Why China’s Free-Riding Is OK
Image Credit: The US Army

Why China’s Free-Riding Is OK


China’s limited support for the US-led counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite the growing Chinese economic stake in these countries, has provoked some irritation among US observers over China’s ‘free riding’ on the back of dead European, American, and Afghan or Iraqi soldiers. S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, caught the mood well when he said some might see it as, ‘We do the heavy lifting…And they pick the fruit.’

The Chinese government for its part has continued to reject suggestions that it contribute combat forces to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) seeking to pacify Afghanistan. China has also dismissed inquiries about whether NATO could send supplies, even only non-lethal ones such as food and clothing, through Chinese territory to Afghanistan to support the coalition militaries there.

China’s security ties with Afghanistan resemble Beijing’s policies in Iraq, which have focused on investing in the Iraqi energy sector while shunning any major security role. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, Chinese policy makers are ambiguous about the US military role. They certainly don’t want Islamist extremists to triumph there, since they could then use these territories to attempt to spread extremism throughout China. Chinese officials have also traditionally avoided challenging the United States on core security issues—and the Obama administration has clearly identified the Afghan and Iraqi wars as two of them.

Having the Americans take the lead in fighting Islamists insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq also relieves China of having to fight them directly. Chinese policy makers prefer that the United States and its allies bear the burden of countering radical Islamist movements outside of China, especially as alarm grows at how Islamist extremists are depicting their policies in Xinjiang as anti-Muslim.

Yet, while Chinese leaders don’t challenge the legitimacy of the US military operations in Afghanistan or Iraq, and indeed want the United States to continue to fight Islamist terrorism and promote Afghanistan’s and Iraq’s economic and political reconstruction, they don’t support maintaining a long-term Western military presence in these countries. Given these conflicting pressures, the Chinese government has publicly supported the Afghan and Iraqi governments, but sought to distance itself from the US-led counterinsurgency campaigns in both countries, as well as refraining from endorsing any lengthy Western military presence in these regions.

But although Chinese policy makers have excluded a Chinese military role in Afghanistan or Iraq, they’ve encouraged Chinese companies to invest in developing these countries’ natural resources. Recent Chinese investment activity has concentrated on gaining access to raw materials and developing the infrastructure required to transport these goods to China.

To focus on Afghanistan, after its government opened its energy, mineral, and raw material sectors to foreign investment in 2007, China rapidly became Afghanistan’s largest foreign investor with the surprise purchase by the Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) of a controlling stake in the Aynak copper field. According to the Afghanistan and British Geological Surveys, the Aynak copper deposit, located 35 kilometres south of Kabul at the northern end of Logar Province, contains 240 million tons of material with a grade of 2.3 percent copper in the central portion of the deposit. The November 2007 bid of more than $3 billion made that transaction the single largest foreign direct investment in Afghanistan. The state-owned MCC could offer a package of benefits that its private sector competitors couldn’t match, and in July 2009, MCC and Jiangxi Copper Co. started development work at the mine.

Subsequent revelations of vast untapped mineral resources in Afghanistan have undoubtedly peaked Chinese interest in developing rail connections and related commercial infrastructure in Afghanistan. According to recent reports, US geologists have rediscovered around $1 trillion of iron, copper, cobalt, and lithium reserves scattered around Afghanistan, including the Taliban-strong southern and eastern regions along the border with Pakistan. Pentagon officials believe the mineral resources will help transform conflict- ridden Afghanistan into a modern industrial state.  According to the Chinese government, Chinese firms were engaged in 33 infrastructure projects (such as road construction) in Afghanistan in 2008, valued at almost half a billion dollars, in addition to the Aynak copper investment. However, a difficult political situation, bad roads and the lack of railroads prevent exploitation and shipment of these resources to markets. 

Yashwant Parmar
November 29, 2011 at 14:56

Yet we spend more on our military…ever thought that maybe our troops in Japan, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia, and other countries in the region MIGHT worry China a little?

August 26, 2011 at 23:24

Well we all know that the US never went in for the resources. The US is all too principled and ethical to attack countries or engage in war for economic gain.

So why would they demand that they get all the rights to the business deals in Afghanistan????????? It just doesn’t make sense :P

(how do I sign up to get my 50 cents?)

August 18, 2011 at 19:36

@Girish. Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

August 17, 2011 at 01:32

I have a friend who live in Africa who deals with the Chinese first hand, and it isn’t pretty. Instead of hiring locals to do the work, the bring in Chinese nationals to complete the work, and once the work is done they strip the area bare of the resources they came for, and leave the populace with infrastructure the Africans cannot operate or maintain. The politicians at the top reap all the monetary benefits and the rest of the populace continues to live in grinding poverty. This is not to “whitewash” Europe’s colonial past, just calling it like it is, and the Chinese really are no better.

John Chan
August 16, 2011 at 07:39

Your comment is a repeat of anti-China clique’s standard talk lines to smear China’s achievement in Africa in order to white wash the West’s ugly colonial past in Africa. For the last few hundred years the westerns dig holes in Africa for minerals disregard the destruction of local environment, sold Africans as slaves without consciences, divided Africa with arbitrary borderlines so that they can profit from the wars caused by those lines, etc.

China build Africa with business, education, transportation, etc. that have never crossed westerners’ mind in the last few hundred years while they were colonizing Africa with brutal suppression. How can the westerners do that with a clear conscience is beyond everyone’s mind?

Now that the westerners is jealous and resentful what China has been helping Africa, they are smearing China with fabricated facts to no end. The West’s scorn for the China’s achievement in Africa is pure sour grapes.

August 16, 2011 at 06:19


Which country are you from which has no backyard issues? and that you can comment on others countires related matters and I cannot?

I am curious to know? Please tell me?

August 16, 2011 at 02:13

and it does not hurt to have the largest army on the planet to back up their need for harmony.

August 16, 2011 at 00:07

@Oliver. Care to elaborate what you wrote ? … And the United States during both WWI and WWII did exactly that….

What did the US gained and in what form ? I ask you not to read my request as sinister, just want to know more.


August 15, 2011 at 20:01

@Girish. Yes and No. Firstly…Nope, by asking you to participate in Krishna Strikes Again , it was my subtle way of telling you to look into your own backyard first before you comment on others, when you recommended :

” It is not difficult for West to make a damage to Chinese investments in these countries as they virtually control the security there ”

There’s bad intent on your part about China.

Then Secondly…Yes, I want other bloggers to know India have as much problems as China have , but if you read my comments, I have no ill intent for India , just baffled !? but hope and wish well for India.

The difference ? It’s either one wants good for another or wish misfortune on another.

Some anti-China bloggers through their comments frequently wish misfortunes fall on the Chinese nation.

August 15, 2011 at 09:43

China does need to go everywhere in the world where it can find raw materials to feed its hungry billions. If it truly wanted to help the African countries where it gets its imports it would increase the locally manufactured content of its products as much as possible, improve the education of the populace there so that they can produce the entire value chain locally and export directly to the end user or consumer from the same local country. What China does is mercantilist, it takes everything to China as close to raw material state as possible to add value in China and exports the finished goods at many times the price of the raw material back in many instances to the country of origin depriving the local economy of the full range of benefits – education, skill development, employment and its attendant social benefits that is due them. In addition, unlike the British and other colonialists, it employs Chinese labor in these countries so even the mining of the raw materials do not benefit the local populace who are treated like vagrants in their own land and are left with polluted natural resources, rivers, open mine pits etc. after the raw materials are removed and purified for shipment to China! How one can do that with a clear conscience is beyond me. China is absolutely picking fruits and leaving the rotting cores behind after eating the fruits in somebody else’s country.

August 15, 2011 at 09:25

Thus it is about as free a ride as you can get especially of they come in as non combatants and suck all the lithium, rare earths and other minerals out of Afghanistan after the allies leave, which is why they oppose any long term stay of the US. Soon you will be buying Lithium ion batteries from the Chinese sourced from Afghanistan to power your smartphone as your soldier husband wounded in the war that kept it safe for them. Funny how that works! It’s not retarded at all.

August 15, 2011 at 09:18

For which they get interest and capital appreciation especially in this low/zero interest environment and repayment of principal if the US stays solvent that long which it probably will. The treasury buys also help the Chinese keep their currency artificially low and thus help their exporters. So they are more than well paid for their investtment as the US pays in lives and treasure

Michael Mai
August 15, 2011 at 07:54

Chinese don’t believe in invading a country and using military force to cleanse an ideological issue. That is a matter of principle. So the policy of no direct or indirect support of military actions, are open and up-front.

Anyhow, I fail to see how a Chinese army can cooperate with an US led army? Lack of trusts, incompatible systems, etc… While that is an interesting thought, but it is not achievable in the near future.

The best the Chinese can help in that war is to help the nation building process. The enormous amount of risks of these long-term projects the author mentioned would have deterred any companies, except those backed by the Chinese gvtment. They were there to build those shiny projects that will justify the war, at the expenses of Chinese ordinary people’s money and life. The only fruits the Chinese will bite off are the bitter ones that left behind by the invasion army. In long term, the Chinese are the biggest loser in this.

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