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China Working On Improving Afghanistan-Pakistan Ties

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani and China's President Xi Jinping (R) wave to students during a welcoming ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (File photo October 28, 2014)
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani and China's President Xi Jinping (R) wave to students during a welcoming ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (File photo October 28, 2014)

KABUL, China is working on improving the now sour bilateral relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan over allegations of support for insurgent groups.

Deng Xijun, the Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan, says Beijing hopes Kabul and Islamabad will return to a cooperative relationship that recently turned into acrimony over Afghan allegations that Pakistan has failed to rein in the Taliban.

"We hope that through our joint efforts the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan would develop in the interest of the peoples of the two countries," Deng told Radio Free Afghanistan in Kabul.

The Chinese envoy did not elaborate on what exactly Beijing is doing to improve relations between its two neighbors, who seem to have accepted a Chinese role in improving their historically fraught relations and in finding a negotiated solution to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

Deng says that China, as a neighbor to both Afghanistan and Pakistan, values an improvement in their bilateral ties. "We hope these two countries can continue to keep the momentum of improvement of relations [by] increasing communications to enhance mutual trust and cooperation, which is in the benefit of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the region -- including China."

For decades, China was seen as an indifferent observer of the destructive wars in Afghanistan. But, in recent years, as the United States and its NATO allies have withdrawn their troops, Beijing stepped into a more prominent diplomatic role.

Afghan and Pakistani officials say Beijing's interest is primarily prompted by its domestic security concerns. During the past three years, hundreds of civilians, rebels, and soldiers were killed in alleged attacks and a Chinese crackdown against Uyghur militants.

Since the late 1990s, Uyghur separatists from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement have used sanctuaries in Pakistan's restive western tribal region and adjacent southeast Afghan provinces to foment violence in their Xinjiang homeland in northwest China.

Some Uyghur militants are even believed to be allied with transnational terrorist organizations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Al-Qaeda, and Islamic State. Without a resolution to Islamist insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Beijing worries that the unrest in Xinjiang might turn into a Chechnya-like fiasco.

"Afghanistan is a very close and important neighbor of China, and we regard the peace and stability of Afghanistan as very important for that of China," Deng said. "If Afghanistan [can] realize peace, stability, and development, China [will] also enjoy [peace and stability]. If Afghanistan is plagued with poverty and chaos, then China will also suffer."

During the past few years Afghan leaders have attempted to leverage this changing Chinese posture.

Soon after assuming office last September, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani approached Chinese leaders for help in finding a negotiated solution to his country's war by leaning on its key regional ally, Pakistan, to abandon its support for the Taliban and deliver them to the negotiating table.

Pressure from Beijing helped Ghani's pivot toward Pakistan. In May, China hosted talks between some Afghan Taliban leaders and senior Afghan officials in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. The talks were brokered by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate. In early July, Chinese officials also observed a more inclusive round of talks between the Taliban and Kabul in Pakistan. These negotiations were later billed as the first official round of talks between Kabul and the Taliban.

Weeks later, the Taliban engaged in somewhat open lobbying and even granted interviews to journalists after the death of the movement's founding leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was confirmed. Soon after being appointed as Mullah Omar's successor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour distanced himself from the peace talks in late July.

Mansour's hard-line pronouncements were followed by spectacular Taliban attacks in Kabul, which prompted Ghani to end his pivot toward Pakistan.

"We hoped for peace, but in return war is being declared on us from within Pakistani territory," he told journalists on August 10. "In reality, this means declaring hostility and animosity toward a neighboring country."

Since then, relations between Kabul and Islamabad have been on a downward spiral. In a tit-for-tat diplomatic exchange, they have summoned envoys from the neighboring countries to protest cross-border clashes and demand action against insurgents operating from their territories.

Pakistan's lukewarm response to Ghani's castigation and specific demands delivered by senior Afghan officials on August 13 fueled anti-Pakistan sentiments across Afghanistan.

Islamabad has attempted to counter these by calling on Kabul to end what it sees as a smear campaign in the Afghan media. Some Pakistani officials have even accused Kabul of sheltering Pakistani Taliban militants and Baluch separatists and allowing its regional arch-rival, India, to undermine its security.

Beijing now seems to be working behind the scenes to restore ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But after apparently failing to convince Islamabad to give up its clandestine support for the Taliban, China is indicating that it supports Afghanistan's national unity government and its approach to war and peace in the country.

"China's policy is very clear. We support peace and the reconstruction of Afghanistan, and we also support the peace and reconciliation process of Afghanistan," Deng said.

Yousaf Zadran contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.