US, China joining hands for Afghan peace deal

NEW DELHI • Tensions might be growing between the US and China in the disputed seas of Asia, but some 4,800km away, they are working together to bring peace to Afghanistan.

In a hill station north-east of Islamabad, American and Chinese officials joined the Afghan government and Taleban this week in their first formal meeting since the US-led war began in 2001.

In a small sign of success, the two sides agreed to meet again to discuss peace after the holy month of Ramadan.

One of the most immediate concerns for China is terrorism. China is connected to Afghanistan by a narrow corridor wedged between Pakistan and Tajikistan.

The mountainous strip of land is a potential conduit for militants into Xinjiang, whose ethnic Uighur separatists are accused of bombings and attacks across China.

China has blamed overseas extremist groups for radicalising Uighurs, a Muslim minority that makes up about 45 per cent of Xinjiang's population.

The US involvement stems from the fact that a political solution to the fighting in Afghanistan would make it easier for President Barack Obama to fulfil a promise to end America's longest war by the time he leaves office.

After ending combat operations in December, he slowed down the planned withdrawal as the Taleban made military gains.

Greater Chinese involvement would help the Afghan government earn more money, reducing a bill to US taxpayers exceeding US$700 billion (S$948 billion).

"The US is gradually disengaging from central Asia, including Afghanistan, while China is on the rise in the region," said Mr Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network.

Many obstacles to a deal remain. Taleban fighters are scattered across Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the group's political office in Qatar distanced itself from the talks.

Even so, for the first time in decades, the world's major powers see more gains from peace than war in Afghanistan.

"It is more a confluence of interests than an intent by the Chinese and Americans to cooperate," said Mr Raffaello Pantucci, director of International Security Studies at the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

"The Chinese have begun to realise that the Americans are moving away and suddenly they have got this big problem sitting on the border. It is a role that has somehow fallen onto them."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2015, with the headline 'US, China joining hands for Afghan peace deal'. Print Edition | Subscribe