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China’s 'new' Afghan policy

Publication Date : 29-09-2012


Those having nightmares about China’s "new" Afghan policy should relax: the "new" policy is unlikely to make a break from the past, especially  because China is soon going to have a new leadership.

Since the 1979 Soviet invasion, Beijing has chosen to sit on the sidelines, while thoroughly enjoying the predicament of the two superpowers. The lessons it learnt showed themselves unmistakably in two strategic decisions: a low-profile policy towards its south-western neighbour and distaste for any kind of military involvement.

The recent high-level contact between the two countries wasn’t high level in the bilateral sense. From the Afghan side was, of course, President Hamid Karzai, but the man from Beijing was neither President Hu Jintao, nor Prime Minister Wen Biao, nor even foreign minister Yang Jiechi. It was Zhou Yangkang.

Zhou is a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, besides being secretary of the Committee of Political and Legislative Affairs of the CPC Central Committee. The nearly three-line honorific conveys nothing. The media, however, bills him as a top security official, and in this capacity he talked to the Afghan chief for four hours.

It was the first visit in 46 years by a supposedly top Chinese official, the last one being by President Liu Shao-chi in 1966. Karzai himself visited China three times, but there was no return visit by a Chinese head of state or government.

Since the Liu visit, events in Afghanistan have rocked the world — the monarchy’s overthrow, the murder of four presidents (Daud, Taraki, Hafizullah Amin and Najibullah), the Taliban rule, the fallout of 9/11, the US-Nato attack, the end of the Taliban regime and the war since then.

Today China’s concerns about Afghanistan revolve around the one question haunting all of its neighbours: the post-2014 scenario. Will there be political stability, or will Afghanistan dissolve into anarchy?

In the latter case, China’s foremost worry is the security of its Muslim majority province of Xinkiang. Will the Taliban instigate the Muslim separatist groups fighting for an independent "Eastern Turkestan"? Beijing feels a revival of the Afghan-supported Uighur insurgency could destabilise Xinkiang.

It resumed diplomatic ties with Kabul in the post-Taliban period and has since then maintained a low-profile policy. No wonder China is not part of the hush-hush peace process now under way; instead, Beijing has used the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to engage Kabul on the peace process.

Broadly speaking, Chinese aims do not run counter to Western objectives, for Beijing too wants a peaceful Afghanistan, where it could make economic gains. (It has already invested US$3.5 billion in Aypak copper mines), and it supports the "Afghan-owned and Afghan-led" peace process.

It also upholds what is known as the "Kabul process" — the Karzai regime taking over full administrative responsibility by the time the International Security Assistance Force troops depart.

In case the Kabul process fails, and the country relapses into anarchy, the one mistake China is not going to make is to get involved militarily directly or indirectly. This holds a lesson or two for Islamabad, too.

The writer is a member of staff of Dawn.


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