A position paper, China’s image, and what it means

Beijing’s position paper, on its policy in Afghanistan, is reflective of its recent efforts to present China as a nation that is now heavily invested in addressing ‘international hot button issues’

May 08, 2023 12:08 am | Updated 11:47 am IST

At Samarkand, in Uzbekistan

At Samarkand, in Uzbekistan | Photo Credit: AP

In early April this year (12-13), the Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Qin Gang, along with his counterparts from Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan met in Samarkand for the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries. The meeting coincided with the release of a position paper by Beijing on its policy in Afghanistan. Titled, ‘China’s position on the Afghan Issue’, the 11-point paper is important for two reasons, the first vis-à-vis China’s involvement in Afghanistan, it gives a clear indication of Beijing’s policy towards the crisis-ridden country and the areas it will prioritise in its engagement with the Taliban moving forward. Beyond Afghanistan, the paper is reflective of China’s recent efforts to refashion how it is viewed internationally — from a country bent on disrupting the current world order to one which is heavily invested in addressing ‘international hot button issues’ objectively with no motivations to further its vested interests, unlike America.

The context of the policy choices

The paper first delineates the core principles which inform Beijing’s policy choices — the ‘Three Respects’ and ‘Three Nevers’, i.e., China respects the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan and the ‘independent choice’, religious sentiments and national customs of the Afghan people. These principles are put in opposition to the policies followed by the West which, according to Beijing, are informed more by geopolitics and their vested interests.

As per China, Afghanistan is currently transitioning from a period of turbulence under a United States-backed government to relative stability under the Taliban. A consistent trope throughout the paper is the West’s failure in fulfilling its commitments to the country. Its decision to intervene militarily and enforce its conception of democracy without taking into account the distinct characteristics of Afghanistan is blamed for starting the crisis in the first place. Deriding the U.S. for imposing unilateral sanctions and illegally freezing Afghanistan’s foreign reserves, China calls for a reversal of these actions. In response to Washington’s failure to introspect, Beijing commits to help Afghanistan move towards a more sustainable form of economy.

Using groupings without the U.S., its allies

Urging the international community to view the Afghan issue in a ‘comprehensive, balanced and objective manner’, China advocates using alternative regional groupings which do not include the U.S. and its allies, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Moscow Format Dialogue, the Foreign Ministers’ group which just met, and the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue, for discussing the Afghan issue. This will help Beijing in promoting an alternative model as opposed to the battered approach of the West, allowing it to focus more on its priorities and form a consensus among Afghanistan’s neighbours.

Framing its involvement in purely humanitarian terms, good neighbourliness and mutual respect for its neighbours, Beijing has avoided acknowledging its own interests in the country. It blames the current turmoil in the world, with the presence of multiple crises and renewed competition, for forcing it to adopt a ‘proactive approach’, arguing how countries are urging China to take charge as the U.S. has abdicated its responsibility. This characterisation of its actions is done to mask how stability in Afghanistan is also important for Beijing to attain its own security and economic interests in the country and to present a counter to U.S. hegemony, both politically and financially.

For China, the threat of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan and its potential to harm Chinese interests and personnel are very real. Calling for a bilateral and multilateral approach to respond to the ‘Three Forces’ of terrorism, extremism and separatism, China urges the Taliban, regional countries and the international community to crack down on terror groups, specifically the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and help Afghanistan in augmenting its counterterrorism capabilities. The question of refugees and narcotics and their cross-border trafficking are also highlighted. Owing to its strategic location, Afghanistan is also economically very important for China: for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and due to the presence of vast mineral resources.

Since the beginning of 2023, China has taken incremental steps to entrench its image as a major country playing a crucial role in ensuring global governance and providing a ‘moderate and pluralistic environment’ for dialogue. The release of the concept paper on the Global security initiative and the peace proposal on Ukraine which preceded the position paper on Afghanistan signal Beijing’s quest to modify its image and solidify its role as a responsible mediator. Its apparent success in bringing Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table and the visits by leaders from Europe are projected as an indicator of Beijing’s growing influence.

While the Taliban have welcomed the paper and China’s ‘long-term political support’ to the country, China’s success in Afghanistan will remain contingent on what it could offer to the Taliban. China’s high-sounding rhetoric on the linkages between Afghanistan and China has failed to materialise into an increased footprint on the ground. For India, China’s continued engagement with Russia and Iran, along with the Central Asian countries will be consequential in understanding how their policies will shape and what it would mean for India’s interests in Afghanistan.

Harsh V. Pant is Vice-President for Studies and Foreign Policy at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi and Professor at King’s College London. Shivam Shekhawat is a research assistant at the Observer Research Foundation

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