by Raihan Ronodipuro and Anna Kolotova
by Raihan Ronodipuro and Anna Kolotova
Can the U.S. and China Look Beyond a Zero-Sum Approach in Afghanistan?
On July 14, a terror attack was carried out in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, along the Afghan-Pakistan border, in which a number of Chinese engineers, working on the Dasu hydropower project, a part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, were killed. The attack predictably evinced a strong response from China.
Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, speaking before a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting, asked the Taliban to disassociate itself from “terrorist elements” and in a meeting with Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister, asked Pakistan to bring the perpetrators to justice. Earlier in April, a car bomb attack took place at Serena Hotel in Quetta which was hosting China’s ambassador to Pakistan. Four people were killed and twelve were injured in the attack.
After the attack, Wang Yi praised the Afghan government for its attempts towards building national unity and providing effective governance. Beijing clearly realizes that its economic investments in the country, as well as infrastructural projects, cannot be safe if there is chaos and a lack of security.
Like all other countries, China and Pakistan have expected uncertainty after the U.S. withdrawal of troops but perhaps overestimated their capabilities in dealing with the turbulence which had been predicted by many.
Importance of Wang Yi’s statements
Wang Yi’s statements are important because days earlier, Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman, had praised China and welcomed its role in the country’s reconstruction. He had also assured China that those involved in the insurgency in Xinjiang would not be given refuge in Afghanistan. One of China’s major concerns has been the support provided by the Taliban to the East Turkmenistan movement.
While Beijing may have opened back channels with the Taliban and realized that it needs to adapt to changing geopolitics, recent developments have increased its skepticism of the Taliban. On the other hand, Russia has been more favorable towards the Taliban. Roman Babushkin, Russia’s deputy chief of mission in India, argued that the Taliban are a reality that needs to be accepted, and also that any military activities without a political process are insufficient.
Babushkin did make the point that for successful negotiations, the Taliban needs to end any hostilities. “That Taliban should deal with the problem of terrorism and other related issues in order to become legitimate, in order to [get] delisted [at the UN Security Council], in order to go ahead with the future Afghanistan and creation of [an] inclusive government.”
It would be pertinent to point out, that Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s Afghan envoy went a step further and said that the Afghan government was not doing enough to make talks with the Taliban a success.
China’s subtle warnings to the Taliban, indicating its reservations, and praise of the Afghan government indicate a possibility of greater understanding between Washington and Beijing even though Beijing has repeatedly attributed the current troubles in Afghanistan to Washington’s decision to withdraw its troops.
Can the U.S. and China find common ground?
It remains to be seen if Joe Biden, the U.S. president, who has exhibited dexterity on a number of complex issues, reaches out to China’s Xi Jinping to find common ground with regard to Afghanistan.
Significantly, while U.S.-Turkey relations had witnessed a downward trajectory and Biden has been critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies and human rights record, both leaders met on the sidelines of the NATO summit in June. During the meeting, Turkey agreed to secure Kabul’s airport.
Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security advisor, while commenting on Turkey’s assurance, said: “The clear commitment from the leaders was established that Turkey would play a lead role in securing Hamid Karzai International Airport, and we are now working through how to execute to get to that.”
The Taliban earlier this week warned Turkey of “consequences” if certain countries increased their presence in Afghanistan.
Russia’s statements with regard to the Taliban indicate that it is not totally on the same page as China, and that the Afghan issue cannot be understood from the simplistic lens of hackneyed geopolitical assumptions. All major stakeholders, both within the region and outside, were unprepared by the recent turn of events.
It is not just the U.S., but even China is concerned about the overall security environment in Afghanistan. The terror attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province indicates that other CPEC related projects could also face threats from the Taliban. For Beijing to carry on with its Belt and Road projects, it needs to find common ground with the Taliban if they do overrun Kabul.
It is especially important for Washington, Beijing, and other important stakeholders in the region to work together in dealing not just with the near-term turbulence, but the long-term implications of the events in Afghanistan.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India.