China's more 'constructive' and 'outspoken' role on Afghanistan

A report emerged today that China is taking a more active role in international discussions about the situation in Afghanistan. This minor diplomatic news is a case study in China’s role in the international community.

Reuters reports that Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin made an uncharacteristically forward statement at an Istanbul conference, compared with what the reporters call China’s “wait-and-see stance” with regard to Afghanistan.

“The international community must support an Afghanistan run by the Afghans,” Liu said.

“We must pledge to respect Afghanistan’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, to respect the dignity and rights of its government and people to be masters of their own country.”

This note of sovereignty and territorial integrity is familiar, and resonates with Amitai Etzioni’s recent argument in Foreign Affairs (paywall) that China has become a champion of Westphalian sovereignty in an era when many other countries are pushing a liberal international order that could be said to compromise sovereignty.

I find it interesting that, despite the strong note of national self-determination and strong sovereignty, anonymous “senior Western diplomats” welcome a more active Chinese role in the discussion over Afghanistan. Some of their comments from the Reuters article:

  • “They realize that a policy of further being on the wings, watching what goes on and ready to pick up things, isn’t good enough.”
  • “They were very vocal and raised several issues during the drafting. We weren’t even allowed to begin the final version until the Chinese delegation had arrived.”
  • “Before, you would attend meetings on Afghanistan and the neighbours would be silent, and here you have them taking a lead and that’s what it is all about.” … “The Chinese for the first time were very comprehensive and constructive, you could really see an elevated role of China in the region and more outspoken than ever before.”

That last quote, of course, manages to be happy about China’s “constructive” role while still sounding the note of a Chinese rise: “more outspoken than ever.”

The world is going to have to deal with this combination in every area. If you want a “responsible stakeholder” out of a country with unique interests and great influence, you’re going to have to deal with an “outspoken” colleague.





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