China’s Afghanistan Gambit


on January 28 | in Asia-Pacific, Foreign Policy

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A new peacemaker might be arriving in Afghanistan: the People’s Republic of China.

To many people’s surprise, Beijing now wants a shot at helping Kabul and the Taliban bury the hatchet. This is indeed a gutsy move on China’s part because of the endemic nature of the conflict, but this is not Beijing’s first rodeo. Still, China will not be able to nor particularly wants to play the role of security guarantor, at least not anytime soon.

China’s mediation debut in Afghanistan comes at a time when it is already actively seeking to resolve another conflict in South Sudan. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi just hosted a special meeting in Sudan to support the Intergovernmental Authority on Development-led South Sudan peace process. In remarks to the press, Wang stressed China’s efforts since the crisis in the region broke out in the end of 2013 weren’t motivated by a desire to protect Chinese interests, but rather to meet its obligations and responsibilities to promote peace as a world power. Still, Wang couldn’t help but mention the fact the oil industry has been hurt by the conflict—and that this is a key area of cooperation among Beijing, Khartoum, and Juba.

A few similar drivers emerge when one dissects China’s desire to play peacemaker in both nations. Both South Sudan and Afghanistan have resources that China covets. For example, China has made large investments in Afghanistan’s copper and hydrocarbons since the nation has an estimated $1 trillion in mineral reserves, Beijing probably will want to exploit other resources in the country, like lithium.

China’s economic interests in Afghanistan also have become more important now given Beijing’s New Silk Road economic belt initiative. Terrorists could certainly target infrastructure and transportation links that would eventually span across Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.

Furthermore, domestic terrorism will of course remain a serious concern to China, and Beijing remains fearful hostile Uighurs will receive training in Afghanistan to conduct attacks in Xinjiang and possibly other parts of China. Although this is not the case in South Sudan, China remains troubled by the targeting and killing of Chinese nationals there.

China’s choice of conflicts exposes an overarching theme in the types of crises Beijing is most likely to mediate. Both South Sudan and Afghanistan have resources that China is keen to exploit. It is also true that no other state is present to protect these economic interests for China and to root out terrorists. This, of course, is not completely true yet in Afghanistan since foreign forces remain in the country. There is a major peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, but nothing comparable to the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Still, the lack of a security guarantor now or in the near future appears to be a key factor in China’s decision to play peacemaker.

China can certainly make significant contributions towards reconciliation in Afghanistan. It has significant economic clout and arguably can make a decent case that it is a neutral party in Kabul’s fight with the Taliban seeing as it never fought either on the battlefield. The risk, however, is Beijing will be content to compromise on something short of complete peace so long as its discrete interests are secured.

In mediating talks between Kabul and the Taliban, Beijing could deepen its contacts with both sides and receive at least informal guarantees that Chinese economic interests will not be affected by the fighting. China, however, probably will seek to limit any perceived aid to the Taliban, making Beijing’s entreaties to this side of the conflict more likely to fail. China’s focus probably would then be to boost security cooperation with Kabul and other regional partners to build their terrorism-fighting capabilities, asking these governments to secure Chinese interests in return.

This scenario is not inconceivable because it is, to a degree, already a reality. Beijing has maintained contacts with the Taliban for some time and undoubtedly has made its security concerns known. China also has advanced anti-terror cooperation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO’s peace mission 2014 exercise involved more troops and advanced weapons systems than in previous years, including armed Chinese drones.

But because achieving a permanent ceasefire is a tall order, China is unlikely to actually stop at playing peacemaker. Regional security cooperation most likely through the SCO will become a priority while China continues to build its own military capabilities, including through active participation in multilateral operations like peacekeeping missions, to address terrorist threats at home and eventually abroad.

Back in South Sudan, China has decided to deploy 700 combat troops to the UN peacekeeping mission there. This was an unthinkable move for China not long ago given its concern that deploying combat troops overseas would be perceived as an affront to its own non-interference policy.

Yet the realization that it can’t always count on others to protect its growing interests overseas has led China to take a more liberal interpretation on this policy. In this regard, we should expect China to take on a larger foreign policy role in the future.


Photo courtesy of UNAMID: Chinese UNAMID troops in South Sudan. 

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