Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Regional Relations

More bilateral than multilateral effects: The Afghanistan conference in China

S Reza Kazemi 8 min

The fourth foreign ministerial conference of the Afghanistan-centred Heart of Asia/Istanbul process in Beijing on 31 October 2014 demonstrated a lack of progress in the regional cooperation in many respects, from its organisation to the funding. Nevertheless, it produced a few, rather mixed, results. These include, at a minimum, developments in Sino-Afghan relations and in Sino-American co-operation regarding Afghanistan, which could potentially affect the crucial Afghan-Pakistani relationship – key to Afghanistan’s ultimate stabilisation and development. AAN’s guest author Said Reza Kazemi* reviews what happened in the latest round of the Heart of Asia/Istanbul ministerial conferences, not only during the event but also, more importantly, at its margins.

The men of the Heart of Asia process at their Beijing meeting. Photo: PajhwokThe men of the Heart of Asia process at their Beijing meeting. Photo: Pajhwok

Afghanistan and China finally managed to hold the fourth ministerial conference of the Heart of Asia/Istanbul process on 31 October 2014 after a delay due to the months-long presidential election impasse in Afghanistan (read this author’s previous dispatch here).(1) But the event, in practical terms, did not bring about much progress in the multilateral field, apart from sustaining dialogue among the highly heterogeneous participating and supporting states. (2)

’Sustaining dialogue’ here can be interpreted as code for an almost total lack of progress. Neither was the regional process institutionally strengthened, nor could funds be secured for concrete operation. The declaration of the conference was released publicly only four days after the conference on 4 November 2014 – most probably due to bilateral, not always Afghanistan-related differences among those involved in the process who needed more time to negotiate a joint post-conference statement.

Major political conflicts resurfaced immediately following the conference. The Afghan and Indian foreign ministers, Zarar Ahmad Moqbel Osmani and V. K. Singh, representing their countries at the conference, said that factors “outside” Afghanistan provide a breeding and sustaining ground for terrorist and militant groups” – a not so oblique reference to Pakistan. Their statement was not only rejected by Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s advisor on national security and foreign affairs, but he claimed his country had been “constructively engaged… in efforts to support peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region.”

A “new era” in Sino-Afghan relations?

The recent visit to China by the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, who also opened the fourth ministerial conference, led to a renewed discussion of Sino-Afghan relations at both the governmental and non-governmental levels in both countries. In China, the discourse was about how that country can play a larger economic role in Afghanistan, given the growing insecurity there. A researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences even suggested a new economy-and-security model for increasing Chinese engagement in Afghanistan, namely “a package that includes both business cooperation and permission for China to deploy its own security forces to protect the enterprises.” (3) The Chinese leadership has so far always ruled out any forces deployment. In Afghanistan, by contrast, the major discussion was about balancing the country’s foreign relations so that an enlarged Afghan-Chinese relationship does not alienate the country from its key ally, ie the US (read, for instance, here).

During the state visit, the new Afghan leadership initiated bi-lateral agreements with China. Ghani played his two cards – Afghanistan’s geographic location as a regional hub for transit of trade and the country’s rich natural resources – to seek greater Chinese assistance for his administration, which currently faces an acute budgetary deficit. In terms of Chinese security concerns, Ghani signed, among other things, a security accord to “firmly support China to fight the ETIM [East Turkistan Islamic Movement]” – the organisation China blames for almost all insecurity in Xinjiang. While it is not clear whether the group has any presence in Afghanistan (it might even have ceased to exist)(4), the New York Times just has reported that “Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, has persistently flagged to Beijing each and every one of the dozens of Uighurs [who might or might not be ETIM members] who it says were caught by Afghan forces fighting inside the country … prepared dossiers for Chinese officials [about them].” As in the Karzai years, Ghani additionally reiterated Afghanistan’s pledge to back the “one-China policy,” siding with the Chinese government in disputes related to Taiwan and Tibet.

In return, China promised to do more for Afghanistan. It said it would provide USD 325.23 million to Afghanistan through 2017 – an amount greater than all the aid China has offered Afghanistan since 2001 (estimated at 250 million dollar). In addition, China said it would provide training and scholarship opportunities for Afghan professionals and students in various areas. In his address to the conference, the Chinese prime minister, Li Keqiang, talked about inaugurating a “new era” in Sino-Afghan relations by establishing a “strategic and cooperative partnership.” He offered a five-point declaration of principles (Afghan self-rule, political reconciliation, economic reconstruction, development, stronger external support) to solve Afghanistan’s problems which, however, does not contain anything new in substance compared to what has already been tried in addressing Afghanistan’s various problems (find his speech here).

When looking from the perspective of the history of Sino-Afghan relations, some scepticism is appropriate about these recent developments. In approximately 60 years of Afghan ties with the People’s Republic of China (the two countries launched diplomatic relations in 1955), (6) China has never really been willing to get involved in Afghanistan on a massive scale, and its involvement there has been a reflection of its wider concerns in the world in which Afghanistan is not among the priorities.

As such, there are clearly limits to the will and ability of China in Afghanistan. Its economic projects – like the Ainak copper mine which has run into difficulties – are not likely to bring immediate financial gain in the form of taxes for the Afghan government; these will take time to come to fruition, provided that security and infrastructure allow it in the first place. However, China can help to slowly replace aid with investment in Afghanistan. The country pushes forward its own version of regional co-operation called the Silk Road Economic Belt, including, in the words of the China Institute of International Studies, “Central Asia, West Asia, South Asia, even dozens of European countries.” But Afghanistan is not really essential for the implementation of this project. All in all, China’s contribution is only a supplement to the support for Afghanistan by other far more involved players, primarily the US, and this support for Afghanistan is most likely to come in a mainly bilateral state-to-state relationship.

Sino-American overlaps on Afghanistan

White House Counsellor John Podesta, who led the US delegation to the fourth ministerial conference, and more recently also foreign minister John Kerry, talked about Afghanistan as “one area” where the US and China are in “fundamental agreement” (read their statements here and here). This has not been limited to discourse only. The Chinese and US governments already partner in training new-career Afghan diplomats, who are based in their capitals, in “diplomatic, communication and management skills.”

However, there are suspicions on both sides about each other’s intentions in Afghanistan. As American scholar Barnett Rubin pointed out in a recent paper, there are some in the Chinese government who are suspicious of a continued US/NATO military presence at their short, isolated mountainous border with Afghanistan, seeing this as a broader plan to “contain” China’s rise and “support separatism and extremism in order to weaken China.” On the US side, there is anger at China for extracting Afghan natural resources while US soldiers are dying there. There is also suspicion about China’s cordial relationship with Pakistan – the country where the Afghan armed opposition is based and from where it launches attacks on the US military in Afghanistan. On the other side, Afghanistan can become “the best example of cooperation between China and the United States,” lowering tensions among them elsewhere (e.g., South and East China Sea) through co-operation over this country in military, political and economic spheres.

For now, however, the shorter reality is that the US-led international community’s approach to the Heart of Asia/Istanbul regional co-operation can be read as part of the broader enteqal, or transition, narrative on Afghanistan post-2014, also called the Transformation Decade of 2014-24. As the US is significantly drawing down its presence (in its military, political and economic forms) in Afghanistan, it sees a greater need for Afghanistan’s neighbours and other regional countries to shoulder responsibilities so that the post-2001 state can be maintained in Afghanistan – something Afghanistan will never be able to do on its own, at least in the near to the medium run (e.g., keeping Afghan security forces alone will cost 5-6 billion dollar).

Chinese “influence” on Pakistan

As another side effect of the Heart of Asia/Istanbul process, China also seems willing to play a greater role in Afghan reconciliation. At the fourth ministerial conference, China promoted the idea of establishing a regional forum for reconciliation in Afghanistan, which was welcomed by the US. The Chinese role in Afghan reconciliation and peace was also supported by Pakistan. Additionally, just as Ghani returned to Kabul, the chargé d’affaires of China’s Kabul embassy, Chen Shijie, handed over what the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs called “an important memorandum” about “the imminent visit of a high-ranking Chinese security delegation to Afghanistan” after visiting Pakistan.

As a result, there is at least some optimism that China can influence Pakistan in a different way than the US can. This is because China is believed to have won the trust of the Pakistani military over decades and can, hence, make a change in that country’s policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan (read, for example, here). Whether Pakistan will positively respond to the new Chinese move is unclear, but it is, overall, a good sign that there is a greater regional involvement to at least de-escalate the violent conflict with a view to addressing its root causes in the time to come. Pakistan, however, might start constructively co-operating if the regional process proves to be truly beneficial to it, as seen recently in the signing of the electricity transit pricing agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan in the framework of the Central Asia-South Asia regional power transmission project, called CASA-1000.

But, as Afghanistan’s widely circulated daily newspaper 8am wrote about the “uneasy optimism” regarding Pakistan’s recent rhetoric on Afghanistan, one cannot but have realistic expectations about the Heart of Asia/Istanbul regional process. What China and others can and will do as part of this process to turn the challenges into opportunities for stabilisation and growth not only in Afghanistan but across the Heart of Asia region is still uncertain. This interaction will, however, undoubtedly be fraught with misunderstandings and conflicts, but the solution lies in balancing divergent interests to the benefit of all parties involved. This will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

* Said Reza Kazemi is a PhD candidate (2013-16) at the University of Heidelberg’s cluster on “Asia and Europe in a Global Context.” Among his research interests are the local, regional and global dimensions of Afghanistan’s problems, particularly how these aspects are or are not interconnected in society and politics in the country and beyond. He has previously worked as a researcher for the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN).


(1) Launched in November 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey, the regional process officially intends to build and strengthen Afghanistan-focused regional political and economic co-operation. AAN has been analysing Heart of Asia/Istanbul process-related developments from the beginning. See for example here, here and here.

(2) Heart of Asia/Istanbul process participating and supporting states and organisations

Participating states: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Supporting states: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, European Union, France, Finland, Germany, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom (UK), the United States of America (USA)

Additionally, the process has several supporting organisations, including United Nations (UN), Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), Central Asia Regional Economic Co-operation (CAREC)/Asian Development Bank (ADB), Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Economic Co-operation Organisation (ECO), North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC), Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC), Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO)

Source: Heart of Asia/Istanbul process website here.

(3) There seem to be individual deliberations in China whether to establish its own private security companies (see here, p 28, footnote 101).

(4) A number of western observers believe that ETIM ceased to exist (see for example here) after the death of its leader Hassan Mahsum in Waziristan in a drone strike in 2003. Others go further and say it definitely does not exist in China anymore, and if so just on the internet (quoted, for example, here). Sometimes, a Turkistan Islamic Party (of God) is described as its successor (see for example here).

(5) See, for instance, Jonathan Z Ludwig (2013) “Sixty years of Sino-Afghan relations,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Vol. 26, Issue 2, pp 392-410.

(6) There were earlier diplomatic contacts between China and Afghanistan, at least during the rule of King Amanullah (ruled 1919-29) when a contemporary traveller encountered Chinese envoys in Kabul. See: Lowell Thomas (1925) Beyond Khyber Pass, Century Co: New York and London, p. 242.  For a brief review of Sino-Afghan relations in a historical perspective, see here.


Ainak China Heart of Asia Istanbul process Pakistan Uighurs US-Sino relations