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Foreign Policy

China’s Constructive Role in Central Asia

Aug 03, 2021
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general , Center of SCO Studies

On July 9, the Taliban in Afghanistan, claiming to be in control of 85 percent of the country’s territory, seized key border crossings to Iran and Turkmenistan. While the Taliban intensified its offensives, some Afghan military personnel attempted to cross the border into Uzbekistan close to the Hailadun border crossing, but they were blocked by Uzbek border guards. After sweeping across Badakhshan province, the Taliban’s sphere of influence has gradually expanded into the mountains bordering the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region of China.

Despite the notable success of its military operations, the Taliban’s negative impact on security in Central Asia has been limited for several reasons.

With the expansion of its control, the Taliban’s momentum for attacks will decline somewhat. According to the online “Long War Journal” by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, as of July, 212 of the country’s 399 districts are now under Taliban control, with 76 under the control of the Ghani government and 120 still contested. In terms of the number of districts controlled, the Taliban has a clear advantage. However, the average population in each of the Taliban controlled districts is 62,000 while that in districts under government control is much larger, standing at 146,000.

With expansion of its control, the relatively small (70,000-strong) Taliban will have to administer all the new districts, which is bound to weaken its offensive capacity. Arguably, the closer it gets to the core areas controlled by the Ashraf Ghani government, the more difficult it will be for the Taliban to chalk up victories in its military operations. Also, the government still has air control. The Taliban’s rapid military offensive will have to slow down.

The window of opportunity for an interim transitional government has not been closed. Since Sept. 12, representatives of the Ghani government and the Taliban have engaged in their first direct peace negotiations in Doha, Qatar. The United States hopes the two sides will reach a negotiated settlement. For various reasons, the peace talks have not been smooth sailing, and have even stalled. As a key mediator, the U.S. drafted a peace agreement to activate the negotiations. The proposal includes the establishment of an interim transitional government, which was rejected by the Ghani government.

On July 9, Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman, said they  were discussing a cease-fire with Kabul and negotiating on various topics. Although the Ghani government has not relaxed its position, an interim government may be viable for the international community to promote peace in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, none of the country’s immediate neighbors can turn this into reality. It is an ability only the U.S. possesses. In this connection, the U.S. needs to fulfill its responsibility for the peaceful reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Despite differences in their positions toward the Afghan Taliban, all Central Asian countries have strengthened their border protections. On June 21, Kazakhstan signed a military cooperation agreement with the Ghani government, with plans to strengthen cooperation in joint military exercises, military medicine, military technology, logistics, combat training and intelligence.

In response to the situation in Afghanistan, on June 24, the presidents of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan exchanged phone calls, and a Central Asia Security Council meeting was convened. However, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have different policies regarding the crossing of the border by Afghan government forces and local officials. The Uzbek foreign ministry described it as illegal and vowed the perpetrators would be “severely punished.” The Tajik Security Council, on the other hand, allowed the withdrawal of Afghan soldiers and local government officials into its territory for humanitarian reasons and in good faith. Uzbekistan has increased the strength of ground and air forces deployed on its side of the border, while Tajikistan has mobilized 20,000 reservists to strengthen border control.

Finally, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China — Afghanistan’s largest neighbor and a founding member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — cannot evade its role in the Afghan peace process. On July 15, the Chinese foreign minister stated in Dushanbe, the Tajik Capital, that China will, as always, offer mediation, good offices, assistance and wisdom on the basis of respect for Afghan sovereignty and the “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” principle and will play a constructive role in promoting a political settlement.

To this end, bearing in mind its national interests, China should also make good use of multilateral, plurilateral and bilateral cooperation mechanisms to be constructive in the peace process. And it needs to conduct exchanges and cooperation with the United States.

Meanwhile, the Chinese public need not worry about armed Afghan terrorists breaking into the country from the Wakhan Corridor. The region has an average altitude of more than 4,000 meters. Transit would require specially trained armed personnel with specially designed weapons, equipment and logistical ability to cover a depopulated distance of 300 kilometers before any attack or infiltration of China would be possible.

Nevertheless, the Wakhan Corridor is of high strategic value for China in maintaining regional stability and development. After the various Afghan political forces reach a peace scheme, China may want to consider using the corridor to build a highway from Kashgar to Kabul, thus consolidating peace in Afghanistan and promoting stability and development in Central Asia using economic means.

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