China Digs in to Afghanistan

Washington is packing its bags, but Beijing looks set to stay in AfPak for the long haul.

Archaeological excavation near a Chinese mining camp in Aynak.Our recent trip to one of Kabul’s Chinese restaurants was disrupted by President Obama’s motorcade. It was May Day, and Obama said he had come to the Afghan capital to sign a strategic agreement between Afghanistan and the United States, a document that will delineate the two nations’ interactions for the next few years. The more clearly political intent of the visit, however, was to note the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death and visibly draw a line under U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. It all presaged the next two years of troop withdrawals. As Election Day in November looms, the administration is keen to demonstrate that it has brought an end to U.S. sacrifices in Afghanistan.

Our visit to Kabul, however, was part of a larger project tracking the interests and influence of a power that is digging in for the long term. As the United States and its NATO allies prepare to pack their bags, China is looking toward a long presence in Afghanistan with mining, energy and transport projects. A low-key presence on the ground, Chinese firms and diplomats are thinking and acting in terms that have a horizon beyond 2014. Beijing may not be angling to take over the country, but in contrast to the West’s increasingly unseemly rapid exit, it is setting itself up to guarantee its long-term interests.

China’s Investment in Infrastructure

The most visible evidence of this long-term approach can be seen in the two major projects Chinese firms have already won in Afghanistan. First of these is the famous Aynak copper mine in Logar province. Potentially one of the world’s largest copper sources, it is a Chinese project jointly managed by the Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper with more than $3 billion worth of investment in the war-torn country. Primarily a copper mine, the project contract also was expected to help develop local infrastructure, including a train connecting the region to Kabul, local roads, local schools, hospitals and employment for local Afghans.

But the Chinese project is currently stalled. An archaeological site found atop one of the excavation points has provided the Chinese firms with a good reason to slow production, and a precarious security situation has exacerbated these considerations. The reality is the firm is in no hurry. Copper prices will only go up, and now that the Chinese firm has won the contract and already spent considerable funds (including an initial signing bonus to the Afghan Ministry of Mines of $808 million), they can happily sit on the project until the overall political situation becomes clearer.

Further evidence of China’s long-term interests in Afghanistan can be seen in the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), which won a contract in December of last year to explore oil blocs in Amu Darya, northern Afghanistan. Putting down an initial investment of some $400 million at terms that are highly favorable to the Afghan government, the assessment from analysts we spoke to in Kabul is that the contract is in fact a testing of the water for the Chinese energy giant. The actual volumes are relatively small for a company of CNPC’s size, and the belief on the ground is the Chinese company is using this to get its foot in the door. Prospectors believe the area is also rich in natural gas, which offers further potentially lucrative contracts for CNPC down the road. The firm has now opened an office in Kabul, staffing it with a mix of local and Chinese employees.

In both cases, these state-owned Chinese firms have made substantial and long-term investments in Afghanistan. In need of routes to extract the materials they mine, they are invested in ensuring that the nation gets the appropriate infrastructure, linking the natural resource projects in Afghanistan to its burgeoning transport network in Central Asia. As mentioned, the proposal for Aynak included the construction of a railroad to Kabul, which would connect to Chinese rail projects in the north of Afghanistan and onward into Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Western China. This network is also set to stretch to the Indian Ocean, the Chinese-built port at Gwadar in Pakistan and the Iranian coast.

Looking Backward

Allowing the Aynak archaeological dig to proceed without haste shows at least some level of Chinese interest in helping develop Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. Afghan and foreign archaeologists and historians repeatedly have highlighted the cross-border cultural links interspersed throughout this region, and the Buddhas at Aynak have some cultural significance to China. These sites are part of China's history, too. As Chinese officials and analysts told us, this is China’s neighborhood, and they are committed to making sure it works out well.

In stark contrast, President Obama’s visit highlighted the beginning of the end of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. While discussion of a New Silk Road by Secretary Clinton hearkens back to historic East-West links and suggests a long-term investment in the region, it is China’s new Eurasian land bridge that is actually being built. Linking Afghanistan to Central Asia—by developing direct land links between China, Europe and warm waters in the Gulf using a latticework of rail and road links—shows China is a serious, capable and long-term player in the region.

The West has spoken a great deal of a “regional strategy” as the key to Afghanistan's future. But China is the one that is actually implementing such an approach, suggesting that in the future Beijing will have much more of an impact on the region than Washington.

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