Friday, September 24, 2021

A cautious China increases diplomatic overtures over unfolding situation in Afghanistan amid fears of spillover

China has increased its diplomatic engagements after the Taliban militants captured Afghan capital Kabul on Sunday as former President Ashraf Ghani went into exile. Amid situation unfolding every day in Afghanistan and major stakeholders holding parleys to negotiate for government formation, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi has so far discussed the Afghan situation with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

A worried China has called on Afghan Taliban to break away with terrorist forces including the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which has been accused by China of fueling separatism in its Uyghur dominated western Xinjiang region even though China has been accused of human rights suppression in this region by the west. China is equally worried about its investments in Afghanistan in case of a prolonged civil war in the already ravaged country or a hard-line Islamic policy and a hostile foreign policy adopted by a future Afghan government in which Taliban is expected to play a prominent role.

State media reported that in his telephonic conversation with Qureshi on Wednesday, Wang said China and Pakistan should strengthen communication and coordination on Afghan issues to support a stable power transition in the country and peace in the region. Wang noted that the two sides should encourage all Afghan parties to strengthen solidarity and establish a new broad-based and inclusive political structure that is suited to the Afghan national conditions. China and Pakistan should also support Afghanistan in its fight against terrorism, to prevent the country from becoming a hotbed for terrorism again.

Observers say that China would not like to have an unstable Afghan-Xinjiang border at a time when it is moving very slow in resolving a painfully prolonged border stand-off with India and fighting over sovereignty in the South China Sea and East China Sea. China believes that Pakistan can exert influence on Taliban in establishing a ‘moderate and inclusive Islamic government’ even though experts have expressed doubts over Pakistan’s capability on various counts including its failure to reign in terrorist groups operating from its soil.

Another cause of concern for China is its multi-billion dollar investment in China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which might get attacked in case instability continues in Afghanistan. Pakistan has recently seen a deadly attack on Dasu Power project jointly constructed by China in its northern region bordering Afghanistan which killed 9 Chinese nationals and injured 27 Chinese. After many flip-flops and pressure from China, Pakistan finally termed it as a terrorist attack which experts believe plays into Chinese narrative in the region.

The Chinese and Pakistani embassies in Afghanistan are still operating normally, and the two sides should communicate with the Taliban to ensure the safety of embassy personnel and institutions there, Wang added. He continued to say that the two countries, using their ‘unique role’ as neighbors, should promote international cooperation involving Afghanistan in an orderly manner to push the Afghan situation gradually into a virtuous circle. It is important in this context that China has also announced that CPEC will be extended to Afghanistan despite lack of economic viability of projects and rising concerns about ensuing debts.

State media reported, Wang also exchanged views on the Afghan situation via phone with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, on Wednesday. Wang expressed his expectation to see the commitments of the Taliban be turned into concrete policies and actions, after the Taliban leaders sent positive signals to the outside world. The key now, he said, is to find a reconstruction path that is suited to Afghanistan with a condition that the Taliban must make a clear break with all terrorist forces including the ETIM. Cavusoglu said the Turkish side is willing to maintain close coordination with China and push the situation in Afghanistan to develop in a favorable direction as soon as possible.

At the emergency meeting on Afghanistan held by the UN Security Council on Monday, Geng Shuang, China’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, mentioned China’s basic principle toward Afghanistan: “Afghanistan must never again become a haven for terrorists. This is the bottom line that Afghanistan must stick to, whatever their future political solution may be, the top priority is to restore peace, stability and order as soon as possible, so as to minimize unnecessary casualties and large streams of refugees.”
On Monday, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi held separate phone conversations with his counterparts from Russia and America, major stakeholders in the Afghan issue to cooperate on the transition of government in the country.

During his phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Wang said that China and the U.S. should cooperate to “push for a soft landing of the Afghan issue, so that a new civil war or humanitarian disaster will be prevented in Afghanistan and the country will not relapse into a hotbed and shelter for terrorism,” according to a statement released by the Chinese foreign ministry. Blinken said he hoped that China will also play an important role to this end. He was told Beijing was willing, but Washington would need to step back the pressure on its greatest rival, according to China’s state media.

During his call with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov Wang said that the two countries, as “truly strategic cooperative partners,” should protect each other’s legitimate interests in Afghanistan, maintain timely communication on the situation, and support each other, according to the ministry. Lavrov said that “the Russian side stands ready to timely compare the notes on and jointly respond to the development and evolution of the situation in Afghanistan with the Chinese side,” according to the statement.

When Taliban was in control of vast parts of Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, many extremist organizations were active in the China-Afghanistan border region that endangered China’s sovereignty and security. They were able to travel across borders, using Afghan territory to carry out training and set up camps, infesting the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, colluding with various international terrorist organizations, and endangering regional security and stability.

This is something which is a major worry for China at a time when US had recently removed ETIM from its list of terrorist organizations. Wang said it was “dangerous and mistaken” of the previous US administration to remove the ETIM from its terror list.

Blinken was quoted by the Chinese foreign ministry statement as saying that the Taliban should “announce a clean break with extremism, opt for an orderly transfer of power and establish an inclusive government.” He called on the Taliban to ensure the safety of all those who wish to leave the country, according to the statement. Countries have been evacuating their nationals and their Afghan supporters from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, which is guarded by thousands of U.S. troops.

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