News emerged that one of the most prominent peace envoys of Afghanistan held two-day long secret talks with former Taliban officials in the Chinese city of Urumqi. Taking into account the official unveiling of the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative in Kazakhstan in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, such developments underscore the willingness of the Chinese leadership to play a more prominent role in the region. Indeed, it appears that neighbourhood diplomacy is becoming a foreign policy priority for official Beijing.
As news agencies reported, this secret meeting took place on May 19-20, 2015, in the capital city of the Chinese restive region of Xinjiang. Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a close confidant of Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, led the Afghan delegation. The other side of the table was represented by Mullah Jalil, Mullah Abdul Razaq and Mullah Hassan Rahmani, former members of the old Taliban government in Afghanistan currently residing in Pakistan. People familiar with this meeting confirmed that the secret talks were also attended by Chinese officials and representatives of Pakistan’s spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence directorate.
Such behind-the-scene politics demonstrate that Beijing is willing to undertake the role of mediator in Afghanistan and accelerate regional efforts to bring all engaged parties to the negotiating table. It has been long assumed that China established and maintained direct links to the Taliban prior to the Operation Enduring Freedom. In December 2000, then-Ambassador of China to Pakistan Lu Shulin met with Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar in Kandahar to lobby the Taliban leadership not to support Uighur separatists and ensure the Afghan soil is not used for any destabilisation in Xinjiang. It also appeared that official Beijing was willing to buy peace with the Taliban through economic programmes. There were some contested reports that China has signed a memorandum of understanding on economic and technical cooperation with the Taliban leadership in Kabul in 2001, whilst the delegations of Chinese and Afghan businessmen paid reciprocal visits to Afghanistan and China respectively. Of course, these developments were voided after the events of 9/11, and Beijing preferred to distance itself from Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, as recent developments reveal, Beijing is still interested in the stability of Afghanistan, especially after the withdrawal of American troops. The main Chinese interests are yet limited to Xinjiang. Xinjiang or officially the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is the largest administrative division of China that borders eight countries including Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Xinjiang is home to approximately ten million Uighurs. In the 1990s, following the collapse of the USSR, Xinjiang experienced a surge in national sentiments amongst the Uighurs, which were suppressed by official Beijing. Hereafter, the restive region of Xinjiang has emerged as an infamous news headliner. The region became subjected to a number of brutal attacks carried out by Islamic militants, whilst official Beijing also continued a hard-line security policy to suppress such extremist movements.
In this regard, it becomes apparent that apart from economic reasoning, the Central Asian vector in the Chinese neighbourhood diplomacy is motivated by security rationales. Beijing fears that Central Asia can be used as a fertile ground to breed instability in neighbouring Xinjiang. Such thinking may explain why Beijing decided to play a more visible role in Afghanistan. In fact, Afghanistan is also often portrayed in the Central Asian political discourses as one of the greatest sources of regional instability. These views rest on the premises that there is allegedly a trend of Muslim radicalisation in Central Asia, although it is difficult to cross-check this claim, since there is no reliable open data on the magnitude of Islamic extremism in the region. Furthermore, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, nearly a quarter of the heroine produced in Afghanistan is trafficked north to Russia through Central Asia. The existence and durability of such drug trafficking routes further contributes to Afghanistan’s negative image of an exporter of instability.
Accordingly, both the Chinese and Central Asian leadership appears to be interested in regional peace and de-escalation of conflict in Afghanistan, especially taking into account the Chinese commitment to invest nearly $40 billion into the Central Asian infrastructure through its Silk Road Economic Belt programme. It is yet unclear how far Beijing is willing to go in brokering peace in Afghanistan. In a similar vein, it is unclear what role Afghanistan will play as part of the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative. However, what is certain is that the Chinese engagement in Afghanistan and Central Asia will only grow, although the Chinese non-interference foreign policy principle will prevent Beijing from being as assertive in the region as the USA or Russia is.