The role of trilateral talks between China, Afghanistan and Pakistan
The time-tested relationship between China and Pakistan has often raised hopes that the two neighboring countries could cooperate and initiate measures to stabilize their war-torn neighbor, Afghanistan.
Such expectations have remained unfulfilled primarily as there are also other important stakeholders, including some working at cross-purposes in the equation. Also, the Afghan conflict over more than four decades is so complex that ending it is a huge challenge.
On China’s initiative, trilateral meetings of their foreign ministers are being held since 2017 to discuss issues of mutual and regional interest and promote the Afghan peace process. The latest such meeting, the fourth since 2017, was hosted by Beijing via video link on June 3. The focus was on tackling the emerging situation following the withdrawal of US-led Nato forces from Afghanistan.
Afghanistan, China and Pakistan are concerned that things could get out of hand if intra-Afghan peace talks remain stalled. The rise in violence, more so after the start of US forces’ withdrawal from May 1, and the fall of several districts to the Taliban during this period is a major cause of worry for stakeholders.
US President Joe Biden’s decision to complete the withdrawal of American forces by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 militant attacks on US soil, triggered moves by certain countries to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t plunge into civil war. Though he delayed the pullout by over four months, lately the withdrawal has been expedited amid reports that half of the pullout has been completed and the rest will be done by July rather than September. This emboldened Taliban fighters, who had claimed victory after having forced the US to negotiate a peace agreement guaranteeing the exit of all foreign forces. Keeping the Afghan government out of the 18-month peace talks in Doha with the US also worked to the Taliban’s advantage as Kabul wasn’t part of the peace deal but was still required to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 government servicemen.
However, the claim about having achieved positive outcomes is debatable as relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan remain unfriendly due to deep mistrust on account of territorial disputes and support for each other’s political dissidents as well as armed groups.
The recent China-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral foreign ministers’ dialogue was chaired by China’s long-serving Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who is also a State Councillor, to emphasize Beijing’s readiness to continue playing a constructive role in facilitating the improvement of Islamabad-Kabul relations. Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi joined the dialogue online from their respective capitals.
It took the three countries 21 months to meet for the fourth time after having met earlier in Islamabad on September 7, 2019. Initiated by the Chinese government in 2017, the trilateral dialogue has been described by them as an important platform to enhance mutual trust and promote cooperation. However, the claim about having achieved positive outcomes is debatable as relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan remain unfriendly due to deep mistrust on account of territorial disputes and support for each other’s political dissidents as well as armed groups.
The joint statement, loaded with good intentions, focused on trilateral cooperation for the cause of peace, political and economic connectivity, and security and counter-terrorism. It pledged to deepen cooperation under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Regional Economic Cooperation Conference (RECCA), “Heart of Asia” Istanbul Process (HoA-IP) and other regional economic initiatives. Afghanistan was praised for making progress in the area of connectivity and using Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, developed with China’s assistance under the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, for Afghan transit trade.
The three sides agreed to advance practical cooperation to tackle Covid-19, implement the livelihood facility projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan, expand cooperation among their Red Cross and Red Crescent societies and undertake training programs in public health, connectivity, agricultural disaster education, youth exchanges, cultural relics and archaeology. As a long-term objective, large-scale projects in infrastructure and development including railway will be considered. Plans to extend CPEC to Afghanistan haven’t materialized due to insecurity in Afghanistan.
Islamabad, Kabul and Beijing agreed to jointly fight terrorism in all its forms and reject “double standards” in counter-terrorism so that no militant organization or individual uses their respective territory for activities against other countries. It was directed more at Afghanistan and Pakistan, which accuse each other of providing safe havens to their enemies. A pledge was made to redouble joint efforts against the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which poses a threat to China, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) using Afghanistan’s soil to carry out attacks in Pakistan, and Daesh that set up its Khorasan chapter in Afghanistan by drawing recruits from Afghan, Pakistani and other militants. They pledged to advance the related work after achieving positive progress in the first batch of projects under the trilateral MoU on cooperation in counter-terrorism.
The most important issue at the virtual meeting was to address, in the words of Chinese officials, the new uncertainties concerning Afghanistan’s domestic situation and regional security following the unilateral withdrawal of US-led Nato forces at a critical stage of Afghan peace and reconciliation process. China has offered to host the intra-Afghan peace talks, but Qatar continues to be the preferred venue for Taliban.
The key is to overcome Islamabad-Kabul distrust with Beijing’s mediation under the trilateral mechanism so that the three neighbors can work together to fight militancy and promote Afghan peace process.
- 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