M K Bhadrakumar |
(The first part is here.)
China has paid high attention to the speech by US President Donald Trump on Monday outlining the way forward in Afghanistan. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson reacted to Trump’s speech within hours and there have been a spate of commentaries alongside in the official media. Most important, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi discussed Afghanistan with the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a telephone conversation on Wednesday.
To take the last point first, the Xinhua news agency reported Yang’s assessment as follows:
- Political dialogue is the only solution to the Afghanistan issue.
- China is committed to facilitating Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation process.
- The international community needs to support Afghanistan in achieving a broad and inclusive political reconciliation, support the Afghan people in pursuing a development path that suits their own national conditions and support the Afghan government in increasing its capability to fight forces of extremism and terrorism.
- Due attention must be paid to the “important role” Pakistan plays in the Afghan issue.
- Pakistan’s sovereignty and security concerns must be respected.
- “China stands ready to keep communication and coordination with the United States on the Afghanistan issue and make joint efforts to realize peace and stability in the country and the whole region.”
All things are taken into consideration, therefore, China is the big winner in Trump’s decision to allow a military surge in Afghanistan
Interestingly, prior to the conversation with Tillerson, Yang had received the visiting Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua in Beijing on Monday where he stressed that “it is especially important for China and Pakistan to enhance strategic communication under current global and regional circumstances.”
In earlier remarks on Monday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying expressed the hope that the Trump administration’s new Afghan strategy “can help to promote the security, stability, and development of Afghanistan and the region at large.”
Hua strongly defended Pakistan’s record and credentials in the counterterrorism efforts and stressed the high importance of the US cooperating with Pakistan “on the basis of mutual respect and their joint commitment to the security and stability of the region and the world… and (making) concerted efforts for regional security and stability.”
The spokesperson shifted the focus away from Trump’s diatribe against Pakistan to the core issue of fostering Afghan-Pakistan cooperation. She highlighted China’s contribution to foster such cooperation leading to certain recent positive trends lately, and stated China’s willingness to “continuously play a constructive role as its capacity allows”.
Read more: Afghanistan is ripe for proxy war
China would expect that a close partnership with the US in the stabilization of Afghanistan will have a salutary effect on the overall relationship between the two big powers
On Tuesday, Afghanistan again figured at a meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the visiting Pakistani Foreign Secretary Janjua during a wide-ranging discussion “on the entire gamut of bilateral relations, regional, global issues, as well as the situation in Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir.” The Pakistani foreign ministry statement said they “agreed to continue close consultations on efforts for lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan and underscored the importance of the Trilateral Afghanistan-China-Pakistan Foreign Minister’s meeting.”
The Chinese commentaries (here, here, here, here and here) carried a strong undertone of skepticism about the efficacy of Trump’s strategy, which heavily depends on the military surge. In fact, they viewed the strategy as a rehash of failed strategies pursued by previous US administrations. But the Chinese commentaries carefully avoided any frontal attack on Trump and instead offered constructive criticism.
Interestingly, Global Times in an editorial underscored the importance of China-US cooperation over Afghanistan:
Chinese perspective, the continued American military commitment to Afghan security is in its national interests. Xinjiang’s security and stability is directly linked to the Afghan situation
Will the US turn Afghanistan into a geopolitical bridgehead in Central Asia or work with China to build peace there?…It doesn’t trust China enough… The US needs to enhance cooperation with China and improve ties with Pakistan to stabilize the Afghanistan situation. China and the US share many common interests in the Afghanistan issue and both wish to see the country return to peace and stability.
In fact, Afghanistan could become a bridge for the two to expand their cooperation. The US should give a constructive response to China’s concerns about a US military base in Afghanistan and support China’s Belt and Road initiative.
A trace of antipathy is apparent towards Trump’s characterization of India as the US’ strategic partner in Afghanistan. The Global Times was of the view that “It will be stupid if the US abandons Pakistan and particularly short-sighted to get too close to India and drift away from Pakistan.”
Read more: The illegality of Trump’s Afghanistan war
The bottom line is that China heaves a sigh of relief that Trump has not ordered the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan but has taken a U-turn from his campaign pledge to allow a mini “surge” to go ahead. The government-owned China Daily described it as a “precious bow to reason”… (which) gives the impression that Trump is learning the ropes. At least he is coming to terms with the cruel reality in Afghanistan that Obama was concerned about, and the dire consequences of “a hasty withdrawal”.
The US hopes to leverage the “all-weather friendship” between China and Pakistan to influence the latter’s policies and to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table
All the same, the China Daily editorial was pessimistic about the chances of Trump’s strategy succeeding “because military intervention alone will not do the trick… While China welcomes efforts to improve the security situation in Afghanistan and hopes the US policy will help to achieve that and promote stability, it has steadfastly called for national reconciliation and development to be advanced at the same time.” Equally, China insists that “nation building” must go hand in hand with the counter terrorist operations.
Of course, diplomacy is never conducted in the public domain. It stands to reason that discussions have taken place between the US and Chinese officials in the run-up to the announcement of the new Afghan strategy by Trump. Tillerson did acknowledge this. What could be the game plan? Some hints are available in Tillerson’s press statement on Monday and his media briefing the next day. What comes out are the following:
- While Trump has outlined the new military approach, there will also be a “diplomatic front”;
- A “battlefield victory” over the Taliban is not achievable; the idea is that Taliban also will be made to realize that there is a stalemate. And “at some point”, the parties have to come to the negotiating table.
- Pakistan, in particular, can play an important role here, certainly in delivering the Taliban to the negotiating table… Pakistan must adopt a different approach, and we are ready to work with them.
- The ultimate effort is a peace agreement that is reached through a “regional effort”. “We (US) believe, we already know, there are certain moderate elements of the Taliban who we think are going to be ready and want to help develop a way forward.”
- Too much US pressure on Pakistan may destabilize that country. Therefore, a regional approach is needed. “As I said, other regional players have a strong interest in Pakistan. China has the strong interest in Pakistan. Having a stable secure future Pakistan is in a lot of our interests. They are a nuclear power… There are many areas in which we believe we should be having very productive dialogue that serves both of our interests and regional interest as well.”
Clearly, China would anticipate that it has a big role to play in the US’ order of priorities in making a success out of Trump’s Afghan strategy. To be sure, the US hopes to leverage the “all-weather friendship” between China and Pakistan to influence the latter’s policies and to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. This is one thing.
Read more: Pulling the plug on Afghanistan
Second, while Trump has a closed mind on getting involved in “nation-building” in Afghanistan, Tillerson separately acknowledged the importance of reforms and good governance. China can play a useful role here, too.
The US needs to enhance cooperation with China and improve ties with Pakistan to stabilize the Afghanistan situation. China and the US share many common interests in the Afghanistan issue and both wish to see the country return to peace and stability
Third, stemming from the above, China must be wondering already ‘What is there in it for the Belt and Road Initiative?’ Trump pointedly showed interest in exploring economic opportunities, which would “defray” the cost of the war that the US is bearing. The connectivity that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor provides to Afghanistan to access the world market becomes relevant here.
Again, Chinese investments in Afghanistan within the ambit of the BRI hold much potential to revive the Afghan economy. The US will appreciate China’s involvement here.
Most importantly, from the US perspective, China should be co-opted as a partner rather than be forced to link up with Russia and Iran and act as “spoiler.” On the other hand, from the Chinese perspective, the continued American military commitment to Afghan security is in its national interests. Xinjiang’s security and stability is directly linked to the Afghan situation.
Above all, China would expect that a close partnership with the US in the stabilization of Afghanistan will have a salutary effect on the overall relationship between the two big powers. Trump is due to visit China this year – possibly, in November.
All things are taken into consideration, therefore, China is the big winner in Trump’s decision to allow a military surge in Afghanistan. Prima facie, India is the big winner in Trump’s rhetoric against Pakistan. But China could be the real winner in the substantive aspects of Trump’s Afghan strategy.
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.