Chinese leadership tends to spike the stilted and tedious domain of diplomatese and geopolitics with well-aimed aphorisms from its ancient and civilizational wisdom. In 2014, when President Xi Jinping was barely a couple of years into the top job, he had alluded to dangers of cross-border terrorism at the Fourth Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia. He had said, “As the proverb goes, ‘Strength does not come from the muscle of the arms, but from the unison of the heart.’ We should engage in sincere and in-depth dialogue and communication to increase strategic mutual trust, reduce mutual misgivings, seek common ground while resolving differences and live in harmony with each other.”
Even though Xi Jinping did not mention it then, he could have added ‘cheque-book diplomacy’, ‘debt-traps’ or plain ‘coercion’, to the alternative strategies deployed by China subsequently, besides the proverbial ‘muscle of the arms’ and the ‘unison of the heart’. However, there is yet another sophisticated Chinese philosophy at play, that is deliberately low key and seeks invisibility ~ rooted in its Daoist strategic tradition that is based on five key pillars i.e. rationalism, aloofness, optimisation, restraint and flexibility.
The hallmarks of this elusive approach were visible in Beijing’s handling of Afghanistan, with which it shares a 76-kilometrelong land border. China’s historical appreciation of Afghanistan as the ‘graveyard of empires’, has spared it the expansionist eye that governs, militarily or economically, all its other neighbours under the ‘going out’ stratagem. The singular aspiration that China harbours for Afghanistan is ‘stability’; this breeds complicated, contradictory and unmentionable moves distinct from the usual Chinese tact, which warrants a constant hawk eye and subtle manipulations, but without getting dragged into the nowin swamp of Afghanistan.
China has historically tiptoed gingerly around Afghanistan by tacitly supporting the Afghan Mujahedeen in the Soviet-Afghan war owing to Beijing’s own competitive rift with Moscow ~ though the subsequent experience of the rule in the 1990s would scar Beijing’s outlook towards dispensations in Kabul, very counterintuitively, from the preferences of its ‘all-weather friend’ in Islamabad. Contrary to the expected hullabaloo of having American troops in its ‘backyard’, China would rather punt on Afghan ‘stability’ with American soldiers-on-ground, rather than hope for the same through a puritanical dispensation like the Taliban. The primary motivation for China to seek ‘stability’ in Kabul is premised on a moderate Afghan dispensation’s ability to rein-in Chinese Islamist insurgents like Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) or East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which seek to establish an Islamic state of East Turkestan in China’s contiguous Xinjiang province. These China-facing Islamist groups had been given active support, training and afforded bases by the Taliban- Al Qaida groups, prior to the disruption of that eco-system by the current pro-West Afghan dispensation, in conjunction with the American/NATO troops. So, while Pakistan continuously pinned its hope on ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan via the return of the Taliban, the Chinese would realistically not have the Taliban.
The Chinese have a very pessimistic outlook about the fate of ongoing US-Taliban peace talks. China remains convinced about the imminent rupture to the delicate equilibrium in Afghanistan right now and is sure that the return of the Taliban or even an indecisive civil war between rival factions is to the net detriment of Chinese interests. Beijing views the American urgency to ‘pullout’ troops from Afghanistan as imprudent, as that is sure to lead to chaos and a bloodshed in the region, with vulnerable neighbours like China left to face consequences and spillovers. China is paranoid about religious radicalisation and violence on its side, especially given its ongoing purge against its own Uyghur populace. China picked on the possibilities of this awkward development early and shifted gears from ‘calculated indifference’ to ‘strategic engagement’. China has since made strategic moves in Afghanistan in terms of mediation across the board, flaunting its ostensible ‘neutrality’. It has opened talks with Taliban directly, facilitated joint dialogues (e.g. through Shanghai Cooperation Organization) as key participant, as also invested in building a military base in Badakhshan province, for the current Ashraf Ghani government. Last week in a curious development, the Afghan National Security Adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, met the Chinese special envoy for Afghanistan, Liu Jian, to discuss issues of ‘cooperation on peace and security’! Clearly, the Chinese haven’t forsaken the incumbent and beleaguered Ashraf Ghani government yet.
For once and uniquely so, the Chinese preference for a government in Afghanistan would be more aligned to the preferences of New Delhi, than to those of Islamabad.
The comparative delta of upsetting the applecart as it is cast now (as opposed to a Pakistan- supported Taliban government), is a net loss to Beijing. Despite covert assurances by Taliban leadership to Chinese mediators to not target its investments and assets, the Chinese know that the Taliban are not a monolithic, disciplined and trustworthy entity. The current faciliatory game of the Chinese is very tentative and they have not put their weight behind the Taliban, as done by the Pakistanis.
The Chinese would ideally seek a status-quo situation that keeps the moderate government in Kabul on perennial tenterhooks, desperate for more international investments (where it can outplay, ‘outfund’ and control Indian influence), but without risking having a lawless Taliban- like revisionist government. Even the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) assets in Pakistan are susceptible to attacks from China’s own Islamist insurgent groups, and while it can exert formal pressure on the Pakistani Military to squeeze them in Pakistan, the same may not be possible with a Taliban government in Kabul.
Pursuing a unilateral role in the ‘graveyard of empires’ is a clear no-no, and Beijing’s international credibility in mustering a multilateral force (beyond Pakistan, which has its own complicated angularities), would prove challenging.
The Dragon is confused and persisting with engagement in the interim to salvage the situation in Afghanistan, betting that the incoming Biden dispensation does a rethink on the proposed ‘pull-out’, which will be inadvertently preferable to both Beijing and Delhi.