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After the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan: The China Option

ARTICLES - 17 October 2019

Negotiations between the U.S. and the Afghan Taliban, with the aim to reach an agreement (initially by September 1st), broke down on September 9th. U.S. President Donald Trump had declared in a tweet that peace talks with the Taliban were "dead" and added it was not the U.S. military’s role to secure the world. The planned agreement included a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops. In return, the Taliban would have provided security guarantees for a post-withdrawal Afghanistan and a ceasefire. 14,000 U.S. troops are currently operating in Afghanistan. Despite the halt to negotiations, the U.S. still plans to send home as many as 5,400 by 2020. 

The U.S. withdrawal, both from the agreement as well as literally from the country, comes at a time of high insecurity, amid presidential elections that were held in Afghanistan on September 28th. An estimated 2.6 million Afghans voted despite threats from the Taliban against voting stations. The two front-runners, acting President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, both claimed victory before ballots were even tallied. Results are expected on October 19th. If neither candidate wins a majority, a runoff would take place, similar to the situation during the 2014 election. Back then, the two candidates only came to a power-sharing agreement due to the mediation efforts of the U.S. Whether such an agreement would be possible today is uncertain, meaning an unknown period of political fragility lies ahead of Afghanistan. Taliban insurgents that rule more of the country than at any time before the withdrawal of international troops in 2012/13 could exploit this fragility.

China has a strong self-interest in the peace process: Beijing’s main concern is that terrorist violence in Afghanistan will spill over either to Central Asia and then into its Western Xinjiang province or into Pakistan.

With this situation, it is crucial to continue working towards a peace agreement instead of letting the country further slide into violence. Since the U.S. is apparently retreating from engagement, the question is whether other stakeholders could step in to broker peace. As I wrote in an earlier piece, countries such as Germany have already been engaged to push for an intra-Afghan peace process (between the Taliban and the Afghan government), and China also attempted to use diplomacy to improve security in Afghanistan, focusing mainly on peacemaking and mediation with the Taliban. Russia too launched a regional meeting on Afghanistan involving the Central Asian states. 

China’s role is especially interesting as it is rather unusual for Beijing to engage in peacemaking and mediation efforts. Nevertheless, stability in Afghanistan is crucial for China. China has a strong self-interest in the peace process: Beijing’s main concern is that terrorist violence in Afghanistan will spill over either to Central Asia and then into its Western Xinjiang province or into Pakistan. In Pakistan, China has invested in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), its flagship Silk Road project (Belt and Road Initiative). China therefore needs a stable environment to maintain stability within and beyond its borders as well as to pursue its interests.

Recently, on September 22nd, a Taliban delegation headed by the chief of the Taliban's diplomatic office in Doha, Abdul Ghani Baradar, traveled to Beijing to meet with China’s special representative for Afghanistan, Deng Xijun, and discussed how to promote the peace and reconciliation process. According to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, China expressed hopes that "the U.S. and the Afghan Taliban will keep up the momentum for negotiation and support intra-Afghan dialogue for national reconciliation, peace and stability at an early date. China will continue to play a constructive role to this end." Taliban representatives visited China before and held talks with government officials to discuss the Afghan peace process and counter-terror issues. As the U.S. withdraws, this could be a sign that China is stepping up diplomatic efforts to position itself as a key actor to drive the Afghan peace process in the future. Indeed, China offers the potential to act as a broker, being the closest ally to Pakistan, which is crucial to the negotiations too and which is likely the reason why the Taliban are apparently ready to talk to China.

But what kind of peace can China broker in Afghanistan? China’s interest in Afghanistan is stability, in the sense that it should be secure enough not to fall into the hands of radical Islamist militants that could threaten the regional stability. This means China is less interested in a prosperous Afghanistan, and even less so with regards to the rule of law or women’s rights. Even though China has evolved into a notable player in Afghanistan in the areas of economic and humanitarian assistance, this has done little to change the situation on the ground. China also does not appear to be using its vast economic power to become a provider of public goods.

Afghanistan could theoretically be a central hub for the Silk Road Economic Belt by connecting Central Asia with South Asia.

Afghanistan could theoretically be a central hub for the Silk Road Economic Belt (the Belt and Road Initiative’s land component) by connecting Central Asia with South Asia. Even if Beijing promotes BRI cooperation with Afghanistan, it has in fact avoided large-scale infrastructure projects there. China’s engagement in Afghanistan will therefore likely focus only on practical needs. 

This narrow focus is a source of criticism in the U.S. This recently occurred during a congressional hearing in Washington at the beginning of September, when U.S. officials sharply criticized China for its lack of economic assistance to Afghan reconstruction efforts. How important is it for China to be seen as engaging Afghanistan in the BRI’s context recently became apparent: Mid-September, China and the U.S. were deadlocked over a U.N. resolution to renew the U.N. mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) because Beijing signaled it would cast a veto due to a missing reference to its BRI. Shortly after, China withdrew its threat of a veto and the UN Security Council unanimously extended its mission in Afghanistan with a compromised text, negotiated by Germany and Indonesia. The text now does not mention "any specific initiative" but the promotion of "regional cooperation and connectivity"

China’s role as a mediator and confidence-builder may be crucial and should be encouraged. However, Afghanistan watchers should lower their expectations about what China can achieve in the Afghan conflict beyond supporting dialogue formats – it will not be replacing the U.S. 

 

Copyright : WANG ZHAO / AFP

 

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