China’s role, and stakes, in the Afghan peace process

China’s role, and stakes, in the Afghan peace process


It is rare for the Chinese government to publicly acknowledge a visit paid by Afghan Taliban representatives, but recently, amid a growing number of countries who have established contact and held talks with the armed group, it has admitted just that.
Taliban delegations have reportedly visited China on a few occasions in the past as well, but the visits were never formally acknowledged, and in Qatar, Chinese diplomats have met Taliban representatives.
On June 20, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson disclosed that the Chinese government had recently hosted a Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, head of the Qatar-based Taliban political commission and deputy leader of the group, as part of its efforts to promote peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan and facilitate intra-Afghan dialogue. 
The spokesperson didn’t give details about the dates of the visit or the Chinese officials who met the delegation, but Taliban sources said the visit took place in mid-June and that meetings were held with high-ranking Chinese officials. 
Terming the exchange of views ‘beneficial,’ the spokesperson said the two sides agreed to cooperate on seeking a political settlement in Afghanistan. In particular, it was mentioned that the two sides discussed counter-terrorism issues. 
The fact is, China has been keen to seek cooperation from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other neighboring countries to tackle the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which Beijing alleges is an Islamic extremist group of Uighur Muslims from its western Xinjiang province. Beijing has held the ETIM responsible for acts of terrorism in China and has launched a controversial program to re-educate and ‘de-radicalize’ Chinese Uighur Muslims. 
For the Taliban, the visit to China was of immense importance as such engagements contribute to the group’s legitimacy. Mullah Abdul Salam Hanafi, deputy head of the Taliban political commission, issued an audio statement to emphasize the importance of the 13-member Taliban delegation’s visit to China and to explain how they were provided a special plane for travel and invited to meet high-ranking Chinese officials. 
He said the Afghan peace process, the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and China’s economic assistance to Kabul were discussed.

Beijing enjoys the goodwill of both the Afghan government and the Taliban. It has supplied light weapons to Kabul, which is also eager to secure Chinese investment and economic assistance.

Rahimullah Yusufzai

It was in early 2015 that China’s role in promoting the Afghan peace process became visible when it hosted a meeting between a Taliban delegation and Afghan government officials in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. The same year, Chinese diplomats were present alongside US officials, as observers in a subsequent meeting between Afghan government functionaries and Taliban representatives in Murree near Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. 
Later, this became part of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group that included Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the US, and made unsuccessful efforts to help end the Afghan conflict. 
This is the first time China has become involved as a peacemaker in an external conflict, that too, an intractable one stretched out for more than four decades. 
In 2014, China appointed a senior diplomat as special representative for Afghanistan to focus attention on its neighboring country. This was because Beijing was concerned that Afghan and foreign militants based in Afghanistan, particularly in areas in the north bordering China through the Wakhan corridor, could infiltrate the border and influence Chinese Muslims. There had also been reports of robust Chinese security patrolling on its border with Afghanistan. 
In recent years, China has backed almost all Afghan peace initiatives, including Taliban-US talks in Qatar and the intra-Afghan meetings in Moscow hosted by Russia.
Since the groups’ years in power in the mid-1990’s, China has maintained contacts with the Taliban and Chinese diplomats were among the few given an audience by the Taliban movement’s reclusive founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, in Kandahar.
Beijing enjoys the goodwill of both the Afghan government and the Taliban. It has supplied light weapons to Kabul, which is also eager to secure Chinese investment and economic assistance. 
In fact, China has committed to investing in Afghanistan’s copper, oil and gas sectors, though insecurity has hampered Beijing’s efforts to continue working and invest more. China also offered to extend the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan and undertake infrastructure projects once peace is restored there.
Due to its friendly relations with Pakistan and growing political and economic ties with Afghanistan, China is attempting to bring the two countries closer by using the platform of a tripartite commission where mutual disputes are discussed. 
However, Chinese initiatives have attracted less attention than its interaction with the Taliban. 
It is true that Beijing has built some influence with the Taliban and could use it in a positive manner to promote the Afghan peace process. But China alone cannot end the Afghan conflict despite its friendly relations with the Afghan government and the Taliban. It can however, play an important role in facilitating the peace process, undertaking infrastructure and development projects, and investing in mines and mineral sectors.
– Rahimullah Yusufzai is a senior political and security analyst in Pakistan. He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and twice interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1998.
Twitter: @rahimyusufzai1

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