Since 2017, US, China and Russia have been spearheading the peace talks in Afghanistan. Now the United States pulls back, who next? China or Russia? Since Russia has already burnt its fingers, it is least likely to vie for the pie. That leaves China as the next prospective to fill the gap? Beijing has been voicing facilitating talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Beijing comes without the historical baggage of other apparent major power dynamics, and aside from the seventy six kilometer Sino Afghan border, China’s economic clout, coupled with its considerable influence over Islamabad, could make it seem a more reliable mediator to the parties involved.
Or does the story has a twist, given the resource rich Afghanistan provinces. Crucial to all is this is the fact that Pakistan’s support for the Taliban has been crucial to the Afghanistan’s principal terrorist organization’s strength .
Has the Taliban been clandestinely cultivated in last two decades by Pakistan Army at the behest of the Chinese?
Blatant Fact Check
First, it is not clear whether peace is possible. The Taliban have made no clear statements about the conditions they would accept for a peaceful settlement with their fellow Afghans, nor do they have a track record of working with other political forces, let alone other Afghanis.
Secondly, there is an outcome far worse than the status quo, namely a return to the total civil war that consumed Afghanistan as badly as the war with the Russians and something that could follow a breakdown in negotiations. If the US wane away, those with horrible memories of life under the Taliban, will fight on. That disaffected group would include sum total of Afghanistan’s minorities, which together comprise a majority of the Afghan population.
Both these facts put together, do not exactly give out the rosy picture. Infact a withdrawal shall forever diminish the stature of US as any serious player in world peace, in present state of affairs.
China in Afghanistan
Historically, China has regarded Afghanistan as a neighbor wielding little diplomatic significance. In 1950 the then Kingdom of Afghanistan was one of the first countries to recognize the Communist regime of Mao Zedong, and five years later established diplomatic ties with China. However, up until 2001, political and economic cooperation between the two countries remained insignificant. It was only after the establishment of the provisional government led by President Hamid Karzai in 2001, that bilateral relations between China and Afghanistan began to initiate, mostly not military in nature.
Apparently, China expressed no interest in joining the post 2001, US led war effort in Afghanistan either, wanting to depict itself, as disengaged from the realms of military effort, political reconciliation and economic reconstruction. Excellent ploy to purportedly avoid being labeled as the “subordinate partner” of the western coalition, however also to not be counted as having a strategic/economic interest in the region.
Hence like India, China kept its tone to development of the region.
Unlike India, China fostered its influence and direction of its intended discourse, using proxy as Pakistan.
However in garb of a non obtrusive entity, China’s lack of commitment to the cause of managing conflict in Afghanistan by military means, has been widely criticized for free-riding on the stabilization efforts of the US led forces, while it expanded its resource exploration ventures in the country.
Afghanistan is also home to a vast natural resource repository, from rare earth elements to copper deposits, iron ore, gold, lithium and more. Afghanistan’s rich mineral resource base, if managed adeptly, has the potential to be a substitute for foreign aid, and reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on donor countries.
China’s involvement in Afghanistan begin with the investments made by Chinese firms to extract Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth, which is valued at about $1 trillion by the United States Geological Survey and $3 trillion by Afghanistan’s Minister of Mines. In 2007, Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper Corporation (JCCL) agreed to make the single largest foreign investment in Afghanistan to date $4.4 billion, when they won a tender to develop what geologists believe is the world’s second largest undeveloped copper deposit at Aynak in Logar Province, 35 kilometers southeast of Kabul, China’s National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and its Afghan partner, Watan Oil & Gas, secured the rights to three oil blocks in the provinces of Sari-i-Pul and Faryab in northwestern Afghanistan, which CNPC expects to invest $400 million initially to develop. In 2016 Beijing and Kabul signed a Memorandum of Understanding. China has reportedly pledged at least $100 million in funding. In September 2016, a first direct freight train from China reached the Afghan border town of Hairatan. An air corridor linking Kabul and the Chinese city of Urumqi has also been launched under the BRI.
China is actively bidding to be that country, to barter Afghanistan’s mineral rich regions with token debt ridden infrastructure. In case of China that should come easy, given its readiness, to take bribery route to lure susceptible leadership, in getting a financially unviable infrastructure in someone else’s laps.
There have also been multiple bilateral meetings between Chinese officials and the Taliban in recent years. These discussions were secret and undisclosed by the Chinese government. But, in June last year, Beijing publicly announced that it had received a Taliban delegation led by deputy Mullah Baradar. Hence it is evident, that amongst US, Russia, China, it is China that holds the future to manage Afghanistan’s running, and has very tactfully propped Taliban, using Pakistan Army’s clout to effect it.
However to be influential, and close to the Afghanistan government, it wants a regime which is conducive to its Modus Operandi. That backdoor key is with Pakistan Army and the manner in which it has its relations and links in the Taliban.
BRI or CPEC Tributary
Extension to Afghanistan or route to pilfer resources
As is evident, China in its BRI land route(in Red), has always effectively kept Afghanistan out of it. However the CPEC is adjacent to it and an lateral tributary connectivity can only be possible. This is also plain to see , China understand it may have less significant trade with Afghanistan, however Infrastructure in lieu of Rich mineral resource pool is what it aims at.
China effectively, will set up processing plants and factories in bordering Pakistan,(the area being equally unstable, however managed by Pakistan Army) of course raw materials sourced from next door Afghanistan, skilled manpower of China being given employment, daily labor being the hapless Pakistanis, and the colonization story of China shall finally take true shape.
China has generally over the years, eschewed a leadership role in Afghanistan, preferring to work with foreign partners, which do not directly lend to Chinese bankrolls. Few projects, including the Five Nations Railway and Lapis Lazuli Corridor, are jointly financed by China and multilateral lending institutions such as the Asian Development Bank.
However the debt trap diplomacy, the only one China is effective in, will result in the same natural wealth and strategic location pushing the country deeper into chaos, exacerbating corruption, fueling insurgency by way of illegal mining, and delaying economic development.
If China is able to secure a position of preponderance in Afghanistan, after the withdrawal of American forces from the country, where it is accorded considerable diplomatic significance by the Afghans, it will become even better placed given the Pakistan-Taliban nexus, than others in terms of tapping into the wealth of natural resources, and shall capitalize on Afghanistan’s geography, to its advantage in terms of its economic colonization.
Knowing this, is it novice on our part to imagine US shall ever abandon Afghanistan into hands of the Chinese. Or is it a tactical withdrawal, akin to the recent one in South East Asia and South China Sea by Trump, to tide over the September US elections. Phased withdrawal over 18 months leaves lot to be read between the lines. Time shall tell.
06 Mar 20/Friday Written By: Fayaz