Aghanistan and US flags
Before we dissect the Chinese response to American initiatives in Afghanistan, it is important to understand Beijing’s interests. First comes the security vis a vis neighbour Afghanistan. A look at India’s map reveals a short border with Afghanistan which used to be 112 km long. But Pakistan occupied the territory from India and ceded it to Beijing. It is China which now shares with Afghanistan a border adjacent to its restive Muslim majority province of Xinxiang. China is apprehensive of Islamic fundamentalism spreading from both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pak army’s cooperation on China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) provides assurance from Pakistan side but what about Kabul? America’s extended military presence in Afghanistan is a relief to China since it helps Xinjiang’s security and stability by keeping militants engaged. But that must fall short of permanent army base.
Second, America’s overtly military approach through ‘battlefield victory’ over the Taliban hopes that moderate elements realise a stalemate ‘at some point’ and come to the negotiating table. China, on the contrary, seeks a ‘diplomatic’ approach relegating a role for Pakistan to deliver the Taliban to the negotiating table. Total decimation of Taliban could yield America a highly disproportionate power balance in the region to the detriment of Beijing. On the contrary a political solution eclipses American influence in the region by retaining Taliban’s relevance politically. That explains why Beijing is crowing non-stop for a political solution and claims to prevail over Pakistan to adopt a different approach.
Beijing in cohorts with Moscow and Teheran has been wooing Taliban for almost a year. So keeping Taliban on the table serves Beijing immensely. So far it was posing as Pakistan’s saviour; now adding Afghanistan to the list will be a double whammy for Beijing strategically.
Third, China is spreading thick and fast its One Belt One Road (OBOR) or Belt Road Initiative (BRI) of which China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) forms a part. China has literally run over Pakistan and the neighbouring Afghanistan naturally comes within its trade radar for expanding trade interests through BRI. Since Trump is keen to share the cost of Afghan war, the potentials of connectivity to Afghanistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Chinese investments to revive Afghan economy may interest Trump. Moreover, vast reserves of rare minerals in Afghanistan beacon Beijing.
Fourth, Beijing bats for an ‘important role’ for Pakistan by strongly defending its counterterrorism efforts. Trump abandoning and drifting away from Pakistan to get too close to India as the US’ strategic partner in Afghanistan irks China but the Asian giant avoids frontal attack on Trump, preferring constructive criticism instead.
China wants the US to leverage the ‘all-weather friendship’ between China and Pakistan to influence the latter’s policies and bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Left alone as free, radical China could act ‘the spoiler.’ It has been operating in Afghanistan for some time without getting noticed. Exposing China on Afghanistan is the only thing Trump’s policy must be credited for.
The Russia-China Pakistan initiatives are taking shape through trilateral Afghanistan-China-Pakistan Foreign Minister’s meeting. The US partnering China could wean it away from Russia and Iran. Trump’s November visit to China could catapult Sino-American relationship to a new level.
China is desperate to obtain a foothold in Afghanistan and work with the US by positing multiple common interests. It wants to become a bridge between the two to secure its geopolitical hold in Central Asia. How can it allow America to single-handedly milch Afghanistan while it is simply reduced to a spectator?
Trump’s rhetoric against Pakistan misguided India to think of itself as a big winner. Truth is, in reality, China is poised to gain the maximum from the US decision to linger in Afghanistan.