Argument

In Afghanistan, It’s Only Chinese Takeout

NATO wants more Chinese assistance in stabilizing the region. But as ever, Beijing won't step up to the plate without a nod from Islamabad.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

U.S. and European generals and strategists are often decrying China’s increasing influence around the globe. But this March NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen took a different stance. "I think China could play a key role in civilian development in Afghanistan," Rasmussen told China’s state media.

Eight months later, however, Beijing is no closer to playing that role than it has been throughout the nine-year war in Afghanistan. For all the recent media attention on China’s investment in Afghanistan’s mining wealth, the real question is why Beijing isn’t doing more. Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai’s administration has long reached out to Beijing for money and political support, and both Afghan and NATO leaders think that China’s leaders, if they were so inclined, could do much to improve stability in Central and South Asia. Yet Beijing doesn’t want to play ball.

Not so long ago, it seemed China might finally be ready to take on a larger role. In late 2009 and early 2010, Western diplomats visiting Beijing were surprised at the level of interest and inquisitiveness from their Chinese counterparts when it came to the subject of Afghanistan. U.S. President Barack Obama had just announced the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan beginning in July 2011, and concerned Chinese policy makers seemed to be trying to assess the impact of such a move on their near neighborhood. One op-ed that ran in the state-run Global Times on Dec. 24, 2009 suggested it might be time for the Chinese to send police forces to "help the Afghan government to safeguard the construction projects aided or invested in by the Chinese government."

One clear signal China could give would be to finally open the Wakhan Corridor, the thin band of land extending some 200 miles from northeast Afghanistan, which links the two countries. China has kept the border virtually sealed for over 100 years due to political instability in Afghanistan. In June 2009, China announced it would look into the possibility of reopening the border road. Nothing has come of that inquiry so far.

China’s reluctance to act is largely due to its close relationship with Pakistan, the prism through which Beijing views much of the region. Beijing is likely aware that opening the Wakhan Corridor might disrupt lucrative regional trade routes through Pakistan, thus incurring Islamabad’s wrath and damaging other investments it has already made in the Gwadar port in southern Pakistan. Moreover, China has no desire to be dragged into the messy business of nation-building; even its existing investments now seem at risk. Key among them is the Aynak copper mine for which the state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corp. paid more than $3.5 billion, while also offering to build a rail line and power station to support the province. Yet the expensive project has thus far proved to be a headache, plagued by schedule delays and local security problems. Archaeologists have raised concerns that an ancient monastery filled with historical artifacts sits atop the mine’s location. Such hassles have made the China Metallurgical Group reconsider whether it really wants to bid for the Hajigak iron ore mine, which could contain, according to the Afghan government, up to two billion tonnes of high-grade iron ore that it had initially expressed interest in. Even the seemingly insatiable Beijing has begun to wonder whether mining in Afghanistan may be more trouble than it’s worth.

This is not to say that China has played no role in Afghanistan. Beijing recently pledged $75 million in aid to Afghanistan over the next five years and has already provided, according to Chinese figures, $130 million in aid since the fall of the Taliban. In July, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi announced that Beijing would train 200 Afghan officials and technical personnel this year and was increasing the number of scholarships it offered to young Afghans from 30 to 50. But these numbers are small compared with what China could give and what it does gives to neighboring Pakistan. In the wake of the terrible floods this year, for instance, China quickly pledged $200 million in aid to Pakistan. 

For now, beyond resource extraction and providing a minimum of diplomatic largesse, China refuses to become more engaged in Afghanistan. It is hard to see a way through the impenetrable fog of friendliness that is the Sino-Pak relationship, described by Chinese and Pakistani leaders as "higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, sweeter than honey, and stronger than steel." And since Pakistan continues to hedge its position in Afghanistan, both supporting the government and supporting elements linked to the insurgency, it’s unlikely that Beijing will endanger its friendship with Islamabad and its potential partner in the wake of NATO’s departure by coming to NATO’s aid.

Ultimately, there is a great deal of common ground between Beijing, the West, and the Karzai administration: They all want to see a stable Afghanistan. But China’s wait-and-see strategy is not going to change anytime soon, something the Obama administration is going to have to accept as it figures out how it is going to extricate itself from Afghanistan.

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