China pumps adrenalin in “Heart of Asia”

Heart of AsiaS. M. Hali

The Fourth Ministerial Conference of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process concluded at Beijing. Titled after verses by Pakistan’s national poet, Muhammad Iqbal, who called Afghanistan the ‘Heart of Asia’ stressing that if, Asia’s heart was sick, all of Asia would suffer, the Process was launched in November 2011 to expand practical coordination between Afghanistan and its neighbors and regional partners in facing common threats and to provide a platform to discuss regional issues, specifically tackling security, political, and economic challenges.

Lack of progress and the non-fulfillment of pledges led to criticism of the Process and expression of pessimism e.g. Reuters’ headline ‘The clogged arteries of the Heart of Asia” was echoed by other media too.

Member countries of the “Heart of Asia” initiative: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan portray inter regional rivalries and conflict of interest despite the United States and over 20 other “supporting nations” and organizations overseeing the Process. Washington’s ‘New Silk Road’ vision unveiled by Hillary Clinton at the first summit, was fading into a surrealistic dream till China picked up the gauntlet for not only hosting the fourth ministerial conference in Beijing but also shepherding the diverse members of the process to jointly focus on the issues infusing fresh hope in the program. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s inaugural speech titled “Let Us Join Hands to Promote Security and Prosperity of Afghanistan and the Region” unveiled the roadmap for meeting the challenges ahead.

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China’s maiden opportunity to host the Process has provided the impetus to achieve tangible goals. Newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s choice of Beijing as his first destination for a state visit sends a strong signal to the world regarding China’s importance in leading the regional cooperation mechanism on Afghanistan in the post-NATO era. US State Department welcomed China’s initiative terming the Istanbul Process meeting in Beijing as a real demonstration of China’s commitment to Afghanistan and its role in the region.

Chinese Premier’s emphasis on Afghanistan’s geographical placement connecting South, Central and West Asia, bordering China to the east, being a shining pearl on the ancient Silk Road reiterates Afghanistan’s unique location where once civilizations met and numerous kingdoms left their indelible marks in history echoes the “Heart of Asia” concept.

Since 2001, China has exempted Afghanistan’s matured debts, granted 1.52 billion Renminbi in assistance, and constructed numerous major projects to benefit Afghan people’s livelihood. These include the Kabul Republic Hospital, Parwan Hydraulic Project Rehabilitation Work, the National Education Center of Science and Technology, and the complex of the Chinese Language Department of Kabul University. China has also trained more than 1,000 Afghan professionals in various fields.

The Fourth Foreign Ministerial Conference of the Istanbul Process, co-chaired by foreign ministers of China and Afghanistan, hosting delegates from about 30 nations and regional organizations, concluded with the Beijing Declaration, which formalized the host’s commitment to peace, reconstruction and rehabilitation of war ravaged Afghanistan. Setting a personal example of benevolence, China immediately allocated 500 million Renminbi grant to the Afghan government and pledged 1.5 billion Renminbi aid to Afghanistan over the next three years, and the assurance to help train 3,000 professionals in various fields in the next five years. China stressed its backing for Afghanistan’s push for national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as the “Afghan led, Afghan owned” peace and reconciliation process; calling the Afghans to put aside their differences and work towards reconciliation; simultaneously asking for the international community’s support in creating an enabling external environment for peace and reconciliation as well as assisting Afghanistan on the basis of mutual respect.

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Afghanistan faces the daunting challenge of rebuilding itself from the trials and tribulation of over three decades of conflict. Following the Soviet retreat in 1989, Afghans were left in the lurch to fend for themselves. A decade of internecine conflicts and warlords’ jostling for supremacy further sullied the milieu. Al-Qaeda created by the allies to defeat the Soviets morphed into terror mongers who threatened the world leading to 9/11, unleashing a new reign of terror. Afghanistan and the region were devastated by allied assaults as well as terror attacks. The Occident was unable to put the genie of terror back in the bottle. The clear and present danger of terror attacks still persists but 2014 marks the conclusion of western policies and strategies in Afghanistan. The baton has now been passed to the Orient, led by China for “Deepening Cooperation for Sustainable Security and Prosperity of the Heart of Asia Region”, which will lead to greater political consultation involving Afghanistan and its near and extended neighbors; implementation of the Confidence Building Measures identified in the Istanbul Process document; and seeking to contribute and bring greater coherence to the work of various regional processes with respect to Afghanistan.