After a Decade of Rebuffing U.S. Requests for Help in Afghanistan, China May Be Ready to Do More

In December, representatives of the U.S., China and Afghanistan met for private talks in London, the first time the three countries convened to seek ways to forge peace in Afghanistan, a senior U.S. official said.

The previously undisclosed meeting, which came within days of a visit by the Afghan Taliban to Beijing, was a step on a path long resisted by China, wary of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and reluctant to meddle in its neighbor’s affairs. The three countries met again last month at an international meeting on Afghanistan in the United Arab Emirates, one participant said.

China’s move toward the role of mediator signals a foreign policy shift in Beijing—for decades focused on domestic issues—that could recalibrate the geopolitics of Central Asia and test China’s capacity as a regional leader, Western officials said.

“In a certain sense, they’re competing with the U.S. for success in Afghanistan. They want to prove they can do it better,” said David Sedney, a former U.S. diplomat in Beijing and Kabul and deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia from 2009 to 2013.

U.S. officials declined to discuss the outcome of the talks. But China’s participation is seen as part of a broader diplomatic effort that began around the time Chinese President Xi Jinping took power in 2012 and has since intensified.

The December trip to Beijing by the Afghan Taliban delegation was the second in recent months, Afghan and foreign officials said. And it came weeks after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ’s visit to Beijing, his first official trip abroad.

Beijing has also pledged $327 million in economic aid to Kabul through 2017, and now appears to be exploring ways to enhance Afghanistan’s security as the U.S. and its allies make their exit.

China’s foreign ministry said Beijing wanted to play a “constructive role” supporting an Afghan-led peace process, but didn’t respond to specific questions about the Taliban visits or other diplomatic activities. Afghan officials have said they welcomed a role by China.

The initiative in Afghanistan reflects Mr. Xi’s drive to enhance regional diplomacy and China’s international standing, experts say, as well as challenge the U.S. as the primary underwriter of regional peace and prosperity.

The Taliban last month issued its first statement acknowledging contacts with China, but denied that Beijing was involved in peace talks. It said the recent Taliban delegation’s visit to China was intended to build neighborly relations.

Others familiar with the visit said Beijing hoped to host talks between the Taliban and Afghanistan’s government—and the effort appeared to be gaining traction. A former senior Taliban commander said another delegation would visit China soon and Russia would join those talks. Russia’s foreign ministry said only that it supported an Afghan-led peace process.

Despite reservations about China’s more assertive foreign policy elsewhere, the U.S. has welcomed Chinese involvement in Afghanistan after a decade of being rebuffed by Beijing, current and former U.S. officials said. Washington is waiting for more details about China’s plans, they said.

China has already started training Afghan police, an Afghan security official said, and is considering funding for nonlethal security equipment.

It remains unclear whether China has the political will or diplomatic resources to succeed. “It will take a long time to know whether they can achieve a result,” said Mohammad Mohaqeq, a senior Afghan government official.

But Beijing has a strong motive to try. China has long worried that instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan would worsen unrest in its Muslim northwest, where officials blame ethnic Uighur separatists for a recent surge in violence.

These fears have grown as the U.S.-led military involvement winds down in Afghanistan, creating a potential security vacuum.

During Afghanistan’s tumultuous political transition last year, Chinese security officials began visiting Kabul regularly, and expressed concerns about militant havens, according to a former senior Afghan security official.

Franz-Michael Mellbin, the European Union envoy to Afghanistan, said he first noticed increased Chinese interest in Afghanistan in 2013. “They have been looking for an area to expand their foreign policy toolbox,” he said, “but also doing it in a way that would not be seen strategically threatening to the U.S.”

During an October conference on Afghanistan in Beijing, a Chinese general surprised some U.S. participants by suggesting the Pentagon inquire about a joint effort with China to train Afghan security forces, say people familiar with the matter.

Until recently, such a joint venture would have been inconceivable. U.S. officials contacted the Chinese military and after some discussion, concluded there wasn’t serious interest. China was simply testing ideas about what it could do in Afghanistan, a senior U.S. official said.

Past peace initiatives in Afghanistan have failed, including a U.S.-backed effort in mid-2013 to hold talks in Qatar.

But China has some diplomatic advantages, including funds that Afghanistan desperately needs; a strong desire to curb Islamic extremism; and working relations with the main parties, including Iran and Russia.

Mr. Ghani, the Afghanistan president, has long experience dealing with China from his time at the World Bank. He sees Beijing as an important source of aid and investment, say people who have spoken to him.

In addition, Mr. Ghani and other officials see China as a source of influence over Pakistan, a China ally that is home to Taliban havens, and which would have to be involved in any peace deal, they say.

“We hope that China will play a proactive role in bringing peace to Afghanistan, because whatever the Chinese do, they do it according to a plan and with focus,” Mr. Ghani said in a speech last month to mark the 60th anniversary of China-Afghan relations. “Now, as they have become involved, we will witness more steps toward achieving peace.”

China has ruled out sending troops, unless they are part of a United Nations peacekeeping force. One idea by U.S. participants in talks with China is for Beijing to provide Afghanistan with older Russian-designed Mi-17 helicopters, which are similar to aircraft the U.S. has given Afghan security forces.

China’s defense ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Beijing would be hesitant about providing such heavy weaponry, said Hu Shisheng, an Afghanistan expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a think tank linked to the Ministry of State Security.

But he described as “feasible and realistic” the idea of U.S.-China training of Afghan forces outside Afghanistan—helicopter pilots, for example. The two countries are already jointly training diplomats for the Afghanistan government.

Mr. Hu, a participant in many of the recent talks on Afghanistan, said China was asking Pakistan to encourage the Taliban to join reconciliation efforts and was offering more aid to Islamabad.

Pakistan will work with China to support the Afghan peace process, a Pakistani foreign ministry statement said Monday after talks in Kabul between Chinese, Pakistani and Afghan officials.

China has kept a low profile in Afghanistan for the past decade after supplying the mujahedeen resistance against Soviet forces in the 1980s. When the Taliban was in power in the 1990s, China never established diplomatic relations. But it opened trade ties and met Taliban leaders to ask them not to support separatists in the mostly-Muslim northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang.

Since 2002, China has maintained contacts with Taliban leaders, mostly through meetings inside Pakistan, according to foreign diplomats and Chinese and Western scholars.

As a result, China’s position on Afghanistan has largely mirrored Pakistan’s for much of the last decade, advocating a political role for the Taliban and a swift exit by U.S. troops. But in the past few years, concerns have grown in Beijing about Pakistan’s ability to keep Islamic extremism in check, according to Western and Chinese experts.

“China wants to be a world power. Now it’s going to learn how hard that is, how hard it is to exercise influence and achieve the results you want,” said Mr. Sedney, the former Pentagon official. “I’m not predicting that they’ll fail, but it’s an unknown.”

By: JEREMY PAGE in Beijing, MARGHERITA STANCATI in Kabul and NATHAN HODGE in Islamabad
for the Wall Street Journal, February 9, 2015

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