A beat was missed on U.S. National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon’s late July visit to Beijing. Described in the Chinese press as a "fire extinguisher visit," it came as tensions continue to ratchet up in the South China Sea and the United States continues to butt heads with China over Iran, Syria and theoretical war plans. These disputes obscure the one area with scope for much greater cooperation between China and the United States: Afghanistan. Building on mutual goals in Afghanistan could have a positive effect on the overall relationship, showing that the distance between the two sides is not the Pacific-sized gulf that it is sometimes made out to be.
In discussions with Chinese officials about their objectives, the uniform answer is "a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan." This is almost identical to answers given by their American counterparts. That said, there is a difference in tone that reflects the underlying concerns that craft it.
For Beijing, Afghanistan is primarily a domestic problem. With a common border in the sometimes lawless Wakhan Corridor, what happens in Afghanistan can potentially spill over into some of China’s most sensitive spots. This past spring, we visited China’s border in Wakhan and witnessed the ease with which militants or smugglers can cross over. Even if trouble from Afghanistan does not cross directly into Chinese territory it is likely to have a destabilizing effect in Central Asia to the north, and Pakistan to the south. China has invested heavily in both, and both have strong trade and cultural links to China’s underdeveloped and at times restive Xinjiang province. Beijing’s interest in Afghanistan turning out positively is first and foremost about China’s internal cohesion.
For Washington, the problem of Afghanistan is physically far away. The decision has been made to withdraw all combat troops by 2014, so the discussion is no longer what to do about the country, but how to exit in a dignified manner. What security concerns the United States continues to have will be covered by the residual force left behind, but the overriding priority is for the draw down from Afghanistan to not descend into chaos as soon as the majority of American and NATO forces leave. In our recent visit to Kabul, we could not help but note the principal focus of U.S. officials on this one goal. Washington’s interest in Afghanistan turning out positively is about leaving behind a country more hopeful than when U.S. forces arrived.
This clear confluence has led American diplomats to encourage their Chinese counterparts to invest in Afghanistan’s future. Beijing has responded in its own way. Chinese state owned enterprises (SOEs) have invested in a copper mine southeast of Kabul at Mes Aynak and an oil field in Amu Darya. China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) is seriously looking into a trans-Afghan natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China that does not necessarily rival U.S.-backed plans for a similar line to Pakistan and India.
China’s engagement is not only economic. It made Afghanistan an ‘observer’ member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at its June summit. While in Beijing, President Karzai also signed a strategic partnership agreement with his Chinese counterpart. Last week, China’s Central Military Commission publically called for closer ties with the Afghan Defense Ministry.
There is also increasing evidence of low-profile cooperation with the United States on the ground in Afghanistan. There have been joint U.S.-China training programs for Afghan diplomats, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton providing a recorded message to open one session. Beijing has also indicated that it would be willing to provide counter-terrorism training for Afghan forces, coordinated with U.S. efforts. Chinese officials we spoke to in Beijing and Kabul were quick to downplay their potential role in the future of Afghanistan. But, their actions show that they understand the regional implications of the looming U.S. withdrawal.
A neighbor will always be more aware of the blighted house next door than will someone living across town. The limited collaboration between American and Chinese officials on the ground in Afghanistan is a pragmatic and sensible step. Their principals in Beijing and Washington should support them by discussing the modalities of a partnership for Afghanistan’s future.
Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West. Their joint research can be found at www.chinaincentralasia.com.