In Stratfor's 2018 Annual Forecast, we wrote that talks between the Taliban and the United States would be unlikely to materialize in 2018, putting strain on the U.S. relationship with Pakistan. This, in turn, would give China an opportunity to cement politically sensitive projects along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. China is pursuing this goal through trilateral talks with Afghanistan and Pakistan, confirming that analysis. But the rhetoric on Chinese commitment to peace in the region may remain rhetoric.
As the war in Afghanistan grinds on, China is looking to play a role in the peace process. On Dec. 26 in Beijing, China hosted the first round of talks between the foreign ministers of China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The dialogue, chaired by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, comes amid newly evolving security dynamics caused by Washington's recently revamped strategy for Afghanistan, as well as long standing political impasses in the country's political processes. In a joint statement after the meeting, the three governments called for a broad, inclusive strategy for peace and reconciliation that would involve the Taliban early on and announced a second trilateral meeting to take place in Kabul in 2018. The Chinese foreign minister also said that Pakistan and Afghanistan had agreed to improve relations as soon as possible.
Rhetoric aside, the trilateral dialogue is just a small part of the international community's daunting challenge to secure and break the political stalemate in war-torn Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the talks demonstrate China's elevated effort to expand its role in Afghan affairs as Beijing assesses Washington's strategy and advances its own agendas throughout South Asia. China has gone from having minimal engagement with Kabul in the early 2000s, to a more proactive policy following Taliban rule, to a strategy where China now actively cultivates diplomatic platforms to complement its expanded economic influence in the country. To that end, Beijing has engaged in a wide range of multilateral and subregional mechanisms on the Afghanistan issue, including the U.S.-led Quadrilateral Coordination Group, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism, to name a few. Meanwhile, China has maintained discreet ties with Taliban factions, inviting its leaders for talks several times and reportedly mediating a secret meeting between the Afghan government and former Taliban officials in 2015.
The power vacuum in Afghanistan makes the strategically located county critical to Chinese security in western Xinjiang and to its Belt and Road Initiative, which straddles Afghanistan. China has already been encouraging Afghanistan's government to focus its fight on Uigur separatist groups based on Afghan soil. The Chinese military has also stepped up its presence in the region, demonstrated by Chinese efforts to bolster Tajikistan and Pakistan's capacity to defend their borders with Afghanistan. A secure and stable Afghanistan is key to China's growing investment presence given Beijing's infrastructure outreach in South Asia and the Middle East, most prominently evidenced by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. China views Afghanistan's security problems as a hindrance to regional connectivity, as Beijing has long hoped to integrate the country into its Belt and Road Initiative.
In theory, Beijing's friendly relationships with Islamabad and Kabul, its discreet ties with the Taliban, and its economic leverage could give the Chinese government a stake in Afghanistan's political process and eventual recovery. Indeed, Beijing was seen as necessary to fill the vacuum left by a U.S. drawdown as it was previously planned. But Beijing is interested in portraying itself as a disinterested mediator and its maneuvers have thus far remained a combination of low-cost diplomacy and economic incentives. As concrete mediation evolves, it will require significant political assets and likely even military involvement.
That will test Beijing's willingness to leave its long-standing non-interference principle and adjust to its new security commitments. But Beijing is moving in that direction — as evidenced by its expanded security role in South Sudan and its recent offers to act as a mediator in the crises over Kashmir and the Rohingya. The process remains slow and limited primarily to rhetoric, however. Still, China's role in Afghanistan could provide another testing ground for the country's commitment to a new role in world affairs.