Najibullah Rahimi

Two Articles on China Afghanistan Relations


China poised to win in Afghanistan

China has almost a quarter of the world’s population, is the second largest economic giant in the world. With its growing need for resources, Afghanistan is a great land of opportunity for investment. Recently, Beijing has launched what Joshua Kurlantzick deems a “charm offensive”- China’s rising soft power. In the quest for closer relations and natural resources, China has begun to transform the world balance of power. However, China remained disengaged in Afghanistan until Karzai’s government recently opened up its energy to foreign investors. China is likely to emerge as a large investor in the country, and Beijing’s interest in Afghanistan is likely to increase. 

The PRC has witnessed unprecedented growth in the 21st century with its rapid economic rise and has gained a place at the forefront of international politics. As Keller writes “… Afghanistan is more prepared for hosting foreign companies; the Chinese are also set to enter now when the time is ripe … a similar timing of market entry has been demonstrated by Beijing in African countries.” Afghanistan’s substantial reserves have certainly not gone unnoticed by the PRC; the world’s second largest consumer of energy. As the PRC rises, Beijing's access to foreign resources is necessary for continued economic growth. Although the Afghan economy accounts for just one-tenth of 1 per cent of China's overall trade portfolio, the possibility of cheap resources on its border is of significant interest to Beijing.

The Chinese assertion of its economic interest in Afghanistan is confirmed by the state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corporation, which won the US$3.5 billion bid in 2008 to tap into Afghanistan’s Aynak copper mines, one of the world's largest unexploited mineral reserves in the world that has an estimated value of US$88 billion. Once completed, this project will allow China to be the largest direct economic stake in Afghanistan and will facilitate investments in Afghanistan’s extensive iron, aluminium, and marble deposits. Under the terms of the deal, China is obliged, by its contract with the Afghan Government, to build a 400-megawatt coal-fired power plant, a freight railway running from the XUAR through Tajikistan to Afghanistan, hospitals, mosques, schools, and similar establishments. Some previous projects such as the building of schools, mosques and hospitals have already been completed in Kabul. A 400-megawatt power station is under construction in Bamyian province and will supply electricity to the mine and a third of the electricity needed by local residents.

President Karzai’s three-day state visit to China in the summer of 2010, culminated with the establishment of the China-Afghanistan comprehensive cooperative partnership. This included economic cooperation, technical training, and preferential tariffs for Afghan exports, effectively sealing China’s “economic clout.” President Hu Jintao, during Karzai's visit, called for a greater cooperation in mining, hydroelectric agriculture, infrastructure and irrigation projects. “In addition to economic aid and bilateral trade, the Sino-Afghan economic committee identified sectors such as natural resources, road construction, electricity, and agriculture as holding good prospects of cooperation.” This in a number of ways is becoming more evident- “China has been exceptionally active in the region, building roads connecting Xinjiang to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and then with Afghanistan via the American-built bridge over the Panj River, as well as the Karakoram highway that links to the Arabian Sea, the Khyber Pass.” The transportation link through the Karakoram mountain range is predominantly significant, particularly since the corridor provides the PRC good access to Pakistan and may be extended in the future to offer a network to the Indian Ocean. This is strategically important, as in the north, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan runs alongside the ridges of the Hindu Kush, where Wakhan Corridor links Pakistan with Tajikistan and China.

The untouched rich mining resources of Afghanistan have attracted the attention of investors from all nations around the world, but most evidently, China. More recently, CNPC is poised to win the first oilfield to be tendered in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. “China’s push into Afghanistan is part of a broader drive to secure resources to fuel economic growth that has seen its state-owned companies venture into increasingly risky countries.” However, there are a number of concerns which make China anxious; firstly, Afghanistan should not become a safe haven for terrorists; secondly, that drug trafficking into China is curtailed; thirdly, that NATO withdraws following the realisation of a settlement through a political negotiation in Afghanistan; and fourthly, that the Government in Kabul does not oppose to China’s long-time ally Pakistan. Nevertheless, the US presence in Afghanistan is regarded by the Chinese as a means for peacekeeping in the region but presents a dilemma for Beijing. Afghanistan’s long-term prospects for becoming militarily secure, politically stable, and economically prosperous will depend on the strengthening of links with its neighbours. Regional economic engagement, especially with China, will be beneficial both for Afghanistan and its neighbours. 

Currently, Chinese exports to Afghanistan, which have always been substantial since 2001, are likely to continue to grow over the next few years, as long as the current regime stays in power. If the Taliban come to power, it is debatable whether the Chinese economic developments will continue to grow or decline. This is a controversial topic as the Taliban may be perceived as a threat to China (more specifically Xinjiang) yet are close allies of China’s long term friend Pakistan, which Beijing may possibly work with. Despite all these, China’s new presence in Afghanistan is in many ways more a ‘Silk Road’ revival than ‘Great Game’. China is likely to emerge as a large investor in the country, and Beijing’s interest in Afghanistan is likely to increase. Furthermore, it is possible that after 2014, Afghanistan may turn towards the major regional powers; at present, there are indications that they are already starting to shift towards India. From all view points, China is poised to win in Afghanistan, due to its economic interest and domestic security issues (Xinjiang). 


China ready to play greater role in Afghan geopolitics

When China and Afghanistan signed a Friendship and Mutual Non-Aggression Treaty in 1960, they called it "a new Silk Road," evoking nostalgic memories of a link between the two countries established 2,000 years ago.

After the interim government was formed, Sino-Afghan ties were officially reestablished. This was characterized as friendly relations, but at the same time lacked some important bilateral engagement at the political level.

This continued until the 9/11 attacks on the US, which brought an abrupt severing of links with the Taliban and a quick restoration of its diplomatic links with a Western-backed government. Following then-new Afghan President Hamid Karzai's visit to Beijing in January 2002, China's embassy reopened in Kabul and promised $150 million for reconstruction.

However, this is a figure barely commensurate with China's fast growing geopolitical, geo-economics and security profile and pales in contrast to that of other regional players including Iran and India. For instance, India's support for rebuilding and development of Afghanistan actually exceeded $1 billion.

In December 2002, China signed the Kabul Declaration on Good Neighbourly Relations, under which China promised to respect Afghanistan's territorial integrity and sovereignty. China also pledged to support the peace process and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. However, in the next few years, high-level exchanges between Kabul and Beijing have been relatively far and few. The visits appear to have yielded little apart from statements that reiterated the earlier rhetoric of "cooperation, friendliness and resolve to jointly fight terrorism." 

The first signs of a potential re-alignment in Sino-Afghan bilateral relations came from Karzai's visit to Beijing on March 27, 2010. Karzai's choice of Beijing for his second overseas visit after his controversial reelection signaled his determination to reduce his dependence on the West.

The Sino-Afghan relationship is arguably an imbalanced one. China has a number of concerns, such as that Afghanistan should not become or provide a safe haven for Uyghur separatists, that drug trafficking from Afghanistan into China is curtailed, that NATO withdraws following the realization of a settlement, that the government in Kabul does not oppose China's long-time ally Pakistan. China is also unhappy with the presence of US troops in the region.

Yet even if these Chinese interests are precise to Afghanistan, they cannot be separated from the larger and complex Central and South Asian matrix, which to a substantial extent has and will continue to form Beijing's policies toward Afghanistan.

The Pamir mountain region is home to a number of geopolitically important features. The Wakhan Corridor can be seen on political maps as the eastern "finger" of Afghanistan. The Corridor is often called the Afghan Panhandle and was created by the British in 1895, a progeny of the "Great Game" between Britain and Russia.

The main purpose of the Corridor was to thwart Russian advances toward British India during the "Great Game" and effectively separated British and Russian territory. Named after the Wakhan region of Afghanistan's Badakhshan Province, the boundary was marked by the Russian-Afghan Boundary Commission of 1884-86.

Russell Hsiao, in an article published in China Brief 2010 issued by the Jamestown Foundation, discussed China's increasingly important relationship with Afghanistan through the Wakhan Corridor. The Corridor has huge importance geopolitically and geo-economically, as it allows China to access a treasure trove of mineral deposits, including vast quantities of industrial metals such as lithium, cobalt, copper and iron. With these resources, China has the economic power to control strategic planning in the region.

Geopolitics is the art and practice of using political power over a given territory. Traditionally, the term has applied primarily to the impact of geography on politics, but its usage has evolved over the past century to encompass a wider connotation. In 1904, Helford Mackinder, the father of geopolitics, predicted that "Who rules the heartland commands the World-island; who rules the World-island commands the World."

Central Asia, the region extending from Iran in the west to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China in the east and from the Russian steppes in the north to Pakistan in the south, is the true heartland of Eurasia in the 21st century.

Afghanistan is the missing link in a unified Eurasian continental trade and transport system. It could be a "New Silk Road" that would enhance prosperity and security for all. Mackinder's theory was much derided at the time because the heartland of Eurasia was then divided between the imperial powers of the UK and Russia.

A century later, however, Mackinder's prediction has finally come true in this reborn heartland of Eurasian. It is probably more relevant today than ever, with the gradual decline of US influence and the growing presence of China and India in the region.

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Tabassum01.05.2013 - 15:21

 A very informative and well written analysis of Afghanistan and Chinas relationship.



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