The Oil and the Glory

What’s wrong with China becoming Afghanistan’s main patron?

What’s wrong with China becoming Afghanistan’s main patron?

We are hearing that Pakistan has urged Afghan President Hamid Karzai to turn away from the United States, and embrace China as his country’s chief big-power patron. Is that a wacky idea? The answer is no. As we’ve observed with the flow of oil and natural gas from Central Asia, an active Big China serves U.S. and western interests when it comes to this particular region.

Let’s start with the Wall Street Journal report. Eleven days ago, according to WSJ’s Matthew Rosenberg, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani collared Karzai in Kabul, and suggested that the United States is an unreliable partner. Afghanistan would be better served, Gilani said, by throwing his lot in with Pakistan and its own "all-weather" friend, China.

Rosenberg reckons he was leaked the details of the meeting as part of an internal Afghan government political struggle (i.e., the debate over who will be its latest Great Game favorite). U.S. officials with whom he spoke think similarly, and dismiss the talk of a leading Chinese role as "fanciful at best."

If the U.S. officials mean fanciful because Beijing is unlikely to willingly be sucked into Afghanistan, they may be right. But Washington ought to encourage China to think about it. In terms of U.S. and western interests, there is much to gain, and no downside, to a paramount Chinese role there. Read on to the jump for why.

In Central Asia, the main U.S. economic interest the last two decades has been fortifying these new former Soviet nations, and weakening Russia’s grip, by helping to build an oil-and-natural-gas export superstructure from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The result would be financial independence. The chosen plan failed — neither Kazakhstan nor Turkmenistan would risk provoking Russia by embracing the U.S. pipeline route west across the Caspian Sea and on to Europe. But the overarching strategy succeeded because Beijing built a 400,000-barrel-a-day oil pipeline connecting Kazakhstan and China, along with a 40-billion-cubic-meter-a-year natural gas line from Turkmenistan. Central Asia obtained an alternative route for its hydrocarbons, thus undermining Transneft and Gazprom. Washington hasn’t, but it could declare victory.

In Afghanistan, China has been similarly proactive. As soon as Buddhist archaeology (pictured above) can be put away and protected, the China Metallurgical Group plans to begin mining for copper in Logar province, south of Kabul.

But so far, Beijing appears not to have been invited to help figure out a resolution to the labyrinthine challenge of achieving Afghan and Pakistani stability. The reason is manifest — in Washington and elsewhere in the West, almost any Chinese commercial, political or military activity of any type is regarded as necessarily detractive.

For instance, the Pentagon — egged on by Washington analysts Fred Starr and Andrew Kuchins — has become as eager as romantic teen-agers about the idea of erecting a gargantuan network of roads, energy pipelines and electric grids connecting Afghanistan with the rest of the world. At O&G, we have regarded this idea as wacky, solely because of its impracticality. But if China were drawn in as a full partner, such a network would at once gain cachet. Why? Because China has a record of actually building what it says it’s going to build, and not waiting for bankers to see a dime to be earned on the interest, or necessarily for a civil war to wind down. Yet, we have heard of no invitations going to Beijing.

Pakistan’s notion of a favorable outcome would be an Afghanistan open to the return of the Taliban. That should not miff the United States, which did not attack Afghanistan to dethrone the Taliban, but al Qaeda.

As for China, the only matter about which it’s more obsessive than its political agnosticism in search of resource riches is its obsessive suppression of anything Uighur, the Turkic Muslim people native to Xinjiang Province. Beijing is absolutely certain that Uighurs are intent on destroying Han Chinese dominance in Xinjiang (they are probably right), and have pursued exile Uighurs throughout Central Asia, and into Afghanistan and Pakistan. China has made it a quid pro quo with these neighbors — suppress local Uighurs, and obtain Chinese goodies. Therefore, a strong China would probably not encourage the revival of dangerous local militancy in Afghanistan. That is the paramount American goal — ensuring that a new big terrorist threat doesn’t emerge there.

The question of Chinese influence isn’t wacky, but it is notional — the Chinese simply are unlikely to follow the United States into the Afghan mire.

Update: Myra MacDonald at Reuters tweets to remind me that in November, President Barack Obama  urged the Chinese to get involved in solving the Afghan and Pakistan mess. What he did not suggest, and is the distinction, is China taking the lead.