Beijing emerges as a bridge builder

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Prime Minister’s House in Islamabad.— PHOTO: AFP  

All-weather friend to Pakistan and now a major source of support for Afghanistan, China has positioned itself as a credible bridge-builder between Kabul and Islamabad in order to advance the Afghan peace process.

Last week, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunyin acknowledged that the “Chinese side will continue to play a constructive role in improving Afghanistan-Pakistan relations and promoting the reconciliation process in Afghanistan”. Ms. Hua was responding to a question on the sidelines of the Paris climate conference where Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani. That conversation was followed by Mr. Ghani’s presence at Wednesday’s Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad.

“We sincerely hope that they can keep enhancing mutual trust and jointly safeguard peace and development of the two countries and the whole region,” Ms. Hua observed.

Belt and Road initiative

In Islamabad, Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, stressed at the conference China’s readiness to back Afghanistan in reviving the stalled reconciliation process between the government and the Taliban. He also welcomed Afghanistan’s “active participation” in the Belt and Road initiative that targets integration of regional economies along the Eurasian land corridor. Besides, Afghanistan wants to become a member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which would fund big-ticket infrastructure development in Asia.

Apart from holding a bilateral dialogue with Mr. Sharif and Mr. Ghani, Mr. Wang also held talks in a trilateral format with the two leaders. Besides, the trio met Antony Blinken, the U.S. deputy secretary of state who also participated in the conference.

Analysts point out that two major factors are defining China’s abiding interest in the Afghan peace process aimed at reconciliation between the elected Afghan government and the Taliban.

First, the continuation of political fragility in Afghanistan — a recipe for sanctuaries of international terror groups, including militants from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) — can acutely destablise western China’s Xinjiang province and its peripheral areas.

Second, the strategic Gwadar to Kashgar Economic corridor, which would, for the first time, provide China an access to the Indian Ocean, could be endangered in case of poor political cohesion in Afghanistan.

For Beijing, the Pakistan-China economic corridor is of immense geopolitical value. Close to the oil fields of the Persian Gulf, it can provide an alternate energy transit route to the Malacca Straits, which is militarily dominated by the United States.

Apart from the Afghan government and the Taliban, international guarantees, in case a breakthrough materialises, are being provided by China, Pakistan and the United States — three countries which are also part of the currently stalled Afghan dialogue process.

While Pakistan has been a traditional ally, China has been recently deepening its leverages in Afghanistan. Last month, China’s visiting Vice-President, Li Yuanchao, announced in Kabul Beijing’s intent to provide $237 million of aid over three years, apart from offering $78.9 million this year for the construction of residential buildings in the country.

SCO membership

Given their extraordinary geographic location, Pakistan and Afghanistan are central to the Chinese vision of establishing a new ‘Silk Road world order’.

China is also engaging Afghanistan in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which is pillared on Beijing and Moscow, and is another major building block of the emerging Eurasia-centred political architecture. Already an observer at the SCO, Afghanistan is now seeking full membership of the grouping.

Afghanistan’s Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah, has been invited to participate in next week’s SCO heads of government meeting in Zhengzhou, the capital of central China’s Henan province.

Chinese Minister holds bilateral and trilateral talks with Pak. and Afghan leaders at peace conference