18 January 2015

Exploring a New Role: Peacemaker in Afghanistan

JAN. 14, 2015 

President Xi Jinping of China, right, with Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, at a ceremony in October outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. 

BEIJING — No stranger to engaging in power politics with its Asian neighbors, China’s diplomatic corps has in recent months been trying on a new role: talking with the Afghan Taliban in an effort to play peacemaker.

Late last year, two Afghan Taliban officials traveled with Pakistani officials to Beijing to discuss a potential peace process among Afghanistan’s warring parties, according to three current and former Afghan officials. And that may not have been the first such meeting. Though his account could not be independently confirmed, one Pakistani journalist said that China’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Sun Yuxi, had traveled to Peshawar, Pakistan, to meet with Afghan Taliban representatives weeks earlier.

Despite years of war and turmoil in Afghanistan, China had long seemed reluctant to become directly involved. So what has changed to move it to try to mediate with Islamist militants now? According to Chinese and foreign analysts, the answer lies in three factors: China’s growing worries about aUighur uprising on its own frontier; concern about more instability on its western border after the main American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan; and urgency to secure access to Afghan mineral and oil deposits where Chinese companies have already made large investments.

“Under the new situation, China is more willing to take on greater responsibility and more willing to proactively promote conciliation,” said Zhao Huasheng, a professor and director of the Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

He added that China was in a good position to help shepherd a peace process, now only in the proposal stage, “because China is not involved in Afghanistan’s domestic fights and, comparatively speaking, is pretty broadly accepted.”

Though they are wary about rising Chinese influence, American officials have long encouraged China to play a bigger role in Afghanistan, including using its deep influence with Pakistan to get Islamabad to grant the Americans more access to senior Taliban officials sheltering in that country.

China has been unwilling to openly discuss any dealings it has had with the Taliban. On Jan. 6, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, did not confirm or deny that the recent Beijing meetings had taken place when asked about them at a regularly scheduled news conference. But he did say China would help with the peace process.

“As a friendly neighbor of Afghanistan,” he said, “China attaches great importance to developing relations with Afghanistan; hopes to see Afghanistan achieve lasting peace, stability and development at an early date; supports the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process toward peace and reconciliation; and wishes to play a constructive role to that end.”

The establishing of ties between China and the Afghan Taliban would be significant, said Raffaello Pantucci, a scholar of Islamic militancy and China at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“The key thing is that previously it seemed as if Pakistanis had controlled the entire relationship,” Mr. Pantucci said of Chinese channels to the Afghan Taliban. “Now it seems like the Chinese have a direct line, and they seem willing to admit to it. Whether this will result in something successful is unproven.”

“I think the Afghans have been very keen for the Chinese to play a greater role in Afghanistan,” he added. “I think they’ve generally been quite disappointed.”

The Afghan Embassy in Beijing did not reply to an interview request.

The reported meeting between Mr. Sun and Afghan Taliban officials in Peshawar was first mentioned by Mian Abrar, an editor at Pakistan Today, in a column a week ago that cited Mr. Sun. In an email, Mr. Abrar said that Mr. Sun had told him about the Peshawar meetings when Mr. Abrar traveled to Beijing in November with a Pakistani Parliament delegation.

Asked about the account of the Peshawar meeting from Mr. Abrar, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Tuesday in a written statement that it was “inconsistent with the facts.”

The aim of Mr. Abrar’s column was to praise the leadership of President Xi Jinping of China. He wrote: “President Xi has taken another giant leap by extending support to the efforts to bring peace and normalization in Afghanistan. The assistance reflects another paradigm shift in the foreign policy of China, as the leadership has never involved itself in conflict resolution directly.”

The shift is heavily grounded in economics, for one.

Mr. Xi has emphasized the importance of neighborhood diplomacy for China and is now promoting his country’s broad infrastructure and trade investments in what he calls a Silk Road Economic Belt across Central Asia. China’s main investments in Afghanistan are the Aynak copper mine, which the state-run China Metallurgical Group Corporation has been trying to develop for years, and oil fields in the Amu Darya basin.

“Protecting economic interests is only natural,” Mr. Zhao said.

One person familiar with the November visit here by the Pakistani legislators said Chinese officials had told the Pakistanis that Beijing would not send combat troops to Afghanistan, but would send many investors if the Taliban joined the peace process.

Analysts say China’s biggest concern is how continued fighting in Afghanistan and militant havens in Pakistan might affect the security situation in the western region of Xinjiang, which shares a border with both countries.

In Xinjiang, China is trying to suppress peaceful protests and attacks byUighurs, a mostly Muslim Turkic-speaking ethnic group. Hundreds of Uighurs and Han, the dominant ethnic group in China, were killed in violence last year. On Monday, police officers in Shule County fatally shot six men who had explosives on their bodies, according to a state news media report.

There are signs that Uighur militants have been making use of training bases in the Pakistani tribal belt. In November, Afghan and Western officials said in interviews that the Afghan intelligence agency had shown China evidence that dozens of militant Uighurs caught inside Afghanistan in the past year had been trained in camps in Pakistan.

Last March, Reuters did a telephone interview with Abdullah Mansour, who said he was the leader of the Turkistan Islamic Party, which seeks to free Xinjiang from Chinese rule. Abdullah Mansour said Uighurs were training in the mountainous tribal areas of Pakistan and planning “many attacks” on China.

Many Uighurs and human rights advocates say China’s repressive, anti-Islamic policies are driving some people to embrace a radical ideology that is espoused in teachings easily found on the Internet and other media.

Last week, the Xinjiang Legislature approved banning the burqa from public spaces in Urumqi, the regional capital.

Xinjiang officials have also detained or imprisoned three brothers ofShohret Hoshur, a Uighur journalist who moved 20 years ago to the United States and reports on Xinjiang for Radio Free Asia.

And in September, an Urumqi court sentenced Ilham Tohti, an economics professor in Beijing, to life in prison on charges of “separatism,” even though he had always promoted dialogue between Uighurs and Han.

Joseph Goldstein contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Declan Walsh from London. Bree Feng contributed research.

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