As negotiations with the Taliban stall and sputter, headlines have not neglected the role of China in post-2014 considerations. If reconciliation negotiations continue, look for continued reference to China. Yet expect these references to be head nods treating China tangentially–acknowledging the current status, but not constructively building the pressure for U.S. negotiators to aggressively reach out to their Chinese counterparts.
Hence, I appreciate Foreign Policy for drawing attention to this overlooked piece of the reconciliation puzzle. Foreign Policy published Andrew Small’s article “Why Is China Talking to the Taliban?” last week, which in many ways supports my prior argument about a Sino-U.S. partnership in Central Asia, particularly in Afghanistan. Small describes the history of Sino-Taliban relations since the 1990s and how, in a post-9/11 world, the Chinese have “China has forged a good working relationship with the Karzai government, without ever becoming too closely identified with it by the insurgency.”
China supports reconciliation talks. In fact, Small writes,
Chinese officials have even mentioned to their U.S. counterparts the possibility of Beijing using its own contacts with the Taliban to help support reconciliation talks, according to sources familiar with the discussions.
Add to Beijing’s rolodex the all-weather friend Pakistan, who will have a role in Afghanistan whichever way the reconciliation talks end. China has ties with the Taliban, the Karzai government, and Pakistan. No other country can rival this wealth of diplomatic capital, not to mention China’s lack of heavy political baggage.
China has been a savvy businessman, projecting an “open for business” image to all sides. The question of Uyghur jihadists continues to be the proverbial rock in the shoe, but Beijing has consistently been able to exert a diplomatic balancing act between external relations and internal concerns. The current holding pattern of diplomatic relations spells out the opportunity the United States has to anchor China into its post-2014 plans in Afghanistan. This not only makes sense in terms of economics, regional politics, and security, but can be another bright spot in the broader Sino-U.S. relationship where overlapping goals engender habits of cooperation.
Small asks the question, “So will Beijing play a greater role in the upcoming peace talks among Kabul, the Taliban, and the United States?” His answer: “Probably not.” Small argues that China may pass on this opportunity due to 1) the risky nature of the negotiation process, and 2) Islamabad not wanting interference. He pits these two factors against 1) Pakistan needs China more than China needs Pakistan and 2) Beijing prioritizes Afghanistan’s stability over Islamabad’s influence. Small thinks the factors against involvement outweigh those for it. He might be right. But what if we add a third pro-involvement factor: the United States.
If the U.S. negotiators aggressively pursue the Chinese side, we could have a different ball game. It has been oft repeated that Beijing shies away from foreign commitments that do not play directly into its personal interests. China does not envy the U.S. role of insurer of the global order. But this is China’s own backyard. Beijing recognizes its stake in a stable Afghanistan and the U.S. should engage the Chinese on this basis.
Let’s call this the Jerry Maguire tactic of diplomacy: “Help me help you.” Thus framed, China should help the United States help them with their Afghanistan problems. China is worried about Uyghur unrest stemming from the Af-Pak region. China wants to make sure its economic investments, such as the Aynak copper mine (which I hope to write about soon), are secure from attack. In helping the United States with reconciliation talks, Beijing is helping itself.
On Wednesday, June 19, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying said, “The establishment of the political office in Doha represents a positive development. We applaud relevant parties’ active efforts.” Since then, the Karzai government has withdrawn from the talks. The U.S. footprint in the region is diminishing, but China has big feet and it means to sit tight in Central Asia. The U.S. should encourage the Chinese Foreign Ministry to not only applaud, but also apply pressure to bring Kabul back to the table. Pressure from Beijing will be taken seriously in Kabul if applied correctly.
The window of opportunity is shrinking. U.S. negotiators should reach out to their Chinese counterparts to pressure both the Taliban and the Karzai government to jumpstart the reconciliation talks. The Chinese should help the United States help China.