The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan could reshape dynamics across South and Central Asia, should Afghanistan take a turn for the worst as many fear. Developments are being watched closely in Beijing, which has increased its presence in the region under the Belt and Road Initiative, and continues to have concerns about the potential for terrorism to spill across international borders.
The Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi interviewed Professor Du Youkang, currently director of the Pakistan Study Center at Fudan University in Shanghai and formerly the founding director of Fudan University’s Center for South Asian Studies (2006-2016), about China’s interests in Afghanistan and how the situation there will impact Beijing’s broader regional strategy. This interview has been translated from the original Chinese.
What does China think about the current peace process in Afghanistan?
In September 2020, the Afghan government and the Taliban held direct talks in Doha, the capital of Qatar. The intra-Afghan peace process was on the right track, but progress was slow due to serious differences between the two sides. As the United States and NATO are about to initiate a complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan; all parties in Afghanistan are making political arrangements and military preparations for a new round of contests.
To ensure the stability of the regime, the Afghan government continues to seek long-term support and assistance from the United States and others, and push for the Taliban and other armed groups to participate in the peace process. The Taliban insist that all foreign troops must be withdrawn from Afghanistan and have not stopped their attacks on Afghan military and political targets. Since the United States failed to withdraw its troops as scheduled in accordance with the agreement reached with the Taliban, the latter made clear that it would not order a ceasefire during Ramadan. The Taliban also threatened that they might refuse to participate in peace talks before foreign troops have fully withdrawn. Various other forces in Afghanistan, such as the Haqqani Network and the Islamic State, are also gearing up for battle.
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If the United States and NATO withdraw all their troops [by September 11] according to the Biden administration’s plan, but the Afghan parties can’t find a way to reach a peace agreement by then, the security situation in Afghanistan will further deteriorate in the future. There are still many variables and uncertainties: Will the future Afghanistan maintain the status quo or experience a civil war? Will a “north-south divide” emerge, or will Afghanistan achieve the peace that the whole country is praying for?
As a close neighbor of Afghanistan, China is a supporter, mediator, and facilitator of the Afghan peace process. Even more than other countries, China hopes to see Afghanistan rid itself of war, achieve peace, move toward stability, start reconstruction, and resume development. But for the moment, achieving peace in Afghanistan is a top priority, which is also the basis and prerequisite for its future development. Therefore, the parties involved in the Afghan peace talks must first follow the trend of the times, listen to the voice of the people, focus on the prosperity of the country and the nation, conduct sincere dialogue and negotiation, abandon old grievances and differences, gather strength and consensus, and achieve real reconciliation and lasting peace at an early date.
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Second, as the United States and NATO are about to end their military occupation of Afghanistan, the destiny of the country must be in the hands of the Afghan people. The principle of “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” should be truly respected, maintained, and guaranteed. At the same time, all parties in Afghanistan should jointly build a political structure in which all ethnic groups and parties in Afghanistan can participate and share power on an equal basis through peaceful negotiations, so that it can be broadly representative and inclusive.
Third, development is the guarantee of peace and the main path to solving the root problem of Afghanistan’s contested governance. In order to ensure lasting peace in Afghanistan, all parties in Afghanistan, countries in the region, and the international community should build consensus and work together to help and support Afghanistan’s ability to rebuild and develop independently, so as to alleviate or even solve difficult problems such as poverty, refugees, and illegal drugs, and finally achieve peace and a virtuous circle of development.
Finally, the United States and NATO should, on the premise of ensuring a smooth transition process in Afghanistan, withdraw their troops in a responsible and orderly manner. No country should take advantage of the situation to seek its own self interest and engage in geopolitical competition. Instead, all parties should lend their efforts to the peace process in Afghanistan and contribute more positive energy.
What role does China hope to see Pakistan, a close partner, play in the Afghan peace process?
Pakistan and Afghanistan are connected by mountains and rivers, and have close links economically, socially, religiously, and culturally. During the Soviet invasion, Pakistan was a frontline country for the international community to support various resistance organizations in Afghanistan. It hosted as many as 3 million Afghan refugees and made unremitting efforts and important contributions to the political settlement of the Afghan issue. After 9/11, Pakistan adjusted its policy toward Afghanistan and stood at the forefront of the international fight against terrorism, and it paid a heavy price and made many sacrifices for this. At present, there are very few countries that can mediate between the parties involved in the Afghan issue and the various factions in Afghanistan; Pakistan is one of them. It has a very important influence on the peace and reconstruction process in Afghanistan.
As a neighboring country of both Pakistan and Afghanistan, China hopes that Pakistan will continue to make full use of its own advantages and play a constructive role in the Afghan peace process. In fact, as an immediate neighbor, it is in Pakistan’s interest to restore peace to Afghanistan at an early date. As long as Afghanistan continues to be in turmoil, terrorist forces will gain strength internally and externally; drug smuggling will be rampant; and Pakistan will suffer. For example, there are still 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees stranded in Pakistan due to the war in their home country. This has not only become a heavy financial burden for Pakistan, but also caused some serious social problems. On the other hand, if peace can be achieved in Afghanistan, Pakistan will be better able to use its geographical advantages to access the abundant resources of Central Asia and develop relations with that region’s Muslim countries.
Therefore, Pakistan has repeatedly advocated peace talks among various factions in Afghanistan. It has supported the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in promoting the establishment of a multi-ethnic, broad-based coalition government in Afghanistan. In recent years, Pakistan has also mediated between the U.S. and the Taliban and between rival political factions in Afghanistan, helping to create conditions for them to build a bridge for direct peace talks.
It is worth mentioning that on the issue of Afghanistan, China and Pakistan have maintained long-term communication and coordination, strengthened close cooperation, actively supported the peace process in Afghanistan, and promoted the early realization of peace, stability, and prosperity in Afghanistan. In addition, China and Pakistan have also held trilateral or quadrilateral dialogues with relevant countries on the issue of Afghanistan, including groupings like China-Pakistan-Afghanistan, China-Russia-Pakistan, China-U.S.-Pakistan-Afghanistan, China-Russia-Iran-Pakistan, etc.
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What are the prospects of Afghanistan linking with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in the future?
At present, the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is still bilateral in nature. However, looking at its development prospects, CPEC is geographically connected to both land and sea, has geographic advantages, and focuses on the cooperative concepts of openness, inclusiveness, and mutual benefit. It is expected to extend to the surrounding areas in the future and become an economic link connecting South Asia, Central Asia, West Asia, South Asia, and the Indian Ocean region, as well as increasing regional and international economic exchanges in these regions.
In March 2017, the 10 countries of South Asia, Central Asia, and West Asia represented at the 13th Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) summit clearly welcomed the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and believed that it would play a role in promoting the development of the entire region. Afghanistan and other neighboring countries have also expressed, to varying degrees, a hope to join the CPEC cooperation framework. In the long run, this will promote the flow and transfer of capital, talents, technology, markets, and other factors in neighboring regions, improve the efficiency of economic resource allocation, and make up for the shortcomings of local regional cooperation and development, thereby driving development in China’s central and western regions, Pakistan, and the surrounding areas. Therefore, the leaders of Pakistan have repeatedly emphasized that CPEC not only benefits China and Pakistan, but also brings development and prosperity to the entire region, thereby benefiting 3 billion people.
As for the prospect of Afghanistan connecting with CPEC in the future, I personally think that it will depend on whether Afghanistan can truly achieve lasting peace. Frankly speaking, both China and Pakistan hope to see Afghanistan achieve peace and stability, develop its economy and society, and improve its peoples’ livelihood. China and Pakistan have also noticed that Afghanistan’s unique geographical advantages are helpful to strengthen regional connectivity, and are already making full use of mechanisms like the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue to strengthen cooperation with Afghanistan.
The Chinese side has made it clear that it welcomes Afghanistan to ride the “high-speed train” of Chinese development, give full play to its geographical and resource advantages, and actively participate in the construction of the Belt and Road Initiative. At the same time, the Chinese government also encourages powerful Chinese companies to invest and start businesses in Afghanistan. China has also convened the “China-Afghanistan-Central Asia” trade and connectivity vice foreign minister-level meeting to provide more development opportunities for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. In short, if Afghanistan can truly achieve lasting peace, it is expected to gradually integrate into regional economic development, be closely connected with CPEC, and even become a hub for interconnection and economic integration in the central region of Asia.
On the other hand, if Afghanistan continues be mired in war, economic depression, and high unemployment, international capital, talents, technology, and markets will inevitably avoid connections and transfers to Afghanistan. In that case, various regional trade channels and economic corridors will also stall and make detours.
How would a full U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan impact China’s interests in the region?
The Afghan War brought to Afghanistan a loss of sovereignty, political turmoil, economic decline, and huge losses in both lives and property. In his departure speech, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai publicly accused the United States of keeping Afghanistan in a prolonged war, saying that the conflict is “not our war, but imposed on us and we are the victims.” Now, the U.S. government has finally decided to end the war and withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Now this country, which has been suffering from war for over 40 years, can see the dawn of peace.
Obviously, the end of the military occupation of Afghanistan by the United States and NATO and their orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan in a responsible manner are not only in line with the wishes of the Afghan people, but also in the interests of countries in the region. But the Biden administration is not conditioning its withdrawal on progress in the peace talks, and instead laid out a plan to completely withdraw from Afghanistan by a specific date. If the United States fails to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in a responsible manner, it will lay many hidden dangers for Afghanistan and its neighboring countries. If the Afghan parties fail to reach a peace agreement by then, and terrorist forces take the opportunity to create chaos, the security situation in Afghanistan will further deteriorate in the future.
Furthermore, after the full withdrawal of the United States and NATO, the resources invested in Afghanistan will inevitably decrease, resulting in varying degrees of changes in the regional structure, order, and balance of power, thereby adding a number of uncertainties. In addition, due to the impact of the war, the issue of arms smuggling and drug proliferation in Afghanistan is almost out of control, and the “spillover” phenomenon of international terrorist organizations in Afghanistan is also impossible to prevent. All of this is largely a by-product of the war in Afghanistan, but it will harm Afghanistan and continue to afflict neighboring countries such as China and Pakistan.
How much of China’s regional strategy is driven by terrorism concerns?
At present, the world is undergoing the biggest changes in a century, intertwined with the worst pandemic in a century, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Changes in the international balance of power are accelerating, the disorder of the global order has intensified, and the world has entered a period of turbulent change, with markedly increased instability and uncertainty.
Facing the rapidly changing new situation and unprecedented new opportunities and challenges, the main points of China’s regional strategy are twofold. On the one hand, China seeks to safeguard national security, promote economic development, maintain stability in border areas, and create a peaceful international environment. On the other hand, China will promote, discuss, and build shared regional governance, build a new type of international relations among countries in the region, promote regional peace, stability, and development, and create a regional community with a shared future. Obviously, the fight against terrorism is one aspect of it.
Terrorism is the common enemy of mankind, and it is also a severe challenge faced by countries in the region. As countries that are victims of terrorism, China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are on the frontline of international counterterrorism. However, international terrorist forces such as al-Qaida and the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” are linked to each other and commit crimes, which has become a common threat to these countries. Like most countries in the world, China actively participates in international anti-terrorism cooperation, advocates that counterterrorism should address both symptoms and root causes, and opposes all forms of terrorism and the implementation of double standards on counterterrorism issues.