ISLAMABAD -- China is making quiet approaches to Afghanistan, with the aim of expanding its influence in geopolitically important South Asian region at a time when the U.S. is planning to drastically cut back its military forces in the country.
Afghanistan's national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing on Jan. 10 to discuss how China could assist the "long term stability" of the war-ravaged country.
Mohib's visit coincides with an ongoing push by the administration of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to end the country's bloody conflict with Taliban militants, almost 17 years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
Meanwhile, China has been pushing for increased engagement with the Taliban as well. "In 2018 alone, there were indications of at least two visits by the Taliban to Beijing," said one senior diplomat in Islamabad. "China definitely sees its interests in Afghanistan."
For China, strengthening ties with Afghanistan and helping to stabilize the country would have two major objectives, experts said. In the short term, Beijing wants to permanently block contact between the Taliban and China's Muslim Uighur militants. The Uighurs are seeking independence from Beijing for the predominantly Islamic western region of Xinjiang which shares a border with Afghanistan.
"In the past, Beijing has been troubled by reports of the Uighurs going to Afghanistan for [armed] training with the Taliban" said Qazi Humayun, a former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan, in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review. The Chinese authorities have been accused of brutally repressing the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang province.
China is also driven by economic interests in seeking stability in Afghanistan. "In future, the Chinese want to extend the China Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan as well," noted Humayun.
CPEC is a series of Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative projects worth $62 billion that include a network of highways, railways and energy infrastructure that spans the whole of Pakistan. Taken together, they are designed to connect Xinjiang with Pakistan's southern port city of Gwadar. "China's end game is economic," the former ambassador added.
China has frequently urged the Taliban to consider Afghanistan's future prosperity once peace is assured. "The Chinese keep on telling the Taliban of how their country will change once there is peace," said a senior Pakistani foreign ministry official. "Afghanistan can become the main link between the [former Soviet] central Asian republics and CPEC," he said referring to the possibility of large revenues generated from transit trade connecting central Asian countries and Pakistan's Gwadar.
In recent weeks, it was reported that administration of U.S. President Donald Trump was working on a plan to withdraw up to half of its 14,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan, after spending an estimated $1 trillion on the Afghan war. Trump's growing determination to withdraw part of the U.S.'s military forces could complicate the prospects for peace in Afghanistan, experts said.
The Taliban remain buoyant after a series of victories, with some reports claiming that more than half of Afghanistan's territory is now controlled by the hardline islamic movement. "If you are the Taliban and you see Trump withdrawing, first from Syria and then partially from Afghanistan, you can easily decide to wait" said one senior Western diplomat who routinely travels to Afghanistan's capital Kabul. "Ultimately, the Taliban already hold a lot of territory [in Afghanistan] and they must be seeing the U.S. planning to leave one day."
In the meantime, China appears to be preparing itself for a long-term role in the country. "China is very clear on what it wants in Afghanistan and how it's going to get that," said another official at Pakistan's foreign ministry. "While the rest of the world is trying to push for peace which may or may not come, the Chinese are talking to all sides [in Afghanistan]."