China and the Afghanistan Regional Approach

The oddest thing about recent discussions of the “regional approach” to Afghanistan is that it systematically ignores the pink elephant in the room: China. So we hear about Af-Pak, with India referred to by its given name out of deference. But if you talk about Pakistan and India without talking about China, you’re leaving out a big part of the equation. To see why, check out the feature issue WPR ran on the region titled, The Asian Triangle, but especially the Arif Rafiq piece, Pakistan’s Search for Security (subscription required.)

It just so happens that Chinese interests on Afghanistan and Pakistan happen to align with ours. They have much the same concerns as we do with regard to the Taliban, only instead of al-Qaida, they’re worried about training and safe harbor for Uighur Islamic insurgents who could feed an independence povement in Xianjing province. That’s why, all the snarky remarks you might have read about U.S. forces securing Chinese copper mines in Afghanistan notwithstanding, substantial Chinese investment in Afghanistan is a good thing. The greater China’s stake in Afghanistan, the greater its interests in stabilizing the place.

Here’s the wrinkle. According to this Peter Lee piece in Asia Times Online (via China Matters), China has long enjoyed “diplomatic immunity” in Afghanistan and Pakistan because of its close ties with Islamabad, but also because of its Soviet-era logistical support to the Mujahadeen. That’s recently been thrown into doubt by a series of kidnappings of Chinese nationals by various Taliban factions, meaning China has some reason to view the Talibanization of Pashtunistan with increasing alarm.

Lee suggests that China might be distancing itself from the Zardari regime as a way of hedging its bets and increasing its liberty of action to engage non-Taliban Pakistani Islamists directly. The goal would be to peel off the “moderates,” in much the same way that President Barack Obama recently suggested reaching political accomodation with “moderate Taliban” in Afghanistan.

If so, Beijing is still hedging a bit on the Zardari side of that equation, too, as it just agreed to build the two nuclear reactors it promised back in October (in lieu of the bailout package Zardari had requested at the time). But the logic of China leaning on Pakistan to make peace with the Taliban in Swat in return for “moderation” — i.e., putting Chinese nationals off limits again and not aiding and abetting Uighur insurgents — doesn’t seem farfetched either.

In either case, a recent People’s Daily op-ed cited by Lee makes the Chinese approach pretty clear:

A commentary in the People’s Daily on February 23 contained a clear statement of China’s desire that the threat of Islamic militancy be neutralized through concerted multilateralism instead of by a quixotic US-led military campaign of extermination.

It warned the President Barack Obama administration not to rely solely on a unilateral hard power surge to solve the Afghan problem, and urged the United States to stabilize Pakistan, conciliate Russia, and be realistic in defining acceptable outcomes for Afghanistan.

The Obama administration would do well to include China in its regional calculations. China’s ties to Pakistan go back further and, according to Rafiq, carry more weight in Islamabad as well as among the Pakistani population. Our goals and interests might overlap, but if our methods differ, it would be yet another reason to question how realistic our objectives in Afghanistan really are.