The South Asia Channel
China: Afghanistan’s New Hope
Afghanistan needs China’s financial resources, construction industry, and political leverage. China needs Afghanistan for regional stability. The two need to exploit their mutual need and build a strong partnership.
With the recent surge in direct diplomacy and high level visits between China and Afghanistan there is an emerging hope amongst Afghans that China can be counted on as an honest partner, broker, and good neighbor. An increased economic and security interest in China by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai during his last months in office and the current president, Ashraf Ghani, with his first foreign trip to Beijing are all indicators of a great rebalancing act by Kabul to reach out to China after decades of tepid relations. But this new hope of a partnership should go beyond diplomatic niceties and be based on a strong foundation of mutual interests.
Afghanistan needs Chinese financial, economic, and technical resources and its political leverage at the international stage whereas Afghanistan is the missing link in China’s regional diplomacy and geopolitics. As a rising power, China cannot and should not tolerate an unstable Afghanistan in its neighborhood. A troubled and unstable neighborhood infested with extremists and regional proxy terrorist groups is probably the biggest impediment to China’s rise to a peaceful and responsible power.
History is filled with examples, such as the Byzantine, Ottoman, and Khmer Empires, where rising powers eventually fell or disintegrated due to instability in their neighborhood. Both China and Afghanistan have suffered from imperial conquests and fell prey to various geopolitical games. These empires were mostly supported by outside powers, and today, while China has managed to throw off the influence of those powers and strengthened internally, Afghanistan is still fighting its battle for a united, prosperous, and peaceful Afghanistan.
China has international diplomatic clout, influence in the region, and is an economic powerhouse, all of which can help to facilitate talks with and pressure groups and states to achieve regional stability. While China might have legitimate security and geostrategic concerns over engaging itself in such a controversial international and regional issue (and potentially a never-ending insurgency in Afghanistan), the costs of staying indifferent will be much higher. A neighborhood engulfed in terrorism, the drug trade, extremism, and proxy wars is the biggest threat to the national security and rise of China.
On the other hand, China should stop relying on Pakistan when dealing with Sino-Afghan border issues, particularly when it comes to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. The time has come for China to end its passivity with Afghanistan, directly engage with the Afghan government, and help support build a strong, national government for Afghanistan to serve as a credible partner for China in its neighborhood.
Afghanistan has natural and human resources as well as a prime geographic location that are ripe for Chinese picking. The World Bank has termed Afghanistan as a country with huge potential to serve as a resource corridor between South and Central Asia. China — one of the biggest consumers of raw material and energy inputs — has some of the world’s biggest construction, railway, and road companies. They are efficient, experienced, and highly competent companies who have been building infrastructures across the globe — from China to Africa to South Asia. Afghanistan, however, has one of the most underdeveloped infrastructures in the world, barely even tapping into its full resource potential. China should invest in Afghanistan’s infrastructure development to gain access to Afghanistan’s resources and create a land bridge, better connecting China to Central Asia and the Middle East.
Furthermore, Afghanistan is the backyard of the Persian Gulf, and given that the majority of Chinese oil supply passes through the Gulf, it is of vital national security interest for China to expand its economic and political influence in Afghanistan. With some much of China’s energy imports passing through Afghanistan’s sphere, the security of the Chinese energy supplies depends on the stability of Afghanistan.
China has some of the best vocational training institutes and higher education institutions in the region. According to the recent Times Education ranking, Chinese universities and institutes rank among the world’s 100 best universities and institutes. Meanwhile China has also over the years accumulated valuable assembly and manufacturing experience for the international market. China can assist Afghanistan in creating an indigenous manufacturing industry in the country. Afghanistan — a country where much of the population is still illiterate — can greatly benefit from Chinese education and manufacturing prowess.
Chinese business interests and products have mainly been rerouted and exported to Afghanistan via Pakistan because Afghan roadways from China cannot accommodate the demands of the mountainous border between the two countries. The Afghan business communities have a keen interest for partner with Chinese firms and factories. Chinese state-owned companies such as the China National Petroleum Corporation International and China Metallurgical Group Corporation have invested in Amu Darya oil river basin and Aynak copper mine in Afghanistan, though the experience with the two projects has not been encouraging so far. The contractual obligations have either been not met or were asked to be renegotiated.
Despite China’s issues in following through and delivery in Afghanistan, Afghanistan has much to learn from the Chinese economic model. Afghanistan needs to move away from an aid dependent economy move towards a trade and export oriented economy. China’s economic policies have a lot to offer in terms of models and examples. China has successfully used a state capitalism economic model mixed with special economic zones, assembly lines, and export oriented trade to become one of the world’s biggest economies.
In the long run, the benefits of Chinese engagement and influence in building a stable and peaceful Afghanistan far outweigh the costs. China can exert its diplomatic status to bring parties to the negotiating table and use its powerful economy to support mutually beneficial infrastructure development programs in Afghanistan. A stable and peaceful Afghanistan can be both a reliable trading partner with China and bring needed stability to the region. Instability in a country breeds instability in the region, and China cannot afford such a liability. China will have to engage in Afghanistan for its own national and economic security.
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