Dialogue January-March, 2012, Volume 13 No. 3
China and Afghan Transformation
By the time this article is published several new developments may have taken place in the search for a genuine peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. No one expects an ideal solution. But even a reasonable state of affairs in the country still seems elusive despite periodic encouraging sounds from the USA and NATO. The main challenge to a comprehensive solution in Afghanistan is the different strategies of the main stake holders to use the country for their own strategic advantage.
China is a signatory to the November 02 and the December 5-6, 2011 declarations of Istambul and Bonn conferences on Afghanistan. It has an abiding interest in Afghanistan, sharing a 76 kms vital land border with the country. Western China bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Central Asian countries is virtually land locked. A dramatically resurgent China, apart from its membership of the UNSC Permanent-5, has acquired several feathers in its crown. It displaced Japan as the second biggest economy in the world and stands only behind the USA. It has the largest standing armed force in the world with advanced weapons systems, equipment and electronic and cyber-warfare capabilities which no country other than the USA, NATO and Russia have. Militarily, it believes it has secured itself in such a manner that no land or air battle can be fought on its territory. And it is trying to secure the Asia-Pacific Region (APR) as its backyard of influence, but much to the concern and trepidation of its neighbours.
China has arrived at the global high table where its overall strength projected at least statistically, gives influence it never exercised before. Yet, China has hidden weaknesses and challenges that prevents it from acquiring the power it has given its people to believe it has, and this has generated a sense of ultra-nationalism that needs to be fulfilled.
From Beijing’s perspective, Afghanistan is not a one country issue but is intrinsically tied to its all weather friend Pakistan. The relationship between Pakistan and China is described as "higher than the mountains, and deeper than the oceans". But more recently, China has been forced to try and hold back Pakistan from issues relating to the Afghanistan issue and counter-terrorism, and declined to fully side with Pakistan against the US and NATO. This does not mean China trusts the USA, but the situation demands this policy for the present.
The China-Pakistan-US axis flourished against the Soviet Union during the cold war. Countering the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, this axis operated almost seamlessly. China’s support to the war efforts were quiet but vital. Openly, they supported the Mujahidin war efforts morally and politically at every forum. Tactically, it gave them arms, training and logistic support. For China, a Soviet take over of Afghanistan was a major security threat extending Moscow’s influence along its borders. It was also perceived in Beijing that if Moscow consolidated its hold over Afghanistan, it would be a matter of time that Pakistan would be the next target. If Pakistan fell, Moscow would have encircled China with help of its friend, India. This was a disastrous scenario for China. Its land borders would be surrounded by the Soviet Union and its friends, a part of Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev’s doctrine. In its eastern seaboard was Japan, a country with which it had fought several wars and was defeated. Notwithstanding the strong US influence over Japan, Beijing was not sure. Japan was one of the reasons why Mao Zedong declined to be persuaded by US National Security Advisor Henry Kissenger’s plea to move against India during the 1971 Indo-Pak war.
The Afghan war and the Soviet Union’s defeat put paid to Moscow’s age old ambition to create a pathway through Central Asia to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 relieved China from Moscow’s threat. The new Central Asian states bordering China became increasingly dependent on China. Their best access to the ocean was through China, and their oil and natural gas export to China were to become a mainstay. The new Russia was weak. Beijing included these countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan in its strategy to create the new silk route to western Europe up to the port of Amsterdam. But Afghanistan has brought new challenges to China.
The "Three Evils"
From calling the Uighur Muslim pro-independence movement in its large western administrative region called the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region as "splittist" for a long time, the Chinese leaders have renamed them as "terrorists" and, very recently "holy warriors". The Uighurs, who are of Turkic origin, have always contested Chinese sovereignty over their land. The Chinese, however, have created history to support their claim. They have the upper hand as almost all countries in the world accept the Chinese position, but there is strong criticism over Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The Uighurs refer to Xinjiang as "East Turkistan". They have a reason to do so as people of Turkic origin had spread to Central Asia centuries ago, long before the Han Chinese had ventured to this part of the world.
The Chinese authorities see "separatism, terrorism and extremism" as the three evils that most threaten the country’s territorial integrity. Taiwan independence, the Dalai Lama’s demand for real autonomy for Tibet which Beijing sees as actually a cloaked movement for Tibetan independence, and the Uighur separatist movement as linked like a set of dominos, and if one falls the others will follow.
As long as the Soviet Union was intact, the Uighurs in China did not get any support from their western neighbourhood. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Uighurs in the new states of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan began to support the Uighurs settled there. But these threats have been largely overcome through hard diplomacy with the respective governments.
The situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan is something very different. Islamic radicalism was reared in Pakistan by the state for political and strategic purposes. It morphed into post-Soviet war Afghanistan again sponsored by the Pakistan state through the Taliban and the Al Qaeda for strategic depth or control of Afghanistan. As a result, an incestuous relationship of interdependence grew between the Pakistan state, that is, the army and its intelligence arm, the ISI and the Islamic groups both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Chinese saw this situation emerging, but tried to play it to the best of their advantage.
Afghanistan as a factor
China and Afghanistan share only a 72 kms common border, and that too a rugged one. Yet, China holds Afghanistan a very important country in its neighbourhood for good reasons. In one way, Afghanistan is a South Asian country with a long and troubled border with Pakistan. The people of Afghanistan – the different ethnic groups – have traditionally enjoyed warm relations with India. It is now the 8th member of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
Similarly, Afghanistan qualifies as Central Asian country. Apart from the Pashtuns who comprise around 40% of the population, the Tajiks (25%), Uzbeks (7%) and Turks (3%) are of Central Asian origin. Afghanistan has an observer status in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a body mooted by China, with Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrghistan as members.
The SCO was formed as an economic cooperation body to start with, but has now morphed into a security organization to counter terrorism. There are indications that China may be thinking in terms of forming an alliance of the SCO with the addition of a few members to counter the US influence in the region and NATO’s eastward movement. China sees these prospects as serious security threas to its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
During the first Afghan war against the Soviet union (1980-90), China sided with Pakistan and the USA. It was the era of cold war, and Beijing was highly concerned about an Afghanistan controlled by the Soviet Union. The end of the war and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990-91, abruptly changed the situation. The cold war was over, and Russia emerged from the demolished Soviet Union as a weak power. Relations between China and Russia began to improve. China’s western neighbours like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrghistan were also new independent states, but landlocked and weak. Eventually they were to succumb to Chinese pressure.
After Afghanistan shook off the Soviet ghost, China moved cautiously. While it did not accord diplomatic recognition to the Taliban government, it also did not join the western countries in criticizing the Taliban and their honoured guest, the Al Qaeda. Beijing depended on Pakistan to do quiet business with Afghanistan’s Taliban government. One of the important areas that China helped the Taliban was in setting up communication systems. One of the Chinese companies was the ZTE. China’s policy towards Afghanistan when the Taliban was fighting to oust the Northern Alliance was complicated. The Northern Alliance fought along with the Taliban, Pakistan and the US against the Soviet Union. But after the war was over, the Northern Alliance and the Taliban fell out.
Normally, China would have been expected to support the Northern Alliance led by Masud because it intended to create a liberal and forward looking Afghanistan. Instead, Beijing leaned toward the extremist Wahabi Taliban. Of course, it is a common practice of China to ignore a region however extremist or non-conformist it be, as long as it benefitted from that region. Moreover Pakistan, China’s time tested ally was supporting the Taliban. Very importantly, China also saw in the Pakistan-Taliban alliance the Pakistan army’s policy of creating strategic depth in Afghanistan to counter India. It is well known that China created a nuclear armed Pakistan to keep India under constant pressure and threat. Pakistan is China’s ally in creating an encirclement of India. This strategy is in existence even today. Even otherwise, Pakistan is of immense importance in China’s reach to the Islamic countries of the Gulf and West Asia, and a fence against US influence in South Asia.
Following the "9/11" terrorist attack on the US, China’s public reaction was one of surprise. In quarters China tried to explain that they did not know the Taliban and the Al Qaeda had any terrorist agenda. This is something very difficult to accept. There was nothing hidden about Al Qaeda’s religious doctrine and its jehadi intentions. It was an open fact that Pakistan’s army and its intelligence agency were closely involved with Al Qaeda giving them both sanctuary and support.
China’s Afghanistan strategy at that time was very clear. An Afghanistan controlled by the Pakistani army would serve China’s strategy. Pakistan would promote China with the Taliban Afghanistan, and the Taliban would not disappoint Pakistan. The Taliban required as many friends as possible. It’s government was officially recognized by only three countries – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
China was cognizant of the fact that the USA had washed its hands off Afghanistan and did not care what the Taliban was doing to the people of the country. The US wanted the Taliban to deliver to them Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. If they did so, the US would recognize the Taliban government in Afghanistan. That would have served China and Pakistan very well. That did not happen.
Economically, China’s eye is focussed on Afghanistan’s natural resources estimated to be worth a trillion dollars. It has already won the rights to Afghanistan’s Aynak copper mines, one of the largest known deposits in the world, for $3.5 billion. It was rumoured that the Chinese paid a bribe of $30 million to the Afghan minister concerned to get the contract. That episode is forgotten now. But the corruption in Afghanistan is legendary. China has subsequently won a gas exploration contract and is bidding for others.
China has another major interest in Afghanistan. That is, a new "Silk Road" from China through Afghanistan to Central Asia and Europe. This would create an economic miracle in its under developed South West region, in Xinjiang. This particular Silk Road will also link Pakistan. It may be recalled that recently China was very disturbed by an American proposal for a Silk Road from Pakistan to Central Asia and Europe, eliminating China. This proposal, however, was shot down at the December 2011 Istanbul Conference.
This issue has been discussed above briefly as an introduction. From the Chinese perspective the Uighur separatist and terrorist activities have enormous potential to disturb the country’s stability. In the last three years certain militant acts by the Uighur separatists have shaken the confidence of the Chinese security establishment. In the run up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Uighurs had planned militant acts across the country. The authorities succeeded in preventing any untoward incident during the games. The Olympics was built up as the best game event held, and the prestige of the country was linked to its success. This was a projection of China’s soft power, which has become so important today.
But the July 2009 riots and recent incidents are seen differently. The Chinese suspect a western hand, and that of the Al Qaeda. Following crushing of the July 2009 Uighur uprising, Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahari had called for a jihad against Chinese interests abroad. Recently, a Chinese media report called a group of Uighur militants who had abducted two guides to show them the route through the Xinjiang border to Kazakhstan "holy warriors" or jihadis. In stages, Chinese nomenclature for the Uighurs has evolved from militants, to terrorists, and separatists to "holy warriors". This only shows the rise in Chinese concerns.
The Chinese have been long aware of Uighur separatists being trained by Pakistani terrorists, Al Qaeda and the Taliban in camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the last two or three years, the Pakistani army has handed over some Uighur militants to China and killed at least one leader. But the Chinese are not satisfied, and see in these actions a reflection of the Pakistani army handing over some Al Qaeda and Taliban militants to the US under pressure.
Chinese frustration with Pakistan has forced them to hold Pakistan responsible for publicly providing these terrorists space to train in Pakistani camps. This would have been unbelievable a few years ago. But such statements about its one and only time tested ally, demonstrate China’s fears.
As China sees it, the indoctrination and training of Uighur separatists is not only a Pakistani issue but an Af-Pak issue. The threat transcends the borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a Taliban controlled government in Kabul which can happen only with Pakistani army and ISI support, can only accentuate the problem for China.
The recent (January, 2011) militant protest by Chinese Muslims in Ninqxia Hui Autonomous Region over the demolition of an unsanctioned mosque has emerged as a significant issue. Are the Muslims in China who are mainly from the ethnic minority sections as the Uighurs, being influenced by Islamists in the neighbourhood? Here, again, is the question how will the Af-Pak crescent provoke or influence these developments.
US in Afghanistan
Recently, there has been speculations that China is trying to replace the US in Afghanistan. This is not correct. China just cannot replace the US in Afghanistan simply because it cannot take over the responsibility that the US has been bearing. China cannot and will not, pour in the billions of dollars that the US has been spending. The US also holds the key to international funding. And China will not take sides in Afghanistan or offer itself as the chief mediator. China’s policy is to be the "good guy" and partake of the spoils, Finally, it will not have its boots in Afghanistan or any other country and take body bags back home. This will have serious implications for its internal politics. In fact, China has indicated that it wants the US to stay.
On the other hand, China fears a permanent US military position in Afghanistan. That is totally against China’s security interest, and its influence. Here, China is trying to use the SCO and Russia to counter permanent US bases in Afghanistan. China wants only the best for itself. But this is a complex game. China is not in a position to face up to the US at the moment, but will try to use others. The Pakistani army is its best bet, but here again, China has cautioned the Pakistan army not to confront the US in the fight against terrorism. In the meanwhile, it has nurtured a good relationship with Afghanistan to maintain balance and reserve a role of its own choosing. The end game is nowhere near.
Istanbul and Bonn Conferences
The Istanbul Conference (Nov. 22) and the Bonn Conference-II (Dec. 5), 2011, helped bring out certain perspectives, laying down an approximate road for peace, reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan, but nothing really constructive came out. It was clear that the major stake holders were still holding their card close to their chest. Pakistan attended the Istanbul Conference, and joined hands with China, Russia and Iran to oppose the US plans to maintain military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014. According to media reports (AFP, Nov.5 2011) Pakistan opposed a new regional mechanism for peace and security in the region. This prompted the host Turkey, and the US to drop the original Istanbul draft and proposed the formation of a contact group.
Interestingly, however, Pakistan’s foreign minister Ms. Hina Rabbani Khar, addressing the conference emphasised the need for strengthening the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to address the security and economic issues of the region. The SCO was conceptualized by China and has Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrghizstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as members. Afghanistan was soon to become a member.
Pakistan boycotted the Bonn Conference in protest against a US/NATO bombing of one of its border military posts killing 24 soldiers, on November 26. From Chinese and Pakistani media reports it was clear that Pakistan and China coordinated to forge a common position at the Bonn Conference. Bringing SCO in the Afghan affairs was one of them. In his address to the Bonn Conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi primarily impressed for a leading role for the SCO in Afghanistan’s peace and reconstruction process. This, according to China’s official newspaper, the China Daily (Dec. 6, 2011) was "by far the clearest and strongest message from China for a bigger role for the SCO in Afghanistan, compared to previous official statements which called for offer of help to Afghanistan’s peace and reconstruction". Yang pledged many other Chinese assistance to Afghanistan and a record of what China had already done. But the emphasis on SCO has a special connotation.
This needs to be seen in recent evolving discussions in China. There is a contemplation that China establish a military alliance with the SCO, co-opt countries like Pakistan, to create a solid front to counter the US led Western strategy to contain China. Beijing hopes that Russia will be a second fulcrum with China to form this front. Pakistan, of course, is fully in the Chinese camp.
This development will certainly be questioned in Afghanistan’s good relations with China. But can Afghan President Hamid Karzai be persuaded to jettison the US and west and enter into a cozy alliance with China? Most unlikely. But China’s game plan has started.
China is yet to make a negative or critical comment on India’s role in Afghanistan. Shortly before the Istanbul Conference, President Karzai visited India when the India-Afghanistan strategic partnership was announced. India was also prominent at this Istanbul and Bonn conferences.
China has Pakistan firmly on its side and, by inference, the Taliban. China’s problem is terrorism emanating from Pakistan and Afghanistan. On the other hand, China is not willing to undertake any significant responsibility in Afghanistan. It does not want the US to leave Afghanistan before the job is completed, otherwise they, like many other, fear a repeat of an Afghanistan when the US abruptly folded up and withdrew after the Soviet withdrawal. It can be expected that China will play a more visible role in Afghanistan in not too distant a future. It is too early to say how that will unravel. The US is unlikely to withdraw militarily from Afghanistan in 2014. A new regional tussle is waiting to unfold.