Assessing China’s Afghan Peace Play

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 23

China's Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Ambassador Sun Yuxi, signing agreements with Afghan officials in 2004. (Credit: Xinhua)

Breaking with decades of distancing itself from Afghanistan’s various armed conflicts, the Chinese government has offered to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan national government and the Afghan Taliban insurgency movement. On November 29, Sun Yuxi, China’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan, for the first time publicly confirmed that he had met with representatives of the Afghan Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan, to discuss the modalities of their possible participation in peace negotiations (Pakistan Today, November 29). At the October 30 Istanbul Process ministerial conference in Beijing, the Chinese government quietly proposed establishing a “peace and reconciliation forum” in which representatives from the Kabul government, the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan and China would meet to discuss ending the fighting and reintegrating the insurgents into Afghanistan’s political process (Reuters, November 11).

President Ghani, who has developed good ties with Chinese officials during his years as a senior Afghan and World Bank official, made China the destination of his first official foreign visit last month. Ghani arrived in Beijing, on October 28, and met with President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders before participating in the Fourth Foreign Ministerial Conference of the Istanbul (“Heart of Asia”) Process on Afghanistan. The participating countries backed 64 separate projects designed to promote Afghanistan’s socioeconomic reconstruction, national security and regional integration (China Daily, November 3). Arguing that, “Peace and stability in Afghanistan have a direct bearing on China’s security and stability” and highlighting the reciprocal positive effects of economic development and political stability, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang delivered an opening address that offered five principles designed to support a solution to the Afghan conflict, including “a broadly-based, inclusive political reconciliation” (Xinhua, October 31). Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying noted, on October 24, that the event marked the first time China had hosted a major international meeting on Afghanistan (China Daily, October 30).

In their pre-summit meeting at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, President Xi called President Ghani “an old friend of the Chinese people,” and said that he was prepared to work toward “a new era of cooperation in China-Afghanistan relations” to “take development to a new depth and breadth” (Xinhua, October 29). Calling China a “strategic partner, in the short term, medium term, long term and very long term,” Ghani pledged to assist China’s campaign against terrorism, identified harmonious parallels between both countries’ vision for regional economic integration and confirmed Beijing’s sovereignty over “Taiwan, Tibet and other issues” (South China Morning Post, October 28; China Daily, October 29; Reuters, October 28). In four bilateral agreements signed during the summit, China pledged 2 billion Renminbi ($330 million) in aid to Afghanistan from 2014 to 2017—more than the approximately $250 million that China has provided since 2001—and to train 3,000 more Afghan professionals over the next five years. Both governments called for more Chinese investment in Afghanistan and for expanded government-wide bilateral cooperation as they prepare to celebrate the 60th anniversary of their relationship next year (Xinhua, October 29).

The escalation of Islamist-linked terrorism in China during the past year and the Western military drawdown have evidently alarmed Beijing and encouraged the Chinese government to take new initiatives (see China Brief, November 7). China has succeeded in securing the backing of Afghanistan and its neighbors for Beijing’s counterterrorist policies. In 2013, China and Afghanistan signed a terrorist extradition treaty and agreed to intensify cooperation against other transnational security threats, such as illegal immigration and trafficking in arms, narcotics and people (Xinhua, September 27). But Chinese analysts still believe that foreign sponsors in Central and South Asia are abetting terrorist attacks in China. And with Western governments devoting fewer military and economic resources to the Afghan theater, Chinese leaders can less confidently rely on others to assume most of the burden of preventing Afghanistan from threatening such core Chinese interests as the PRC’s internal security, its economic assets in Afghanistan as well as China’s regional economic and security objectives in nearby Pakistan and Central Asia. [1]

Beijing’s Afghan Chits

China brings certain advantages to its Afghan peace efforts that might make them more successful than the efforts of the United States and other countries.

First, many Afghans and others believe the Chinese argument that China can apply its enormous resources to help develop the Afghan economy and thereby address some socioeconomic causes of Afghans’ discontent (, September 29). In 2008, the China Metallurgical Group Corporation highlighted China’s potential economic role in Afghanistan by acquiring a 30-year lease to mine high-grade cooper ore from the Mes Aynak mine in Logar Province for $3 billion. The World Bank estimates that the Mes Aynak mine, which will be the largest private sector project in Afghan history when operational, would create tens of thousands of local jobs and provide the government with $250 million in annual revenue (International Business Times, August 25). In December 2011, the China National Petroleum Company signed a deal to explore for oil and natural gas in Afghanistan’s Amu Darya River Basin, in return for constructing Afghanistan’s first oil refinery and other compensation. Special Envoy Sun said that “we have assured the Taliban leadership that we will bring development and prosperity to Afghanistan” (Pakistan Today, November 29).

Second, Afghans and others hope that China can use its influence in Islamabad to induce Pakistan’s security establishment to more comprehensively support the Afghan peace process rather than pursue a dual-hedging policy of cooperating with both the Afghan government and the Taliban (Xinhua, October 29). Pakistan, which has more influence with the Afghan Taliban than any other country, is one of China’s closest partners. Although Chinese officials have apparently rebuked Islamabad for failing to prevent Islamist militants from using Pakistani territory to stage several attacks inside China, Chinese diplomats have recently publicly praised the Pakistani government for fighting terrorism (Chinese Foreign Ministry, June 17). Pakistani mediation may also have helped the Chinese government exchange messages with the Afghan Taliban well before the recent Chinese-Taliban talks in Peshawar.

Third, President Xi’s administration has displayed a willingness to adopt a higher-profile foreign policy in general, despite the risks to Beijing of breaking with its low-key stance on controversial international issues. Xi’s boldness has been most evident in the East and South China Seas, where Chinese diplomats and ships are for the first time enforcing Beijing’s territorial claims, notwithstanding the risks of triggering a countervailing coalition among Japan, the Philippines and other maritime powers. To China’s west, Xi has augmented China’s “New Silk Road Economic Belt” vision with new infusions of cash and transportation infrastructure projects designed to facilitate China’s trade with and through Central Asia, Pakistan and Iran. Although the Chinese government has preferred that other countries take the lead in stabilizing Afghanistan, China’s growing regional presence in South Asia has made Chinese policy makers more sensitive to how instability in Afghanistan could disrupt China’s regional economic and security plans. Even before confirming his discussions with the Taliban, Special Envoy Sun was floating such original ideas as launching joint Chinese-Indian humanitarian reconstruction projects in Afghanistan (The Hindu, July 22).

Finally, China lacks the negative historical legacy of other countries that have assumed a high-profile role in Afghanistan. China is one of Afghanistan’s few neighbors that has not regularly intervened in the country’s civil wars. In July, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid reportedly said that, “We have no problems with China as it has never interfered in Afghanistan. The Chinese will be safe” (The Express Tribune, July 26). Beijing also benefits from the advent of the new Afghan presidential administration; the Taliban evidently distrusted dealing with former President Hamid Karzai, Ghani’s predecessor, as much as Pakistan and Western governments. Of course, launching a diplomatic initiative regarding Afghanistan is still a relatively low-cost, low-risk endeavor from Beijing’s perspective, compared with the massive military and economic exertions of the Soviet and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) governments in Afghanistan in recent decades.

China’s Afghan Challenges

Yet, China faces major challenges in bringing peace to Afghanistan when so many others, ranging from foreign countries to international organizations like the United Nations, have failed.

First, China has found it difficult to apply its potentially most powerful tool, its economic wealth, to Afghanistan due to many local obstacles. When President Xi met then-President Karzai in Beijing in September 2013, Xi said that, besides encouraging Chinese firms to invest in Afghanistan, China would “always provide assistance to Afghanistan within the realm of its capabilities” (Xinhua, September 27, 2013). In 2013, this amounted to only some 200 million RMB ($32 million), though the Chinese government also provides training to Afghan experts in such subjects as agriculture, education, engineering, finance, trade, as well as supporting Chinese language and academic exchanges (Xinhua, September 27, 2013). Notwithstanding a few showcase projects that make China the largest single national source of foreign direct investment in Afghanistan, Chinese companies have only some 30 active projects in Afghanistan (China Daily, October 29). Furthermore, delays in excavating a nearby 9,800-acre archeological site, falling world copper prices, inadequate Afghan investment legislation and serious security challenges have effectively halted work at the Mes Aynak copper mine (South China Morning Post, August 23). Observers fear that, without large-scale foreign investment, Afghanistan’s enormous natural resources will either remain undeveloped or fall under the control of black-market smugglers including warlords and terrorists (South China Morning Post, August 23). The Afghan government still cannot afford to pay for its enormous army and police forces.

Second, China has few negative sanctions that Beijing can employ against the parties to prod them to make concessions. The government has generally opposed applying sanctions on principle and in any case does not provide any of the parties with much economic assistance that Beijing could threaten to withhold. China also lacks powerful military tools that it can apply in Afghanistan,). However much weakened in practice, the principle of non-interference, combined with a prudent desire to avoid gratuitously making trouble by creating new foreign adversaries, restrains China from taking steps to pressure a party into agreeing or implementing a compromise agreement.

Finally, unlike several other third countries, China does not have strong local and international partners for Afghanistan. Whereas Pakistan, Iran, Russia, India and Western governments have cultivated politicians, warlords and other influential Afghans, the Chinese government has sought to avoid getting bogged down in Afghan internal politics. Yet, whereas Russia and India have renewed their former Afghan partnership, and NATO governments have sustained their collective presence in the country, Beijing has only a problematic partnership with Islamabad. Pakistan’s repeated interference in Afghan politics is widely unpopular among Afghans, while even the Chinese have recoiled at Islamabad’s political instability, ties with regional terrorist groups and faltering economy. China has always directed Pakistani officials to rely on Western aid rather than expect Beijing to pay for Islamabad’s flawed economic policies. Meanwhile, Russia’s cooperation with China on Afghanistan, whether directly or through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, remains highly circumscribed, while formal China-NATO ties are almost nonexistent.

Washington’s Cautious Welcome

In his October meeting with President Xi, President Ghani said he had told U.S. President Barack Obama earlier that week that Afghanistan “would be a model for cooperation between China and the United States” (Bloomberg, October 29). At the time of Ghani’s visit to Beijing, a senior U.S. State Department official insisted in a background briefing that Washington saw “Afghanistan as a place of cooperation, not competition with China,” which “is a critical partner in this region, and has an important role to play in ensuring peace and stability in Afghanistan” (China Daily, October 30). According to another account of this phone call with an unidentified State Department official in Beijing, the past five years have seen “an increased convergence of interest” between Beijing and Washington regarding Afghanistan as well as “broader and deeper” cooperation (Bloomberg, October 30). Secretary of State John Kerry communicated the same message when showing Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi around Boston two weeks earlier (China Daily, October 30). The United States has generally supported China’s growing, if still modest, engagement in Afghanistan. The two governments run a joint program to train a small number of young Afghan diplomats each year for a couple weeks in Beijing and Washington. Wu Xi, Minister of the Chinese embassy in the United States, called the program a “good example of how the new model of major-country relationship between China and the United States can contribute to the region” (Xinhua, October 21). The U.S. government undertook a similar peace mediation effort a few years ago to facilitate talks in Qatar between the Afghan government and the Taliban, but both parties sabotaged the process in competing efforts to achieve tactical advantages.

In a commentary entitled, “China Faces a Delicate Task in Afghanistan,” a Chinese author explained Beijing’s reasoning as: “A comprehensive involvement in Afghan affairs by China will bring huge risks. It will have to confront the mess that the US experienced, the different views of Afghan sects in addition to the remaining US influence, making it a nearly impossible idea. But the West insists China is taking a free ride in Afghanistan, urging us to offer more. Kabul also has high expectations on China over its rebuilding. China has many interests in Afghanistan. No matter how risky Afghanistan’s peaceful reconstruction is, China needs to be there…This is the cost of being a major power and we need to get used to it” (Global Times, October 30).

Nonetheless, the Chinese government has still declined to join other countries and help Afghanistan pay the estimated $4 billion annual cost of sustaining its army and police forces. Instead, it has launched a modest program to train 300 Afghan police officers over the course of several years. However much Washington and other actors welcome China’s peace initiative, and however much Chinese analysts reject President Obama’s description of China as a global free rider, for the next few years, it will be the United States, not China, that will likely contribute the most financial and military assistance to the Afghan government.


  1. For a discussion of these larger Chinese interests and options in Afghanistan see the author’s upcoming report for The Jamestown Foundation entitled Opportunity or Nightmare? Beijing Ponders Western Military Withdrawal From Afghanistan, as well as Dirk van der Kley, “China’s foreign policy in Afghanistan,” Lowy Institute, October 24; and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Daniel Trombly, and Nathaniel Barr, “China’s Post-2014 Role in Afghanistan,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Washington, DC, October.