China moves into Afghanistan

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Before withdrawing alongside the US by the end of 2016, Europeans should explore whether and how far China's recent involvement in Afghanistan can complement European efforts.  

On 23 November, the Afghan Parliament finally signed off on the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, allowing foreign troops to remain in the country after 2014. Days earlier, President Barack Obama announced that 9,800 US troops will remain in Afghanistan after the end of the year; the US footprint will gradually be reduced to a normal embassy presence by the end of 2016. But as US and NATO forces reduce their engagement in Afghanistan, China is moving in. Whether this is good news or bad news for Europeans remains to be seen.

As US and NATO forces reduce their engagement in Afghanistan, China is moving in.

China is connected to Afghanistan by a narrow corridor with a border length of only 97km. This “Wakhan Corridor” has been closed to regular border traffic for almost 100 years. Despite the limited land connection between the two, Afghanistan is attractive to China for several reasons: China is interested in Afghanistan’s natural resources; the country is geo-strategically important to China because of its location both in Central and South Asia; and Beijing is concerned about possible links between the restless Muslim population in Xinjiang and the Taliban and other Islamist groups in Afghanistan. No wonder, therefore, that Beijing thinks it worthwhile to keep Afghanistan stable, and to invest in making sure this happens.

As long ago as 2007, China invested more than $3 billion in a 30-year-lease contract to develop the largest copper mine in the world, Aynak, in Afghanistan’s Logar Province. In 2011, China also won approval to carry out oil exploration and extraction in Afghanistan. A US report from 2010 values Afghanistan’s other untapped natural resources at $1 trillion. In the past, Beijing seemed reluctant to go all out in exploiting Afghanistan's natural riches, but now this policy seems to have changed: suddenly, China is everywhere.

Security within and outside China is of growing concern to Beijing as US and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan.

During an Afghanistan conference held in Beijing in October 2014 as part of the Istanbul process (the “Heart of Asia” process), China offered Afghanistan roughly $300 million between now and 2017, as well as training for 3,000 Afghan professionals and 500 scholarships for Afghan students. China’s investment in Afghan infrastructure could establish new trade and economic corridors throughout the region. At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, held from 10 to 11 November in Beijing, China’s President Xi Jinping announced a $40 billion fund to build the Silk Road Economic Belt through Asia. China began to promote this strategy in 2013. It involves the revival of the ancient Silk Road between China and Europe via Afghanistan and Central Asia, stretching to Iran, the Middle East, and south to the Indian Ocean to the Chinese-funded Gwadar port in Pakistan.

Security within and outside China is of growing concern to Beijing as US and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan. In 2012, Beijing offered to train 300 members of Afghan police forces. And China has entered into talks with other neighbouring countries, such as India, on security cooperation in Afghanistan. Beijing now seems to be trying more or less to replace the US with the help of regional players, such as the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan received observer status at the SCO in 2012, at China’s request. As Xi put it in his speech at the last SCO summit on 12 September, SCO members should regard safeguarding regional security and stability as their responsibility. Xi has often urged Central Asian countries to engage more in the fight against religious militancy. A few weeks ago, Reuters reported that China apparently even envisages mediating between representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Taliban in the framework of a “peace and reconciliation forum”.

[But] how far is China willing to engage beyond its own narrow interests?

It could come as a relief to Europeans if China were to step into Afghanistan as international coalition forces withdraw. If China would help to build the country’s infrastructure, to train Afghan professionals, and to keep an eye on stability and security, it would provide welcome support for what the international community as a whole has been trying to achieve ever since the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan in 2001. Opening the Wakhan Corridor (as the Afghan government has requested several times), encouraging trade flows, and making Afghanistan an economic and transit hub – it all sounds positive. However, China’s plan to implement all this remains unclear. What role does it envisage for Kabul? And how far is China willing to engage beyond its own narrow interests? Before withdrawing alongside the US by the end of 2016, Europeans should explore whether and how far Chinese involvement in Afghanistan can complement European efforts, in areas such as democracy-building, governance, and education – or whether there may even be potential for EU-China joint efforts. 

Read more on: Asia & China

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