The year 2014 was a great turning point in Afghanistan. Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as the country’s new president on September 29, bringing an end to Hamid Karzai’s time at the helm, which had lasted since the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001. By the end of 2014, most NATO forces had been withdrawn from the country.

But Afghanistan is now facing serious economic, political, and security challenges. As NATO steps back, states in the region such as China, India, and Pakistan are becoming more actively involved in Afghanistan’s recovery through multilateral venues such as the Istanbul Process and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In particular, China’s growing capabilities, its desire for regional stability, and its geographic proximity to Afghanistan make it well-placed to play a positive role in Afghanistan’s reconstruction.

Shi Zhiqin
An expert on European issues, Shi Zhiqin runs a program on China-EU Relations at Carnegie China.
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Afghanistan is not yet able to support itself economically. Government finances rely heavily on international aid and overseas investment. Coalition forces stationed there had served as a substantial source of economic growth in the country, especially in the service sector. The gradual withdrawal of these forces will further compound Afghanistan’s economic challenges.

Politically, warlords remain a serious problem. Former warlords have been included in the Afghan government, strengthening their political influence at the local level. Competition among different factions for shares of state power has become the political norm. The democratically elected government is weak and fragmented. It is unable to address corruption, to exercise effective control over the country as a whole, or to ensure the public security that ordinary citizens need. A lack of popular confidence in the government has become a major challenge.

The security situation in Afghanistan has continued to worsen. The Taliban has been regaining control of areas in northern and southern Afghanistan since 2006, and the group frequently launches attacks on both Afghan armed forces as well as coalition forces. This poses a threat to the survival of the Afghan government. According to a 2014 UN Security Council report, “insurgent groups [and] international terrorists . . . took advantage of the protracted political and electoral crisis . . . to mount major assaults around the country,” which caused “considerable casualties among civilians, security personnel, and insurgents.” The year 2014 had the second-highest number of security incidents recorded in the past thirteen years.

Although each external actor has its own interests and strategies when it comes to Afghanistan, the current economic and security situation in the country has already negatively affected stability in neighboring countries and beyond. The international community has reached a consensus on the desirability of maintaining stability in Afghanistan and preventing the spread of terrorism in particular.

The UN has already made a significant effort to help address these issues. However, the UN is a large international organization, with many individual members and missions. It is therefore difficult to reach consensus and to achieve operational flexibility within the organization.

In contrast to international organizations like the UN, regional actors have geopolitical advantages and are more familiar with local needs and circumstances. Because of this, regional cooperation will play a crucial role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan in the post-NATO era.

The Istanbul Process

One multilateral mechanism, the Istanbul Process, focuses solely on Afghanistan’s overall recovery and was created with this context in mind. Established in 2011, it is committed to advancing cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbors in the areas of security, economics, and politics.

This platform is currently led by fourteen regional members referred to as the Heart of Asia countries, a group that includes Afghanistan, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, India, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey. Additionally, it includes seventeen supporting countries from outside the region, such as the United States and the United Kingdom. Eleven regional and international organizations also serve as participants, including the UN; the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation; the Economic Cooperation Organization, which is led by Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey; and the SCO.

Among them, the SCO is the most dynamic, holds the greatest potential for development, and is the most capable of supporting Afghanistan’s reconstruction process.

In contrast to other multilateral mechanisms focused on Afghanistan, the Istanbul Process provides a region-specific, multidimensional framework. It emphasizes the utility of existing international organizations, supports and strengthens these organizations to advance regional integration and economic cooperation, and does not seek to replace them.

The Istanbul Process focuses on assisting Afghanistan with capacity building and training, and it emphasizes the establishment of confidence-building measures through political negotiations. It has played an increasingly important role in a number of areas, such as forging consensus among countries in the region, advancing cooperation among them on the challenges that Afghanistan faces, and promoting peaceful reconstruction in Afghanistan.

As of October 2015, there have been four meetings at the foreign-minister level held in Turkey, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, and China. On October 31, 2014, the Beijing Declaration was passed during the fourth meeting, as the parties agreed to establish confidence-building measures in six major areas, including counterterrorism; counternarcotics; trade, commerce, and investment; disaster management; regional infrastructure; and education. This was the first time that China had hosted a large-scale international meeting focused on Afghanistan, and it demonstrated the importance that China places in Afghanistan’s recovery.

China’s Evolving Afghanistan Policy

China has changed its policy on Afghanistan, shifting from a stance of noninterference to one of active participation in assisting with Afghanistan’s reconstruction. This shift has occurred for a number of reasons.

Domestic peace and stability in Afghanistan not only directly influence the security of China’s western frontier region but also have a direct impact on China’s investments in Afghanistan, making the stability of the country important to Beijing. In August 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama criticized China’s traditional policy of noninterference in crisis-plagued regions and called China a “free rider” for not taking responsibility as a stakeholder in the international system. In fact, the stationing of NATO troops in Afghanistan, to a certain degree, has been conducive to China’s efforts in its western region to fight the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which is a violent separatist group founded by Uighur militants in Xinjiang Province. The troop presence has also helped to maintain the stability of China’s border regions.

The recent withdrawal of most NATO troops has forced China to adopt a more active Afghanistan strategy. In late September 2015, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized the importance of an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” reconciliation process. China does not intend to fill the military vacuum left by the withdrawal of most NATO troops, but rather to assist the Afghan government by taking part in multilevel, multifaceted forms of international cooperation and mediation.

Since 2014, high-level government officials from China and Afghanistan have held increasingly frequent exchanges. Wang Yi visited Kabul in February 2014 and introduced China’s policy goal for Afghanistan to become a “unified, stable, developing, and friendly” country. He pointed out that China is willing to play a constructive role in helping Afghanistan achieve comprehensive, inclusive political reconciliation. In July 2014, China named Sun Yuxi special envoy for Afghan affairs, and he went on to conduct high-profile mediation efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In October 2014, President Ghani took advantage of the opportunity presented by the Istanbul Process’s fourth Heart of Asia Ministerial Conference to visit China. It was also the first high-level visit between Chinese and Afghan leaders since the new Afghan government had been established.

In November 2014, Chinese Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun visited Afghanistan. He expressed that China is willing to work with Afghanistan to enhance law enforcement and security cooperation on issues such as fighting terrorism and transnational crime, taking concrete steps to resolutely fight the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and creating a stable environment of peace and security in the region. Guo’s visit indicates that Afghanistan has become a more important part of China’s national security strategy.

In January 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping had a congratulatory phone call with President Ghani in celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries and the Year of China-Afghanistan Friendship and Cooperation.

The Roles of Pakistan and India

The transformation of China’s Afghanistan policy has also led to the expansion of SCO membership to include India and Pakistan. This is particularly important because any solution to the Afghan issue must involve both Pakistan and India.

In early July 2015, during the SCO summit in Russia, the organization passed a resolution to accept India and Pakistan as full members. At first, China did not support India’s entry into the SCO, but in 2014, China’s position changed. Considerations about the security situation in Afghanistan likely played a role.

Security cooperation among SCO members is rooted in a shared strategic need to contain three forces—terrorism, national separatism, and religious extremism—and the organization has accumulated substantial counterterrorism experience over the last few years. Meanwhile, stability in Afghanistan in particular concerns Beijing because activities involving religious extremists have spilled over into China’s western provinces.

As a regional organization with ample counterterrorism experience that is also a partner of the Istanbul Process, the SCO’s participation in efforts to address Afghanistan’s challenges will help to improve the regional security situation. Additionally, willingness on the parts of India and Pakistan to cooperate in the fight against terrorism is key to solving Afghanistan’s security issues.

That is in large part because although Afghanistan suffers from its own domestic conflicts, some of them are closely related to conflicts between India and Pakistan.

In 1893, the British used the Durand Line to separate the largest tribe in Afghanistan, the Pashtun, into communities located in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. With that, the line became the border between the two countries. Afghanistan has refused to recognize this border since Pakistan became independent in 1947. For historical reasons, the two governments have been unable to exercise effective control over this border area for quite some time, and it has become a hotbed for terrorism.

Throughout the 1980s, India’s influence in Afghanistan continued to grow. During the Cold War, India became the Soviet Union’s ally in South Asia, and then went on to extend diplomatic recognition to the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, the name of socialist-led Afghanistan. Although India’s relationship with Afghanistan became strained during the rule of the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, India quickly reestablished a good relationship with the country after then president Karzai came to power. Since then, India has committed to providing Afghanistan with $2 billion in aid, a substantial amount for a country like India that is not usually viewed as a major foreign aid donor.

Pakistan, geographically surrounded by India and Afghanistan, had great concerns about India’s influence in Afghanistan. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, Pakistan joined the anti-Soviet camp and became one of the major training bases for mujahideen fighters against the Soviet forces. Later, Pakistan supported the Taliban to gain political power and has kept close relations with the Taliban due to the country’s large Pashtun population along the border with Afghanistan. Because of the hostile relationship between India and Pakistan, for some time now, Pakistan’s intelligence agencies have cultivated a number of grassroots terrorist organizations in Afghanistan that are directed at India. Pakistan sees the Taliban as one of the few elements that can help balance against India’s influence in Afghanistan. India, meanwhile, hopes to establish a functioning, moderate Afghan government, and does not wish to see Pakistani support strengthen the Taliban’s influence in Afghanistan.

The SCO’s inclusion of India and Pakistan could help encourage cooperation on counterterrorism efforts, by providing a new multilateral platform for the two sides to communicate face-to-face. This will help them build mutual trust and maintain regional security and stability. The special relationship between China and Pakistan may help China to play an active role in mediation efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

China’s Valuable Part

Strengthening regional cooperation can serve as an important safeguard for Afghanistan as it strives to achieve its goal of peaceful reconstruction.

China’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador Wang Min, during a March 2015 UN Security Council meeting, emphasized that Afghanistan’s recovery will not succeed without the support and cooperation of other countries in the region. Wang stated that China is willing to actively encourage Afghanistan to take part in regional economic development through One Belt, One Road—a Chinese-led initiative that is funding infrastructure projects in Central, South, and Southeast Asia. This may create better regional conditions for Afghanistan’s peaceful development.

Nations in the region are taking a positive step as they begin to play a primary role in supporting Afghanistan’s reconstruction through multilevel mechanisms of cooperation while NATO coalition forces leave the country. China, as a major power in the region and one of Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors, has the ability and the resources to make its own much-needed contributions to both improving the situation in Afghanistan as well as advancing regional peace and stability.

Lu Yang is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University, working on South Asian politics and China’s diplomatic relations with South Asian countries.

This article was published as part of the Window into China series.