicise the promises of the Chinese Foreign Minister to his Afghan counterpart.

Both, the direct military support and the offer for joining a significant regional connectivity project came after launching the new US strategy for the region, that is believed “would set a new tough tone on China”. But China is watching the developments with cool head and rejected any rash reaction. Moreover, the U.S. President Donald Trump criticised Islamabad for what he called ‘Lies and Deceit’ with sheltering terrorists. The developments followed by the rejection of Pakistan to renew a full year refugee status for some 1.4 million Afghan refugees. The decision pressurized the Afghan government and by extension the US presence in Afghanistan. Reactions from the both regional actors showed confidence in China’s regional approach.

Founding and supporting an independent military garrison next to her doorways and inviting Afghanistan for joining a geopolitically significant regional connectivity project, China apparently enters to a new stage of her involvement in Afghanistan and the region. It is at a time when different regional and international actors are waiting for the outcomes of the protracted disturbing proxies’ play in the region.

China continually expressed concerns over the increasing activities of different terrorist and fundamentalist Islamic insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan and the region. Especially, Turkmenistan Islamic Movement, TIM and other extremist groups that China considers pose threats to her Muslim majority areas, already depressed by the Chinese government. China also expresses concerns over the widening wave of insecurities in the northern parts of Afghanistan which is thought to be posing possible threats to the Central Asian republics. For this reason, China continually supported Afghanistan’s observer role in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) throughout last decade. The recent interest of China shows that addressing the concerns over the insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan and central Asia with posing direct threat to China on one hand and gaining a new mediator role in the region on the other could be counted behind the new Chinese investment in Afghanistan. Therefore, researchers are convinced that the military base in Badakhshan may emerge just as the beginning of the new Chinese security saga.

China’s involvement in Afghanistan was not only eyed by the strongest western presence in the country, but also by the regional actors. India in past few years publicly expressed concerns about the presence of Chinese troops in the north-eastern parts of Afghanistan. When the spokesperson of the Afghan defense ministry was asked about India’s possible concerns, he seemed like he was not expecting such issue to be raised and reiterated that the move was not against the interest of any country. Also, following the announcement of the possible extension of CPEC to Afghanistan a blame game has been started between the two traditional regional rivals, Pakistan and India. Even, recently India and the United States “together came out publicly against China’s debt financing, connectivity projects, and human rights record“. Studying the regional context suggests that China closely watches how the regional competitions play out.

Although China always supported and encouraged Afghanistan to participate in major regional connectivity projects including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and wants Afghanistan included even in bigger projects, Afghanistan didn’t define a concrete foreign policy towards her. Most Afghans are convinced now that China is serious and honest in the efforts for fighting terrorism, even if it comes to pressurising their friendly Pakistan for fighting this phenomenon. China also played a mediator role between Afghanistan and Pakistan disputes as the country was a party to the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) involving the US, Afghanistan, and Pakistan which tried to mediate talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Even, the country tried to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and its armed opposition. But none of China’s unprecedented efforts for deepening its influence over the region caused any apparent reaction of the western counterparts.

China seems to have serious interest for taking action on the stabilization efforts in Afghanistan and the region. Their long term intention for regional connectivity and economic projects can gradually and effectively weaken US influence across the entire region. The recent developments show that China confidently dares more advances towards a new role that the country and its allies in Shanghai could hope for since years. Addressing the insurgency and terrorism in a more practical and cooperative way and initiating infrastructure corridors linking the region and potentially Turkey to China and Russia can positively affect the current way of cooperation in the region. Whatever the consequences for other global or local actors through the region, China confidently acts on some major orchestration of geopolitics, shapes the region, while countries like Afghanistan wouldn’t hesitate to benefit of its generosity.

ADSO-Analysis board

May 2018

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