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A burden or an opportunity?

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezFebruary 12, 2015

China has offered to support the Afghan government in reconciling with the Taliban. But while Beijing brings major diplomatic and economic weight to the table, the prospects of success are slim, as Andrew Small tells DW.

Chinas Außenminister Wang Yi in Pakistan
Image: A. Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

Beijing has said it is ready to support Kabul in facilitating reconciliation discussions with militant Islamic groups, including the Taliban. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in Islamabad on February 12 that "broad-based and inclusive national reconciliation" was vital to sustained stability in the South Asian country. The statements come just weeks afte members of the Taliban visited Beijing, and a visit to China last October by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Chinese officials claim that their country is the only state other than Pakistan which has been able to maintain contact with Taliban leadership. Analysts agree that Beijing holds an important position when it comes to brokering reconciliation talks as China is a country trusted by both the Pakistani and Afghan governments, and is also accepted by the Afghan Taliban as mediator.

In a DW interview, Andrew Small, a fellow with the Asia program of German Marshall Fund of the United States, says Beijing's top priority is to ensure that Islamic extremists do not target China and do not back Uighur militants. However, he adds that the prospects of China's success are slim and that Beijing is now far more exposed to political risks.

Andrew Small
Small: 'Beijing has become increasingly worried about the implications of the West's drawdown in Afghanistan'Image: GMF

DW: Why is China offering support with reconciliation negotiations just now?

Andrew Small: In the past few years, Beijing has become increasingly worried about the implications of the West's drawdown in Afghanistan. It fears that a deteriorating situation there could have destabilizing implications for Xinjiang, China's restive northwestern province, and for the wider region, impacting on China's ambitions for a "Silk Road economic belt" and risking a proxy war between India and Pakistan.

In the 1990s, Afghanistan was a safe haven for Uighur militants, and Beijing is concerned that the situation will repeat itself. It sees the only solution to this is a political settlement between different factions in Afghanistan.

Given the failure of previous reconciliation efforts and Beijing's unique relationship with some of the key external parties to the conflict, especially Pakistan, it has felt obliged to take on a larger political role in helping to forge a solution.

How has Kabul reacted to this "offer of support?"

Kabul is positively disposed towards the offer. China first formally proposed this at the "Heart of Asia" ministerial conference in Beijing last year, and had been sounding various parties out informally for some time before that. From the Afghan government's perspective, Chinese involvement offers the best prospect of ensuring that Pakistan doesn't play a spoiler role in any reconciliation process.

Kabul hopes that Islamabad will be more cautious about undermining the talks if its closest friend and sponsor is their leading broker, as opposed to a purely Afghan process or a US-backed initiative.

Some in the Afghan government remain skeptical about reconciliation talks with the Taliban in general but drawing China into a greater political and economic role in Afghanistan is a principal objective for Ghani's new government.

What can China bring to the negotiation table to facilitate the reconciliation process?

China has several assets. It is the only external power to have a good working relationship with all internal and external parties to the conflict – the Afghan government, the Taliban, former Northern Alliance forces, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Central Asian states, and the West - making it a rare neutral broker.

The partial exception to that is India, but China has been working closely with New Delhi to reassure it that the two sides share concerns in Afghanistan. It also claims to be the only country to have maintained continuous ties with the Taliban leadership since 9/11 other than Pakistan itself, giving it an unusual level of political familiarity with the insurgents. And Beijing can bring its substantial diplomatic and economic weight to bear to support the process.

The potential for China to make serious economic commitments in specific parts of the country means that it can effectively offer a peace dividend to the different parties. If need be, it can also exert pressure on countries that have been historically unsupportive of a reconciliation process. Still, this is not a region where China has taken on this sort of political role in the past, so it will proceed cautiously – it is well outside its comfort zone here.

What does Beijing expect to gain from facilitating these discussions?

China would have preferred to see others take on this task, but there wasn't much sign of a process that was likely to work without their involvement. The prospects of success are slim, especially in the short term, and Beijing is far more exposed to political risks by doing this than if it had been able to sit things out.

There is some advantage to being in a position to steer and influence discussions but really the only benefit will come if the reconciliation process is actually successful, helping to stabilize China's western periphery and heading off the risks of a wider deterioration of security in the region. This is more of a burden than an opportunity for Beijing.

How would you describe China's relationship with Islamic extremists and specifically the Taliban?

China's dealing with Islamic extremists vary, group by group. With some, such as the Pakistani Taliban or "Islamic State," the relationship is clearly hostile. Others, such as al Qaeda, have seen political advantage in avoiding a too conflictual relationship with China. With a number of groups though, including the Afghan Taliban, China has maintained a direct relationship and figured out some working arrangements.

Beijing's top priority is to ensure that Islamic extremists do not target China and do not provide backing to Uighur militants. In return, it offers some degree of political legitimacy, some money, and even some arms.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (L) meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) at the Great Hall of the People November 8, 2014 in Beijing, China (Photo:Parker Song-Pool/Getty Images)
Small: 'Pakistan will be crucial to these negotiations'Image: Getty Images/P. Song

China reached an agreement along these lines directly with Mullah Omar during the Taliban's period of rule in Afghanistan, which it has largely maintained since then. Beijing has continued to hold secret meetings with the Taliban during their period of exile in Pakistan, which have intensified in recent years.

At the same time, China does not want to see a return to Taliban rule and was somewhat relieved when the last Taliban government fell. Whatever deals Beijing reaches with them, Islamic extremist forces in the region inevitably act as a source of inspiration and practical support for militancy in China itself. Beijing is particularly concerned about the new generation Taliban which it fears the Quetta Shura may not ultimately be able to control.

What role is Pakistan expected to play during these negotiations?

Pakistan will be crucial to these negotiations, and for all the language around an "Afghan-owned, Afghan-led" process, it is partly owned by Pakistan too.With the Taliban leadership based out of Pakistan and backed by Islamabad, this is inevitably the case. Pakistani officials accompanied the Taliban delegation to Beijing, have brokered all of China's meetings with the Taliban, and China's involvement means that they are effectively guaranteed a seat at the table. At the same time, Beijing's expanded role puts them under some pressure.

Previously, Pakistan was able to derail talks with no real repercussions, and China virtually outsourced its policy in Afghanistan to them. Now Beijing is making clear that, although it appreciates Pakistan's interests, it wants to see its leadership help stabilize the country to support China's interests, too.

How will neighboring countries and the US likely react to China's potential future role in Afghanistan?

The US has been urging China to take on a greater role in Afghanistan for some time. The two sides share interests there to an unusual degree and this is one part of the world where Chinese assertiveness looks like a good thing from Washington's perspective.

China's dealing with Islamic extremists vary, group by group, says SmallImage: dapd

Afghanistan is perhaps the single foreign policy area on which the two sides are cooperating most closely. India retains its suspicions about China but would clearly welcome Beijing taking its concerns about militancy there more seriously and potentially restraining aspects of Pakistan's behavior.

Of course, in the longer-term, as in East Asia, Afghanistan and the wider region could turn into another zone of strategic competition with China if everything stabilizes. But in the short-to-mid term almost all parties are keen to see Beijing take on this burden. No-one has any illusions about the likelihood of China succeeding where others have struggled but greater Chinese involvement is genuinely something that offers potential benefits to every party.

Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow with the Asia program of German Marshall Fund of the United States and author of the book "The China-Pakistan Axis - Asia's New Geopolitics." You can follow him on Twitter @ajwsmall.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.