Stories have emerged once again of China’s military presence in Afghanistan. These reports come after China thwarted India’s attempt to get Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar added to the U.N. list of proscribed terrorist individuals, and China appeared to christen a new regional grouping after a meeting in Moscow with Pakistan and Russian officials to discuss the future of Afghanistan.
Seen from New Delhi, the picture could be interpreted as one of growing Chinese alignment towards Pakistan. In reality, these shifts mark the growth of China as a regional security actor whose views are not entirely dissimilar to India‘s.
The main characterization of Beijing’s efforts in Afghanistan remains hedging. China continues to engage through multiple regional and international formats. Either through international multilateral vehicles like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the ‘Heart of Asia’ or ‘Istanbul Process’, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA); or through sub-regional groupings like hosting Pakistan-Afghanistan-China trilateral, bilateral engagements with India, Russia, the UK, Germany, the U.S. or Pakistan focused on Afghanistan (some including specific projects - like the American joint training programmes); or finally through Chinese instigated mechanisms focused on Afghanistan like the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG made up of Afghanistan, Pakistan, U.S. and China) or the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM, made up of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China).
Of this wide range of engagements, the final one is the most significant to note recently as it can be interpreted as a rejection of the SCO, a regional organization which was constructed to deal with regional security concerns around Afghanistan, but appears to have not delivered enough.
As a result in the wake of Military Chief of Staff Fang Fenghui’s visit to Kabul in March 2016, Beijing established a new regional sub-grouping to focus attention on Afghanistan’s security problems. It has met once at a senior level, and at least once at a more junior level since its establishment -- reflecting a fairly high intensity engagement that until now has been held publicly in China.
This new regional sub-grouping is a reflection of a number of things. On the one hand, it is about China’s military becoming more engaged in a country that until now they have largely played a secondary role to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs lead. It is also a reflection of a growing concern in Beijing about the shift of Uighur militants to Badakhshan in northern Afghanistan from their previous Pakistani hideaways. This in turn helps explain China’s presence on the ground in Afghanistan as well as their desire to bolster Tajikistan’s capacity to defend its own border with Afghanistan.
The other side to China’s regional engagement is its economic investment -- something that comes under the auspices of the Silk Road Economic Belt (through Central Asia and across Eurasia ultimately to Europe) and down the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Afghanistan has always sat awkwardly in between, but recently there has been a particular effort by Beijing to tie Afghanistan into the vision.
In Nov. 2016, Assistant Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou visited Kabul warmly welcoming Afghanistan into the vision and specifically suggested that Afghanistan consider train lines between Quetta and Kabul, and Peshawar and Kabul. It is not clear how these will happen, though soon afterwards the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) won a $205m contract, issued by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to build a 178 km road connecting northern Mazar-i-Sharif city to Yakawlang.
For Beijing, a stable and secure Afghanistan is both key to domestic security as well as its growing investments in Pakistan. And it is not always clear that Beijing finds operating in Pakistan easy. There have been stories of lawsuits, a local population who feel they are not being included in the process as well as human casualties as CPEC tries to bring development to Pakistan’s more isolated regions. China is discovering building CPEC is not a smooth ride.
But Beijing still prizes its relationship with Pakistan, aware that an unstable and paranoid Islamabad is worse than what they have at the moment. Consequently, Beijing will continue to support Pakistan vociferously and publicly - including in defending it from being publicly named and shamed as a ‘state sponsor’ of terrorism in the U.N.
Among the most persuasive reasons for China’s refusal to support the listing of Masood Azhar was the view that Beijing saw him as merely another in a long list of individuals that India sought listing. Given the lack of much impact around the listing of Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Hafiz Saeed, listing Azhar seemed a pointless enterprise for Beijing that would do little except make Islamabad feel cornered.
The lesson here is an important one for India to note. Beijing is not doing this as part of an anti-Indian alignment. It is rather out of national interest which seen from Beijing is about managing Pakistan and stabilizing it. This is a reflection of what China is already trying at home where the maxim that prosperity equals stability is a central driving concept, and is the ideological cornerstone of CPEC.
China is acting as a growing regional power with security interests it wants to deal with itself rather than abrogating such responsibility to others. It has tried repeated multilateral formats, peace talks, and now it is recognizing the need for greater security engagement.
New Delhi should seize this moment to enhance its engagement with Beijing on Afghanistan, using its long history of experience and contacts to find a way to help Afghanistan stabilize alongside China. Both countries are already major economic players in Afghanistan, and India has already contributed substantially in military terms.
Raffaello Pantucci is Director, International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. He is currently working on a number of projects looking at Chinese influence and interests in South and Central Asia.