China takes a leap of faith in the Hindu Kush

As Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s travels to the AfPak region demonstrate, the US may even feel relieved that China is stepping in because the US has exhausted its strategic options in Afghanistan.

Written by M K Bhadrakumar | Updated: June 29, 2017 6:17 pm
China diplomacy, afghanistan-pakistan ties,china shuttle diplomacy, china leader wang yi,cpec, pakistan-afghanistan relations Visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, and Pakistan’s adviser on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz, right, during a press conference, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Sunday, June 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

The ‘shuttle diplomacy’ by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi over the weekend to Kabul and Islamabad signifies a marked shift in China’s hitherto-low profile role in Afghan reconciliation. Beijing attributes it to a “request” from the Afghan and Pakistani sides and, importantly, “as mandated by the Chinese leader.” This pointed reference to President Xi Jinping by the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman indicates that Wang’s mission is an important milestone in China’s regional diplomacy.

The foreign ministry spokesman pointed out that Wang’s shuttle diplomacy was aimed at eliciting Afghan and Pakistani perspectives to gain an understanding of the evolving situation, with a view to improving relations, as well as to promote an Afghan reconciliation process.

Wang succeeded in establishing a bilateral Afghan-Pakistani ‘crisis management mechanism’ (with China’s active support), to ensure communication and consultation in emergencies, and also a trilateral ‘dialogue mechanism’ at foreign ministers level “to cooperate on issues of mutual interest, beginning with economic cooperation.”

Besides, the three countries agreed to revive the Quadrilateral Consultative Group (comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US), which has been pursuing peace talks with the Taliban in an effort to bring lasting peace to Afghanistan. Finally, the three countries also “held the view” that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Afghanistan Contact Group can play “a constructive role in moving the Afghan reconciliation process.”

The salience, unmistakably, lies in the revival of the QCG (which was, by the way, godfathered by the US in 2015). Beijing’s stunning disclosure that Wang’s mission carried the imprimatur of President Xi underscores the high-level consultations between Beijing and Washington, over Afghanistan, in recent weeks and months. Xi is due to hold a meeting with President Trump on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg on June 7-8. Equally, it stands reason that Kabul wouldn’t have gone out on a limb without seeking US’ prior concurrence.

All in all, what we see here is something unprecedented in its sheer novelty and audacity – China stepping in directly, throwing its prestige and influence into the ring in the high-profile enterprise to forge institutional underpinning (via the two proposed ‘mechanisms’) to resuscitate the QCG process and kickstart Afghan peace talks.

Within a day of Wang’s mission, US Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford flew into Kabul, on an unscheduled visit, for a final assessment on whether to boost US troop levels in Afghanistan. The revival of the QCG means new facts on the ground – there may even be a military dimension now, different from the Pentagon’s action plan to break the stalemate in the war.

According to a joint press release issued by China, Afghanistan and Pakistan on June 25, the accent is on creating “an enabling environment for peace talks and for Taliban to join the peace talks.”

In sum, a ceasefire becomes necessary. Will the US go along with the idea? Will the Taliban abide by it? Will the various war profiteers allow the gravy train to come to a halt? These are only some of the ‘known unknowns’.

To take the first, which is a potential deal-breaker, Pentagon reportedly favours an intensification of the war against the Taliban and probably desires an open-ended US-NATO military presence in Afghanistan (which is, of course, the hub of the Great Game in modern history.) Now, a journey along the QCG path runs contrary to the warpath. The logical pre-requisite of an Afghan settlement will be an end to western occupation and restoration of that country’s sovereignty.

China, therefore, presents the US with a Hobson’s choice – QCG track or nothing. In fact, it is even worse, because the only other show in town is the Russian initiative, which is lurking in the shade, biding time, which the US abhors. Nor will the US’ western allies want a bleak scenario with no prospects of a peace process in a conceivable future.

Above all, the Trump administration cannot afford to cherry-pick. The Sino-American détente under Trump is steadily gaining traction. To quote Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, at the conclusion of the Political and Diplomatic Dialogue in Washington on June 21, the Trump administration expects China to work with the US towards ensuring a “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula; is “looking to China to help the Iraqi Government in specific meaningful ways to ensure the country’s long-term stability and economic growth as it battles ISIS and begins the long process of rebuilding”; and is commencing civilian-cum-military talks in “new areas of strategic concern” such as space, cyberspace, nuclear forces and non-proliferation issues.

Suffice to say, the US will be hard-pressed to be seen to be cooperative with the Chinese initiative on Afghanistan.

On the contrary, the reality could well be that the US feels relieved that China is stepping in because Washington has exhausted its strategic options in Afghanistan. George W. Bush tried democratization, nation-building and reconstruction – at one point even fantasized about a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. Barack Obama tried the ‘surge’, conjured up the COIN (counter-insurgency) strategy and ended up with the Afghan version of Richard Nixon’s ‘Vietnamization’ strategy of handing over combat operations to local forces. Nothing worked. The strategic playbook has been emptied. The proposed ‘min-surge’ by Trump is a road to nowhere.

Of course, none of this means that China’s motivations are altruistic. While in Islamabad, Wang also discussed with the Pakistani leadership the ‘multi-dimensional strategic partnership’ between China and Pakistan. The two sides “agreed on the need for strategic balance in South Asia.”

To be sure, a top agenda item for the proposed trilateral ‘dialogue mechanism’ at the foreign-minister level will be the extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who headed the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan desk in the Ministry of External Affairs.
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