By Imtiaz Gul
During his rare visit to Kabul in February, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized categorically that ”the peace and stability of Afghanistan has an impact on the security of western China, and more importantly, it affects the tranquility and development of the entire region”. Most observers interpreted it as an expression of the Chinese concern for the Muslim separatist turmoil in Xinjiang. Yet, recent meetings with leading Chinese scholars and academics in Beijing and Guangzhou markedly went beyond these concerns.
For the first time, Chinese scholars – essentially resonating governmental policy preferences – are becoming louder and assertive in their messaging on the role and vision of their country in regional cooperation. The new Chinese policy can be dissected into:
Advocacy for a regional approach on Afghanistan as a core element of peace and stability
Emphatic appreciation of Pakistan’s centrality, its sacrifices and equivocal support for it
Desire for inclusion of Iran in the Afghan reconciliation
Readiness to develop synergy of thought and action for close collaboration with India in the larger interest of the entire region
Rejection of the US unilateral, interventionist policies (Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan)
Discussions with Chinese experts and analysts on the sidelines of a trilateral dialogue entailed the Chinese desire that all neighbouring countries plus the United States should agree on a joint mechanism to deal with the post-withdrawal Afghanistan. This mechanism, they insist, must ensure political, ethnic and regional balance. Such an arrangement, they hope, will also help in continuing the Karzai policies.
Secondly, one can discern an unmistakable and categorical sympathy, empathy and support for Pakistan.
Former ambassador to Pakistan, Zhou Gang, who is now part of an advisory committee in the ministry of foreign affairs, was equally vociferous in his support for Pakistan as a “centrally important to Afghan reconciliation.”
“We are very concerned about Pakistan and the government is determined to implement the 128 plus projects as soon as possible as a measure of economic support and political solidarity,” he told me.
Along with some other compatriots, Ambassador Gang admitted in the presence of Pakistani guests that the international recognition for Pakistan’s sacrifices is “certainly not enough” despite the devastating political and socio-economic impact that over a decade of involvement in the war against terrorism has had on the country.
This interaction was both a moment of pride and reflection. Official Chinese scholars were pleading Pakistan’s case like Pakistanis themselves don’t. Their message to the American administration via intellectuals sounded loud and clear – Pakistan has suffered enough and instead of continuously condemning it with undue expectations, China will stand by it come what may.
Thirdly, China has begun underlining the inclusion of Iran in the Afghan reconciliation process as an “unavoidable compulsion.”
The US must maintain a balance between its relations with all regional players and should not hope to align one and allay the others within the same geographical region, was the candid message during private conversations. Chinese officials now urge the United States and its close allies to engage Iran which could infuse the much-needed confidence among major stakeholders and facilitate the regional collaboration on Afghanistan.
This could potentially also mitigate, if not rub-off, the complicated bilateral and multi-lateral relationships, stymied by mistrust, ie mistrust between US and China, Pakistan and US, US and Russia, and US and Iran. All these suspicions make collaboration on Afghan reconciliation difficult and arduous, they pointed out. If India thinks it needs to engage Pakistan, it shall have to move out of its present wait-and-see position, they suggested.
Fourthly, China is ready to unconditionally engage with India in the larger regional interest. Officials and academics in Beijing agree that India-China economic cooperation in Afghanistan can take care of some of Pakistani concerns about the encroaching Indian engagement in Afghanistan. China can keep Pakistan on board on its dialogue with India and thus ensure a relatively smoother multi-lateral and mutually beneficial arrangement not only for Afghanistan but for the entire region.
The fifth element that comes through very clearly in the interaction with Chinese analysts and officials, is their message of caution to the United States. Successive US administrations have tended to be “socio-politically soft at home and geo-politically hard hegemonistic abroad,” remarked a former general. It is about time that the US reassured interlocutors of long-term commitment rather than using them as instruments for meeting immediate goals and then moving away, he said. China will be more than willing to use its political and diplomatic clout to help the US out of Afghanistan and facilitate peaceful Afghanistan but this must not happen at the cost of one or the other nation, cautioned the Chinese.
Clearly, China is focused on the Economic and Energy Corridor between Xinjiang and Gawdar. Yet, its efforts to achieve these objectives are rooted in its principle of “non-interference and peaceful economic collaboration. While its ascendant engagement within the region and its focus on Pakistan as the centerpiece of its economic expansion policy appears to flow from its own needs, yet unlike the Washington, Beijing seems to believe in soft-peddling of agendas through confidence-building measures. It is also promising big, and much-needed infrastructure investments as expression of solidarity with Pakistan.
While Chinese friends are overflowing with appreciation of Pakistan’s precarious situation, a big question confronting the Pakistani ruling elites is whether they too are ready to help themselves? While extending unconditional support, they expect categorical answers from Pakistan as to whether ambiguity over state institutions’ relationships with non-state entities is making way for a more candid policy embedded in commitment to indiscriminate rule of law? Is the Pakistani leadership ready to help Pakistan?
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India