China wears the mediator’s gown in the Af-Pak by Salman Rafi

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China wears the mediator’s gown in the Af-Pak  

Despite a high-level meeting between Pakistan’s General Bajwa, and Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani, relations between the two countries remain largely troubled and uneasy. Nothing else can testify this tension better than the fact it is China once again that intervened to ease down tension and engage both countries in both bi-lateral and tri-lateral platforms of both dialogue and economic connectivity.

Will the current phase of dialogue leave any durable impact on the regional situation is hard to guess, for the root of the problem between Pakistan and Afghanistan go a lot deeper than mere bi-lateral tie.

On the one hand, the US is in the middle of applying its new strategy to Afghanistan, and on the other, Afghanistan is welcoming India’s role in the war-torn country’s economic reconstruction. While the two factors contribute to Pakistan’s reasons for engaging with the Afghan government, Afghanistan’s fast changing geo-political dynamics also mean that Pakistan is highly unlikely to play the lone-game. Therefore, an important reason why we are seeing China’s increasing involvement in Afghanistan is that Pakistan wants to counter-balance Indian and US influence in Afghanistan by facilitating China, as also Russia to some extent, in Afghanistan by opening them up to the Taliban and removing their doubts about the Taliban’s plans to export their ideology to China or Central Asia.

Notwithstanding Pakistan’s position in the region, it cannot still be said that China doesn’t have its own reasons to increase its involvement. For one thing, peace in the Af-Pak region is crucial for the success of CPEC and the New Silk Roads project. For another, the Islamic State’s increasing presence in Afghanistan is a big threat to Chinese interests as it fears extremist infiltration from Afghanistan into China.

Therefore, if ISIS is to be stopped, China’s security establishment seems to believe, it must be contained away from its borders. Hence, the forward deployment of the Chinese military in Afghanistan, where China confirmed in late February that it was participating in “joint counterterrorism operations” although at the same time a spokesman announced there were no “military operations” inside the country.

It was again in February that the chief of the Chinese army, Fang Fenghui, announced roughly $70 million of military aid to support the Afghan government’s anti-terrorism efforts. Chinese president Xi Jinping reiterated China’s commitment during the visit of Abdullah in May. At the beginning of July, the Afghan forces received the first batch of Chinese military equipment as well.

Notwithstanding military co-operation, Chinese involvement is unlikely to transform into direct military deployment. Therefore, the emphasis it has been putting is on bi-lateral and tri-lateral dialogue between Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to pave the way for peace through joint Pak-Afghan action against groups like Daesh, and engage in negotiations with the Taliban on the same basis.

In this regard, the above mention meeting between Pakistani and Afghan high officials is just another example of how China is intervening time and again diplomatically in the region. There are other examples as well.

For instance, prior to the said meeting in Kabul, officials from Pakistan, Afghanistan and China met in Kabul and held talks under a trilateral framework to bring peace and development in the war-torn country. The second meeting of the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan (CAP) Practical Cooperation Dialogue was held in Kabul from September 26 to 27.

According to the official statement issued, “the three sides agreed that the aim of the trilateral practical cooperation is to support the peaceful reconstruction and economic development of Afghanistan.”

This emphasis on reconstruction and development partly owes its justification to America’s emphasis on finding a military solution by defeating the Taliban as well as the Islamic State in Afghanistan. China, of course, sees things differently, and broadly disagrees with the US policy of keeping Afghanistan militarized for an indefinite period of time.  

Another important reason for why China is steadily upping its role in Afghanistan is the country’s view that the US doesn’t have any strategy to establish peace, nor can it reconcile Pakistan and Afghanistan — something without which no dialogue can take place, or peace ultimately established. 

However, notwithstanding the crucial significance of China’s mediatory role, the Af-Pak problem is going to turn out to be a tough riddle for China to resolve, for the crucial issue between Pakistan and Afghanistan remains cross-border militancy, and the fact that Afghanistan wants Pakistan to change its erstwhile relations with the Taliban.

That Afghanistan wants to use the opportunity offered by the Chinese to force a change in Pakistan’s Taliban policy is evident from the way Afghanistan’s incumbent president had travelled to Beijing right after his election in 2014 and impressed upon the Chinese authorities to ask Pakistan to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiation table.

While this effort was followed by the establishment of now dysfunctional Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), the issue remains very much alive and its resolution is still the only key to peace in the region.

What adds more to the problems China might have to face is the fact that the Afghan territory close to Chinese border is under the domination of Afghanistan’s non-Taliban and non-Pashtun militant groups and warlords. While China cannot afford to let this region slip out of its hands, China still has to deal with the fact that some of these non-Pashtun groups are coalition partners in the Afghan government and that most of them are deeply sceptical, if not completely opposed, to dialogue and reconciliation with Pakistan, including its ultimate outcome, which might mean the Taliban’s entry into the mainstream political system.

At the same time, China cannot abandon Afghanistan, for the stakes are too high, ranging from direct security threats to materialization of Silk Road projects. It is, therefore, China rather than the US that appears more determined to break the logjam between Afghanistan and Pakistan on the one hand, and between the Taliban and the Kabul regime on the other.

What adds additional credence to Chinese role is the fact that China is carrying billions of dollars that, if invested in the Af-Pak, can go a long way in transforming its political and economic landscape. Time is now for both countries to prioritise reconciliation to harness this opportunity fully to their advantage.

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