Analysts say pull-out of US troops raises stakes for Beijing, which worries instability in war-torn neighbouring country could spill across border. They say diplomatic platforms such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation could be used to drive negotiations.

China is expected to step up diplomatic efforts to drive the Afghanistan peace process in order to safeguard its interests in the region after the US withdraws its troops from the war-ravaged country, analysts said.

After talks with Taliban representatives, US chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad on Monday said the two sides had agreed “in principle” to the framework of a peace deal that would pave the way for the Americans to leave Afghanistan, The New York Times reported. Under the deal, the militants would negotiate with Kabul and prevent terrorist groups from using Afghan territory.

US special envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad
Photo: US Special Envoy for Peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said US & Taliban officials had agreed “in principle” to the framework of a Peace Deal.

Analysts said the pull-out of US troops raised the stakes for Beijing, which has long been concerned that instability in Afghanistan could spill across its border. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a Muslim separatist militant group that Beijing has branded a terrorist organisation, has in the past operated in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Analysts also suggested Beijing was concerned that if the situation in Afghanistan worsened after the US withdrawal, it could jeopardise the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – a vast transport and infrastructure project that is a key part of Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative”.

Li Lifan, a Central Asian affairs expert with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said Beijing would likely use diplomatic platforms such as the SCO to advance the Afghan peace process.

“Beijing may use the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to push forward peace negotiations between the conflicting parties since China could pay a high price if instability continues in Afghanistan,” he said, referring to the security bloc led by Beijing and Moscow.
Li added that the United States might not pull out all its troops from Afghanistan, and could instead keep a limited military presence there, such as a drone fleet, to help stabilise the volatile situation.

In June, Chinese President Xi Jinping highlighted the anti-terrorism role of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group as part of efforts to facilitate peace and reconstruction in the war-torn country.

China also joined peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government held in Moscow in November.

Zhang Weiting, an Afghanistan affairs specialist at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said Beijing could also support the peace process with economic aid.

“China could offer Afghanistan financial support and build more infrastructure projects that involve both the Taliban and the Afghan government, and that may help reduce hostilities between the two sides,” Zhang said.

China is the biggest foreign investor in Afghanistan. It has increased economic aid and investment in the country in recent years, including railway projects and the US$3 billion Mes Aynak open-pit copper mine.

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In the past three years, China has also extended more than US$70 million in military aid to Afghanistan, according to Ahmad Bilal Khalil, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and Regional Studies in Kabul. He has also said Beijing was concerned that instability in the neighbouring country could threaten its growing economic interests in the region.

It was reported in August that China was helping Afghanistan to set up a mountain brigade in the country’s north to boost counter terrorism efforts, but the Afghan embassy in Beijing said there would be “no Chinese military personnel of any kind on Afghan soil”. Sources close to the Chinese military earlier told the Post that China had funded and begun building a training camp for Afghan troops in the isolated Wakhan Corridor.

In October, Pakistani Islamic cleric Maulana Samiul Haq, who is known as the “Father of the Taliban”, called on China to play a bigger role in the Peace Process.