Afghanistan’s newly elected President Ashraf Ghani embarked on his first foreign visit to Beijing. He was warmly received by the Chinese President Xi Jinping himself at the airport, which was the first sign of the increasing importance of Afghanistan to China. China has serious stakes in the peace and stability of that country and therefore, the current focus of its engagement with Afghanistan is centered on the capacity building of Afghans through financial assistance and investments.

China, during Ghani’s visit, reiterated its resolve to help Afghanistan overcome risks to its crucial post-2014 political, security and economic transition and announced a non-reimbursable grant of RMB 500 million (US$ 81.4 million) for 2014 and a further grant of RMB 1.5 billion (US$ 244 million) for 2015-17. Moreover, China will provide 500 scholarships to students and train 3,000 Afghan professionals in various fields in the next five years.

China’s new leaderships’ proactive diplomacy has gradually started showing positive results, especially in the context of economic relations and regional connectivity. In recent years, China’s emerging role as a factor of regional stability in South and Central Asia is gaining preeminence. Initiation of the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road commonly known as ‘One Road – One Belt’ is fast gaining acceptance and popularity amongst the Eurasian and Southeast Asian nations. Afghanistan being a conduit connecting Central Asia and South Asia, has an important role to play in terms of intra-regional connectivity. Therefore, economic reconstruction, political reconciliation and capacity building of Afghan Armed forces to deal effectively with the menace of terrorism and extremism are some of the shared objectives of its neighbors. Each neighbour of Afghanistan will have to play a constructive role if the dream of building a ‘community of shared destiny’ in Asia is to be realized.

China traditionally has kept a politically low profile in Afghanistan for obvious reasons, one of them being the overwhelming presence of the US and NATO as it did not want to convey wrong signals. Now, with the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, a new challenge has surfaced for neighbouring countries as to how the factors of instability could be preempted. This could only be achieved by strengthening the capacity of Afghanistan’s elected government and developing a broader consensus amongst the stakeholders. Therefore, it was for the first time that China held an international conference on Afghanistan.

As a host of the ‘Heart of Asia Conference,’ China seems ready to shoulder its regional responsibilities and international obligations for promotion of peace and development in Afghanistan.

Ashraf Ghani’s first state visit to China provided an opportunity for an in depth exchange of views between the Chinese and Afghan leadership. During the visit, President Ghani was told by the Chinese President Xi Jinping that “China will enhance its support for Afghanistan’s peaceful reconstruction, help Afghanistan frame a plan on national economic and social development, train professionals and develop agriculture, hydroelectricity and infrastructure.” Ghani expressed his gratitude and said that ‘Afghanistan views China as a reliable strategic partner and believes that China can help it speed up its development and is ready for a long-term strategic cooperative partnership with China.’ The signs of deepening understanding and trust between China and Afghanistan are becoming clearer. Earlier, China and Afghanistan signed a ‘Treaty of Friendship and Good Neighbourly Relations’ in 2006. As their bilateral relations evolved, the two countries entered into a ‘Strategic Partnership’ through another treaty signed in 2012. The recent surge in terrorist activities in Xinjiang and other cities of China necessitates a regional counter-terrorism approach targeting root-causes. This can only happen if Afghanistan and the bordering regions of Pakistan are stabilized by dismantling terrorist hideouts and networks.

China is taking a keen interest and assuming a key role in eradicating poverty (one of the root causes of terrorism) in its neighbourhood by making investments and undertaking the construction of infrastructural projects for better communication and expansion of trade. China’s approach towards Afghanistan is inclusive as reflected by Xi Jinping’s consultations with his Indian, Russian, Pakistani and other counterparts. China has expressed an interest to become part of all innovative initiatives aimed at preventing political chaos and infighting amongst Afghan groups and supports an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process. At the Heart of Asia Conference, Chinese premier Li also presented a five point proposal for Afghanistan’s stability, including insisting on the self-governance of the Afghan people, promoting political reconciliation among different Afghan political parties, speeding up economic reconstruction, exploring a development path for the country, and strengthening external support. China for the last two years has also appointed a special envoy to Afghanistan for regular consultations.

Afghanistan’s plunging into chaos is a nightmare for regional stability that suits nobody. It is in the long-term interest of all countries to cooperate with each other in containing the cross-border movement of terrorists and to clear the region from the menace of terrorism, extremism, separatism and the narcotics trade.

China, over the years, has also emerged as the largest investor in the mining and energy sector in Afghanistan and during his recent visit, the Afghan President expressed his country’s ‘willingness to cooperate with China in areas like oil and gas, mining and infrastructure projects besides welcoming Chinese investments in the country. With Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s recent visit to China, a new chapter in China-Afghan relations has opened up. China in the coming months will take concrete measures to support Afghanistan’s efforts for sustainable capacity building in all sectors.

The writer is Executive Director, Pakistan Council on China, Islamabad.

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