China's Changing Policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan under the New Leadership

Beijings foreign policy work conference in October has revealed the Chinese government intends to deepen economic and security ties with Afghanistan and Pakistan. This shows the growing strategic importance that Beijing places on the region.  

Dr. Wang Xu, Center for South Asian Studies, Peking University, China

India China [flags] photo courtesy of the Indian Express

The Chinese government’s ‘work conference’ on diplomacy in late October mapped out the goals and strategy for China’s relations with its neighbours for the next 5-10 years. President Xi stressed at the conference that China should engage in a more ‘advancing and proactive’ neighbourhood policy to create an environment favourable for development. The significance of this conference has aroused widespread interest in the international community and has even been seen by some Chinese experts as a kind of ‘Third Plenum for diplomacy’ (the Third Plenum was the recently concluded policy meeting at which Xi Jinping laid out his complete policy agenda).

The work conference that focused on China’s diplomacy with its borderland countries has taken place within the context of a wider series of regional diplomatic activities after the 18th Party Conference including major trips across Southeast Asia, Central Asia and South Asia by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. These activities have captured the attention of the world, with observers noting a shift in Beijing’s foreign policy from one of ‘non-interference,’ to one of ‘creative engagement.’

However, there will not be a significant change with respect to China’s policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan, as this shift has already begun to take place in the past few years. We have seen Chinese companies make large investments in natural resources in Afghanistan. During President Karzai’s visit to Beijing, around $32 million of aid was promised, China has agreed to train 300 members of the Afghan National Police, and regionally China has brokered trilateral discussions between China-Pakistan-Afghanistan, as well as bilateral discussions between China-India and China-Pakistan on Afghanistan. China and the US have also worked together to provide joint training exercises for Afghan diplomats and hosting next year’s ‘Heart of Asia’ process meeting.

According to the conclusions reached at the work conference on diplomacy, the goal of China’s neighbourhood diplomacy is to serve the cause of national rejuvenation. To achieve this, China must make neighbouring countries friendlier in politics, more closely tied in economy, and deepen security cooperation and people-to-people ties. China’s current neighbourhood policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan reflects these demands.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are usually treated as a whole, particularly by US policymakers. However, given the different challenges faced by the two countries, China’s policy towards them is made separately, with a clear distinction in priorities.

The all-weather friendship between China and Pakistan has withstood the test of time. Pakistan’s new government is now facing the twin challenge of an economic and energy crisis. Spurring economic growth will bring socio-political stability back to this country torn by terror and turmoil. Therefore, offering more assistance to boost economic cooperation with Pakistan based on mutual benefit will be China’s top priority.

During Premier Li’s visit to Islamabad in May, China and Pakistan agreed on a long-term plan for an economic corridor to connect the central and western parts of China with Pakistan. This idea combines China’s existing plans for expanding domestic demand and developing its western regions with Pakistan’s plan for developing its domestic economy. The plan carries great strategic significance in maintaining peace and improving livelihoods in China, Pakistan, South Asia and even the whole of Asia.

Afghanistan is China’s old friend. Ever since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1955, China has always firmly supported the efforts of the Afghan government to safeguard its national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Afghanistan is troubled by a number of serious problems, such as the ill-fated and repeatedly delayed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), the still unclear future of the continuous financial support by international community, and the stalled Afghan peace talks with Taliban. These are all major uncertainties that will bring more socio-political turbulence to this war-torn country.

Moreover, the forthcoming Afghan Presidential election to be held next year as US-led NATO troops withdraw, will impose a huge challenge to the security and stability of Afghanistan. Therefore, the top priority for China is to firmly support an ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned’ reconciliation process, and play a constructive role in maintaining peace and stability in Afghanistan.

These priorities were reflected in Afghan President Karzai’s visit to Beijing last year, during which he witnessed the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement and acceptance of Afghanistan’s ‘Observer’ membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Furthermore, China has committed to offer more assistance and aid to help with Afghanistan's reconstruction and promote regional peace and development post-2014.

Given the potential for radical Islamist ideologies to be exported and owing to the re-networking of terrorist groups in the region, security cooperation is in the common interests of all. A major purpose of China’s neighbourhood diplomacy is peace and stability in the region. China should advance security cooperation with neighbouring countries, actively participate in regional and sub-regional security cooperation, and enhance cooperation mechanisms and strategic mutual trust. Accordingly, under the framework of the SCO and other regional cooperation organisations, enhancing regional counter-terrorism cooperation with Pakistan and Afghanistan will play a vital role in maintaining peace and stability in China’s western region of Xinjiang, Central Asia and South Asia.

The strategic concept proposed by President Xi during his visit to four Central Asian countries in September, to jointly build the Silk Road economic belt has brought unprecedented opportunities for regional development and revitalisation. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan have made positive responses to this idea. In the light of geographic locations and intertwined relations, Pakistan and Afghanistan are believed to play an active role in the construction of a Silk Road economic belt, and make due contributions to overall economic prosperity of the region.

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