At one time China seemed to want a more prominent role in Afghanistan. It is happy to stay in the background now thanks to Pakistan.
China didn’t find mention in President Donald Trump’s speech on Afghanistan, but Beijing will be happy to be out of the spotlight. From hoping that it could play a major role in solving Afghanistan’s challenges, Beijing is now more comfortable slipping back into a second-tier role rather than taking on the burden of leadership.
When Afghanistan’s National Unity Government was formed in 2014, things were different. After years of sitting on the sidelines of a conflict in which it wanted neither the Taliban nor the United States and its allies to win, Beijing was drawn into the role of a mediator.
Beijing had several assets. It had a good relationship with the conflict’s lead protagonists, including the Taliban. It had the economic capacity to offer a credible peace dividend. Critically, it enjoyed a position of special influence with its “all-weather friend” Pakistan. This was also a rare security issue where the United States and China worked together relatively well, and did so with a clear objective: to get reconciliation talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban off the ground.
While China had significant economic interests in Afghanistan these were a secondary concern. China’s priority was a political settlement, which was the only way it saw all its objectives being achieved at once. There would be no safe haven for militants, no long-term US bases, no Taliban victory, Pakistan’s interests would be accommodated, and Chinese investments in the wider region would be stabilised.
At the time, Beijing’s diplomatic efforts, new financial commitments, and seeming willingness to cajole Pakistan to get the Taliban to the negotiating table were a rare positive addition. But when talks collapsed, any hopes that China (which prioritized stability) would mount pressure on Pakistan (which sought to maintain its militant proxies) were disappointed.
Beijing may have had reservations about Pakistan’s approach, but this was not an area where China was willing to exercise its leverage. The cost to the relationship, the likelihood that Pakistan would find a way to persist, and the unpredictable ramifications if Pakistan did cause a split with the movement it had fostered caused Beijing to pause.
China now faces a far more direct problem of terrorism in Afghanistan, with Uighur militant groups headquartered there rather than in their previous base in FATA. Consequently, China has sought to encourage the Afghan government to conduct operations in the north-east, and has even undertaken counter-terrorism missions in Badakhshan itself.
Moreover, the expanded role of Russia and Iran in support of the Taliban has complicated Chinese hopes that it can ultimately incentivise Pakistan to deliver them for reconciliation. Instead, it sees Russia’s actions further strengthening the hand of those who want to maintain the Taliban as an instrument of Pakistani security policy.
CPEC has also tilted the balance of priorities. Ties with Islamabad have long been more important for Beijing than relations with Kabul, but with its growing economic and strategic stake in Pakistan, the premium attached to Pakistan’s security is now exponentially higher.
China’s reaction to the new US strategy will be ambivalent. Elements in Trump’s speech, such as the continued US openness to reconciliation with the Taliban, will give Beijing some grounds for optimism. While it will have questions about the open-ended commitment to US military presence, China’s anxiety about a precipitate withdrawal is even greater than its unhappiness about the prospect of long-term US bases.
But the biggest cause for concern will be over the direction signaled on Pakistan. China will not want to see its partner’s economic, political or security space constrained, especially at the moment it has become the flagship for China’s Belt and Road initiative. Without explicitly confronting Washington, there will be areas where Beijing actively seeks to blunt the effectiveness of this aspect of US policy.
In other areas, China will be more constructive, continuing its modest efforts to help shore up the Afghan government, including with symbolically significant military aid, addressing the dire relationship between Kabul and Islamabad, and encouraging the Taliban to join peace talks. But any sense that Beijing is in a position to exercise a real regional leadership role has largely faded. It has become another actor in the pack that sees Afghanistan as a set of problems to be managed, rather than solved.
For India, the implications are mixed. New Delhi was always skeptical that China would actually bring its influence to bear constructively, especially if it came to putting pressure on its Pakistani friends. It was not particularly pleased with the privileged role Beijing appeared to have acquired in processes such as the Quadrilateral Coordination Group. But the reasons that the Afghan government had been so keen to draw China closer are the very reasons that should worry India if Beijing’s role reduces.
If the gaps that genuinely existed between Beijing and Islamabad close, or simply become immaterial to Chinese policy, Afghanistan risks becoming yet another front on which alignments harden and the tendencies towards a zero-sum competition grow.
Andrew Small is Senior Transatlantic Fellow, The German Marshall Fund of the United States. He wrote a chapter on Chinese policy in Afghanistan in the book titled “Afghanistan’s Regional Dilemmas: South Asia and Beyond.” (Orient BlackSwan 2016)