BEIJING–During President Obama’s recent visit to China, he got some advice on Afghanistan from Chinese government officials – and an offer of Chinese assistance toward a negotiated settlement of the war.
Yang Wenchang, a retired senior Chinese diplomat who is currently the president of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA), told a small group of US journalists that China is willing to cooperate with the United States in finding a way out of the Afghan morass. “The two presidents discussed the issue at length,” said Yang, who maintains extensive contacts with US and other Western officials as head of CPIFA. “China will cooperate.”
However, during a wide-ranging discussion over dinner at an Italian restaurant in Beijing, the former ambassador said that China does not believe that the US and NATO can succeed militarily. “I think Obama should realize from the outset that no outside power can rule Afghanistan. The Russians tried to change the system in Afghanistan for ten years,” he said. “Many Americans, especially among the Republicans, want to send more troops. I don’t think NATO can succeed.”
Although Yang did not specify exactly how Beijing might support US diplomacy in South Asia, China’s assistance could be crucial in a political settlement of the war in Afghanistan because China is a close ally of Pakistan, and Pakistan’s support for a deal in Afghanistan is essential for the emergence of a stable, multi-ethnic government in Kabul. Though Pakistan is a nominal ally of the United States, the Pakistani military and its intelligence service, the ISI, covertly support the Taliban in Afghanistan and provide safe havens for leading Taliban officials. Over the course of a week-long visit to China, various Chinese officials and experts have said that China is concerned about the presence of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, which has a troubled border with China, and they are concerned that growing instability in Afghanistan could lead to a spreading conflict in South Asia to the detriment of China’s interests in the region. But they are modestly encouraged, so far, by Obama’s policy.
“Obama is now considering to negotiate with the Taliban,” says Yang, who says that a political accord must allow the Taliban, especially its moderate wing, to take part in a new government in Kabul. “The United States should help build up a government in Afghanistan that is acceptable to all countries in the region,” he says. “That is the only solution.” By “all countries,” the former Chinese diplomat means above all Pakistan, which has great influence among the Taliban and among the ethnic Pashtuns who make up the majority of Afghans and from whom the Taliban draws its core support.