BACKGROUND: China has important though not critical economic and security interests related to Afghanistan. China’s current interests in Afghanistan focus on security issues, particularly how developments in Afghanistan could promote instability in the neighboring countries of Central Asia, Pakistan, and China itself, especially its western province of Xinjiang. There are also lingering concerns regarding what the U.S. might do in the region. Although the Western military presence in Eurasia is declining, Sino-American security ties are worsening, leaving some Chinese analysts concerned about whether the Pentagon might try to keep some enduring U.S. military presence in China’s strategic rear.
In the longer-term, China’s economic interests in Afghanistan could grow more important than its security concerns. Through several major deals, Chinese companies have rapidly become the leading foreign investors in Afghanistan’s natural resource industry. The country is thought to have unexplored or underdeveloped reserves of oil, natural gas, iron, gold, copper, and other raw materials that China imports in abundance. Although Chinese firms have yet to develop many of these projects due to security, logistical, legal, and other challenges, as well as the availability of cheaper and more reliable alternative sources for these goods, an improved security environment in Afghanistan or a decrease in the reliability of alternative supplies could induce China to build on its strong position.
By acquiring these goods from Afghanistan and other western countries along the proposed new Economic Silk Road Belt, China could further diversify its source of imports away from more distant world regions, whose products are transported to China along lengthy ocean shipping routes vulnerable to pirates, foreign navies, and other interruptions. Chinese policy makers consider these land-based import routes especially valuable since they do not come from the volatile Middle East or arrive via vulnerable maritime routes. Importing materials from Afghanistan and neighboring regions further permits Beijing to pursue a more geographically balanced process of internal economic development since it facilitates commercial activities in China’s western provinces. Trade with Afghanistan also promotes the economic growth of Pakistan and the Central Asian republics, two other regions that have received considerable Chinese direct investment in recent years, and which Chinese strategists arguably see as more important than Afghanistan.
The continued growth in regional terrorism and instability emanating from Afghanistan threaten China’s regional security and economic interests. The reestablishment of terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan could make it easier for foreign terrorists to operate in Xinjiang or elsewhere on Chinese territory. Since the advent of the Arab Spring, PRC officials and academics have worried that the political disorders in the Muslim Middle East could spread to Central Asia and Afghanistan since the regimes in these regions share important similarities in terms of political systems, religious affiliation, and natural-resourced dependent economies.
IMPLICATIONS: The growth of the Islamic State and its direct threats to China’s economic presence in the Middle East and the loyalty of China’s Muslim minority have reinforced Beijing’s fears. Furthermore, Afghan-related insecurity would discourage the economic investment needed to develop and disrupt oil and natural gas flows from and through Central Asian countries into China. PRC analysts can hope that building their new Silk Road belt through two routes that circumvent Afghanistan, proceeding from Xinjiang northwestward through Central Asia and southwestward from Xinjiang through Pakistan to Iran and the Persian Gulf will solve the problem. But they recognize that, if uncontained, severe instability in Afghanistan could impede progress along both routes.
PRC policy makers naturally wish to maintain their low profile in Afghanistan and limit their economic and security assistance to the Afghan and Pakistani governments, encouraging them to rely on Western aid instead, but such an option will probably not be available given the declining Western role in this region. They are now considering various options for promoting a favorable economic and security environment in Afghanistan even with reduced Western economic and military assistance.
China’s preferred solution is that the international community would collectively support Afghanistan’s security and economic reconstruction. This scenario would establish a more favorable environment for PRC investment in Afghanistan (an option Beijing is eager to exploit), reduce some sources of regional terrorism and narcotics trafficking, and facilitate use of Afghanistan’s territory as part of the Afghan-Pakistan-Central Asian “Silk Road” connecting China’s trade and investment with the rest of Eurasia and Europe beyond. Chinese policy makers would prefer that the Taliban have as little influence as possible in Afghanistan, but if the Taliban again becomes an influential actor in that country, then Beijing will likely rely on their Pakistani contacts to influence the Taliban to respect PRC investment in Afghanistan and not support Uighur or other anti-Beijing terrorism. The PRC might rely on the SCO to bolster regional security and containment against the further spread of militant Islam in Central Asia, but would prefer to share that burden with NATO as well as Russia.
The opportunities for cooperation between China and the U.S. are limited. China will not substitute for the decreasing Western economic and military support for Afghanistan in any comprehensive way. Thus far, Chinese policy makers consider their stakes in Afghanistan modest and perceive the dangers of adopting a much higher profile in that country as exceeding the possible benefits.
Given China’s limited stakes in Afghanistan and the many obstacles to Sino-American and China-NATO security cooperation, opportunities for much improved cooperation regarding Afghanistan are small.
At best, Western governments might be able to induce Chinese agencies to provide more training of Afghans in various technical skills helpful for the country’s economic recovery. The PRC also has the capability, even if it does not want to send its own military policy to Afghanistan, to train more Afghan police forces, an area where the EU has encountered difficulty. China might also want to join Russia and other countries in helping train and equip Afghan counter-narcotics personnel given the PRC concern about Afghan-origin narcotics entering their country.
China’s policy toward Afghanistan cannot be considered in isolation. It must be placed in context by looking at the domestic, regional, and global context. For example, the two countries might cooperate better in multilateral institutions, especially on economic issues, rather than bilaterally on security issues. In addition, China and the U.S. could find it easier to collaborate on Pakistan or overlapping Afghan-Pak issues rather than on Afghanistan alone. Their security stakes are potentially higher in Pakistan, better aligned, and both countries share the frustration of lacking success in influencing Pakistan’s broad policies.
CONCLUSIONS: It is imperative to avoid mirror imaging. Chinese and U.S. views and interests regarding Afghanistan differ in important respects, even though threat assessments are aligning more closely. Chinese analysts have traditionally held less alarmist threat assessments than the U.S. and other countries that have sent their combat forces to the country and considered Afghanistan the main battlefield for the war on terror or the future of NATO. But Chinese alarm about Afghanistan is rising, due to the growth of terrorism in and near China and the NATO military drawdown, as U.S. concerns and commitments are declining. Nonetheless, several factors will make Sino-American cooperation especially difficult in the next few years. In particular, Chinese policy makers see the U.S. as weak and withdrawing from Afghanistan. This makes them think that Washington is trying to trap them into pulling U.S. chestnuts out of the fire and, conversely, that they do not need to pay much heed to U.S. views due to its declining capacity and interest in the region.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.
(Image Attribution: Office of the President, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan)