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India, US, Afghanistan & Pakistan: China tries diplomatic finesse ahead of Modi-Trump meeting

Ranjit S Kalha | Updated on: 27 June 2017, 18:18 IST
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (Greg Baker - Pool/Getty Images)

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was fully aware that Indian PM Modi was meeting President Trump in Washington on Monday, 26 June evening. He also knew that one of the major topics for discussion would be the situation in Afghanistan. Yi tried to shuttle diplomacy between Pakistan and Afghanistan in an attempt to settle the differences between the two countries.

Yi’s shuttle diplomacy concluded on Sunday, 25 June, well ahead of the Modi-Trump meeting.

What the Chinese were attempting to do was to change the ground realities before the US and India could come up with a new narrative.

What Yi managed to achieve was to get the three countries to sign a joint statement that committed them to “improve relations with each other, strengthen mutual political trust and jointly meet security challenges” for which a crisis management mechanism between Pakistan and Afghanistan was set up.

The hope is that this crisis management mechanism would enable the two sides to maintain “friendly relations and effectively communicate in case of emergencies including terrorist attacks”.

The hope is there, but it remains to be seen if this is as effective a mechanism as the Chinese hope it would be. The test will come soon since the region is very volatile.

However, by far the most important outcome of Yi’s efforts is the setting up of a trilateral foreign minister-level “Dialogue Mechanism”.

The connections that matter

This means that China is rapidly developing a stake in the outcome of political developments in Afghanistan. In this endeavour, it is seeking to rope in the Pakistanis so that they do not play the role of the spoilsports.

There is no doubt that Yi would probably have done considerable arm twisting to get the Pakistanis on board and he was careful enough to meet the Pakistani COAS, General Bajwa so that the Pakistani Army too was on board with the Chinese initiative.

The Chinese were also careful enough to provide space for the US.

Before his departure from Islamabad, the Chinese Foreign Minister reiterated that the Quad-level talks should also be revived as to create an enabling environment for peace talks; thus allowing for the Taliban to join the peace process.

In this way, the Chinese were hoping that the US will be sufficiently interested and thus not undertake any new initiative in conjunction with India.

Obviously, the Chinese were keeping a wary eye on the Modi-Trump meeting.

More plans

The Chinese have also taken the stance of reviving the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO) Afghan contact group. The Chinese are hoping that this contact group too will facilitate the Afghan reconciliation process.

In recent times the Chinese authorities were badly shaken when two Chinese nationals were kidnapped and brutally murdered in Pakistan. The allegation was that they were actually on a proselytising mission, which is rather hard to believe for there are very few Chinese nationals who indulge in any such activity.

It seems that this was just a clumsy Pakistani effort to cover up a brutal murder.

Nevertheless, Yi praised Pakistani efforts to fight “terrorism”; thus giving a clear message that there would be no change in the Chinese stance on Masood Azhar when the issue comes up in the UN again.

The fact that Pakistan places a lot of value on its friendship with China was evident when the Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, brother of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, flew all the way from Lahore to receive Yi at Islamabad on behalf of the Pakistani government.

Having tried to change the dynamics on ground as far as Afghanistan/Pakistan are concerned, the Chinese would now await the outcome of the Modi-Trump meeting and watch very carefully to see what the two countries have to say on Afghanistan.

 

The outcome of the talks naturally depends on what the current thinking in the new Trump administration is. Buoyed by the victory of the Republican candidate in Georgia, the Trump administration feels that it is on the right path no matter what the liberal press says.

In the Trump administration, both the secretary of defence, Matthis and the NSA MacMaster are considered “hawks” and are very likely to take a much tougher line. It is here that the Chinese gambit might fail, for the US seems determined to fight and eliminate all opposition to their plans for Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, it would be interesting to see what eventually emerges from the Modi-Trump meeting.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 27 June 2017, 18:18 IST
 
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