China's Afghanistan Moment

China’s evolving policies toward Afghanistan hardly illustrate a rising power bent on territorial expansion and could be a possible area of Washington-Beijing cooperation.

The 7th Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) with China has recently concluded in Washington.  Hawks will no doubt opine that the Obama Administration has not shown adequate backbone in standing up to China in the South China Sea.  Doves, by contrast, will complain that progress on key issues, such as North Korea’s expanding nuclear arsenal, have been superseded by tense discussions about reefs and rocks.

It has become increasingly clear that close U.S.-China cooperation is a prerequisite to managing problems across the globe, from the Ebola crisis in West Africa to the deteriorating security situation in the Persian Gulf to maintaining the delicate ecological balance in the polar regions.  A rather ripe area for regional cooperation that has not received adequate attention concerns the future of Central Asia, and the Afghanistan imbroglio, in particular.  Continuing grave instability in Afghanistan was once again underlined last week as the Taliban attacked the Parliament building in Kabul.

In a perfect world perhaps the United Nations together with the new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani would invite China to enlarge its role in fostering regional stability and PLA soldiers clad in blue helmets would flood the narrow alleyways and valleys of dangerous Helmand Province to finally accomplish what Washington has been unable or unwilling to do.  There is emphatically no support whatsoever for that scenario – least of all in Kabul and Beijing.  Still, Chinese strategists are talking about Afghanistan with an unmistakable urgency of late.  This edition of Dragon Eye will make a close examination of an early 2015 Chinese-language academic analysis of the situation in Afghanistan published in the State Council’s journal 亚非纵横 [Asia and Africa Review] by two Shanghai academics.  

“The new generation leadership group’s policy toward Afghanistan will be clearer.  China’s foreign policy activity and dynamism concerning Afghanistan is obviously increasing,” these authors assert at the outset of the essay.  But that was not always the case, as they readily admit.  They note that Beijing was present at the initial meeting in Bonn in late 2001 to set up a post-Taliban regime in Kabul.  However, China quickly adopted a “相对低调的立场” [relatively low-key position] with respect to Afghanistan.  Therefore, “China cautiously avoided any kind of military intervention in Afghan affairs, and refused to participate in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).”  In a clear shock to the Chinese government and people, 11 Chinese engineers working on a road building project in Afghanistan were killed in a Taliban attack during mid-2004.  But “as everyone knows,” the authors assert, Afghanistan’s rapidly deteriorating security situation at that time was attributable to the new U.S. focus on Iraq.

For the next several years, Beijing’s approach remained limited.  While its aid contribution was modest, the authors report that China did, at least, fulfill its commitments.  However, the May 2008 agreement to invest $U.S. 4.4 billion in the Aynak copper mine seemed to signal a significant change in Beijing’s approach.  The Chinese authors note that this major investment implied that China might well become the largest investor in Afghanistan.  Not long after that seemingly major milestone, the Afghan situation began to deteriorate further as “塔利班力量卷土重来” [Taliban power staged a comeback].   While the Obama Administration tackled the supposed “right war” with a surge of troops into Afghanistan, these Chinese experts observe with obvious skepticism that the U.S. troop surge in 2010 did not reverse the “continuous deterioration of the security situation.”  One may detect between the lines of this passage a certain sense of Chinese schadenfreude concerning U.S. difficulties in Afghanistan.  If this sentiment exists in Beijing, it is likely tempered by “中国深感忧虑” [China’s deeply felt anxiety] and also by its strong determination not to replace the U.S. in the Afghan “权利真空” [power vacuum].     

China has endeavored to employ both diplomatic and economic instruments to steer Afghanistan onto a more stable path.  In mid-2012, for example, then President Karzai attended a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) for the first time.  Beijing also in 2012 organized a set of trilateral discussions involving Afghanistan and Pakistan together with China.  These Chinese experts report that such diplomatic maneuvers “引起了西方的不安” [made some in the West nervous].  Nevertheless, as these Chinese experts report, it was in 2013 at the fifth S&ED China-U.S. dialogue that Afghanistan first really became a “未来中美新型大国关系建设的具体领域” [a concrete area for the building of US-China new-type great power relations].