Why China Should Do More In Afghanistan

Why China Should Do More In Afghanistan


The drawdown of International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan after 2014 means the burden of maintaining and governing a modern state will fall on Kabul, complete with all the associated economic and political challenges. Never mind there are serious doubts the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) can meet the expected security challenges. Importantly, Kabul does not have the necessary funds to do all this. If there is any hope for sustained stability post-2014, Afghanistan is going to require foreign assistance.

Japan recently hosted the Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan where the focus was on securing $16 billion from international donors to ensure Afghanistan’s sustainable development for the remainder of the transition process and beyond. This was Japan’s second time hosting an international conference on Afghanistan assistance. It also remains the second largest donor to Afghanistan, after the United States.

Given that many think Japan is a declining power, it is difficult not to ask why Japan is so involved in Afghanistan.

Come to think of it, given all the talk about China’s rise, why has there not been a Beijing Conference?

The answer is leadership.

There is plenty of empirical chum to feed the Japan-is-a-declining-power thesis. Its economy grew at tepid rates over the past twenty years, allowing China to surpass it as the world’s second largest a few years back. Add to this a ballooning debt-to-GDP ratio (that ranks second globally) and a rapidly aging and shrinking population that places enormous stress on Japan’s social security system and tax base. The March 2011 disasters, which by some estimates cost of over $300 billion, pressured an already strained economy. With a political establishment unable to make the tough decisions to avoid economic ruin, it is hard not to believe Japan’s best days are behind it.

Yet, Tokyo remains deeply engaged in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development. It has hosted two international donor conferences to raise money for Afghanistan’s future. More importantly, since 2001, Japan has pledged  billions in unilateral assistance directed toward governance, security, and reconstruction of which $4.051 billion has already provided. Japan’s aid has gone to support the training of the National Police; demobilizing former soldiers; reintegrating insurgents into society; providing education and medicine; and improving infrastructure, agriculture, and other basic needs.

Although Afghanistan’s instability arguably never has or will affect Japan’s security, it remains committed to Afghanistan’s future. Tokyo’s engagement is motivated by its desire to help Afghanistan overcome decades of suffering and assist in its reconstruction so as to prevent it from becoming a hotbed of terrorism. Tokyo chose to be involved, not out of fear or the promise of lucrative contracts, but out of the recognition that it needs to shoulder responsibility as a member of the international community.

Contrast this with China. China’s double-digit growth has fueled the country’s rapid development, military modernization, and programs that symbolize its re-entry onto the world stage, such as the Beijing Olympics. Yet, while economic growth promotes Beijing’s ambitious agenda, it has not translated into large sums of assistance to multilateral organizations or developing countries. Instead, China appears mercantilist, focusing on acquiring wealth and securing resources. Nowhere is this more apparent than Afghanistan. China’s primary form of assistance has been investment in energy and mineral resources. Symbolic of such investment is the deal to develop the Aynak cooper mine.

Compare this with Chinese assistance to Afghanistan’s development. Although it supports the anti-terrorist activities of ISAF and ANSF, it has not provided any direct military assistance nor contributed to the $4.1 billion fund established at the Chicago NATO summit to sustain the ANSF after 2014. Nor has Beijing provided any significant economic assistance. Between 2002 and 2011, Beijing contributed around $230 million to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Last month, Chinese President Hu Jintao announced a further “selfless” $23 million for 2012. This is pocket change for a nearly $6 trillion economy that is rising to be the world’s next big power.

In some ways, China’s lack of engagement is understandable. After all, it has a record of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. It also has no record of deploying its military abroad to support the stability of another country. Yet, Afghanistan’s fate has a direct impact on China, which is why its halfhearted engagement is actually more surprising than understandable.

After ISAF leaves, there is a possibility Afghanistan could fall into a civil war. If the situation in Afghanistan worsens, China will become a victim. China’s main interest in Central Asia is regional security because it seeks to prevent the destabilization of Xinjiang Province, its largely Muslim region where Uighur separatists actively work to cede from China. As long as the Taliban operates in Afghanistan, there is possibility that they will provide a sanctuary for Xinjiang separatists, or worse, overt support. At the same time, heavy Chinese investments into Afghanistan mean that Beijing has a stake in ensuring stability because instability will pose significant risks to these investments. Together, there is no doubt that Beijing has a direct interest in a stable and prosperous Afghanistan.

It is well understood that without international help, there is little hope for a secure and stable Afghanistan. To avoid collapse, the international community has assumed a large role in promoting Afghanistan’s development and assisting the funding and training of ANSF. Although Japan faces minimal threats from the situation in Afghanistan, it is one of Afghanistan’s strongest supporters. As a neighbor with a direct interest in the security situation, China can no longer remain a free-riding observer to Afghanistan’s future. China has a lot to learn from Japan. Japan’s involvement in Afghanistan speaks to its willingness to lead in the international arena. What is more, it demonstrates what rich states can do for poorer ones, even when not directly threatened.

China is already a great power in many ways, but until it shifts its focus from “what’s in it for me,” to “what’s in it for them,” it will remain a country that few others will want to follow.

Jeffrey W. Hornung is an Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, HI and an Adjunct Fellow  with the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for  Strategic and International  Studies in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are solely his.

February 7, 2013 at 05:15

[...] also had an article entitled “Why China Should Do More In Afghanistan” published in the Diplomat Aug. [...]

January 17, 2013 at 02:41

I think it is an exaggeration to say that the Afghan Taliban would provide sanctuary for the Uyhgur secessionists. This is a very far-fetched idea. The conflict in Xinjiang largely revolves around racial and cultural identity and is not really a religious conflict. The Uyghurs feel that their identity has been marginalised and repressed by the Han Chinese and therefore, wish to form their own country. The Xinjiang issue has very little link with Islamic radicalism and Bejing intends to keep it that way. Besides, the Turkic Uyghurs are a largely secular people who identify more with Kemalist Turkey than Islamist Arabia, Iran or Afghanistan especially given the secular nature of communist rule in China.
For Beijing to contribute to the Afghan effort militarily or even to deploy troops there would be to open Pandora's box. It risks turning the Xinjiang conflict into a religious one and invite Muslim radicals into Xinjiang and worsen China's grip of the situation there. American involvement in Afghanistan also helps to divert American attention and resources away from China which the Chinese (and the Russians as well) are all too happy about while they slowly become more assertive in their own regions as America becomes too overly focused with un-winnable wars with radical Islam
The small Chinese financial aid to Afghanistan (just like Russia allowing the use of its airbase for American planes) is only a tactic which is part of a grand strategy to prolong America's involvement in Afghanistan to divert away America's attention and resources by giving America the false hope that Russia and China is on its side in Afghanistan and that Afghanistan can be fixed. They don't wish to be heavily involved because they risk bringing or expanding Islamic radicalism in their own backyard.
Besides, China knows that geography simply acts against China-Afghan trade if  there were to be any. The rough and mountainous terrain of the Hindu Kush in eastern Afghanistan and the land-locked nature of that country simply does not allow large-scale trade to develop between both countries. Any large highway or rail projects between Afghanistan and China would be immensely expensive and even unprofitable if the Chinese wish to invest in them and this is worsened further given the fragile and unstable nature of Afghan politics, Afghanistan is a very risky investment choice for the Chinese and I'm sure Beijing is aware of it and would rather seek more stable and profitable trade partners elsewhere.

October 27, 2012 at 19:52

As with investment in Iraq they could have decided to wait another 10 years before investing. That is capitalism everyone does business with everyone, unless their sanctions and even then sometimes. There has to be a certain level of stability, for investment, then investment creates stability. The fact is their friends are others enemies. Iran was told no point trying to draw US forces back onto the streets, because the Russians and Chinese will lose their investments. As we were leaving they caused a little bit of trouble, but it was a stand off, because if they push it too far, things get out of their control. The US just had to hold firm. What you have to look for is level of investment, the PRC is one few countries that can invest in unstable places an lose that investment, they have been doing it for years in Africa, it is the level. You have to look at the level of investment in relation write off. Once it passes the level in which they will not consider a write off. That is when you will get stability. If you are a private corporation or investor you need to know that PRC level, that is how you can get in earlier than others, without risk of losing your investment in developing markets.

August 8, 2012 at 17:32

You America are really devilish, trying to trap China into cleaning up Afghanistan after you have finished shitting in that country. Next moment, you will blame China for all the problems in Afghanistan.
When it suit you, you want China to be involved in a country.
When it doesn't suit you, you said China is exploiting and colonizing that country.
Very cunning, very cunning

Joe Zhifu
January 30, 2014 at 17:37


August 4, 2012 at 02:30

It always amazed me to see how some people can be so naive! Why can’t you understand the China shop rule: you broke it, you own it.
China and Afghanistan are neighbors. China and Afghanistan have a long history of friendly relations. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has visited China 5 times is a proof of this friendship.
China has the abilities – technologies, finances, and the will power, to help Afghanistan to rebuild their country, but only after the US and allied troops leave Afghanistan thoroughly and completely – lock, stock and barrel. China will not contribute to any US-NATO initiated stabilization program while US and its allied are still in control on the ground.
Just like how it developed its own space program, China will help Afghanistan in its own way.
I’ve linked some articles for your references:
Kabul’s New Patron? – by Foreign Affairs Magazine
China Digs in to Afghanistan – by The National Interest
China Shows Interest in Afghan Security, Fearing Taliban Would Help Separatists – by New York Times
Or, given it a second thought, maybe these people are that not naïve at all. They want China to foot the bill but then to claim the credit themselves.

Damith Kethaka
August 3, 2012 at 03:35

Is there anything more to be done in Afghanistan?… The United States of America virtually finished that country off, and made a pool of blood out of her…!..

August 2, 2012 at 22:57

Developing "soft power" or power through influence, in culture, religion, etc., has also been neglected by China's "materialistic" approach to international relations even with its closest neighbours. 

August 2, 2012 at 21:35

It is interesting that western academics tend to encourage China to be engaged more in Afghan. however, the Soviet lesson in Afghanistan and Chinese policies towards domestic Muslims in Xinjiang may indicate that deep involvement into Afghanistan will drag China into second Afghan jihaddist conflict. Japanese involvement there is simply part of its service to the U.S. and the need to get more resources from Central Asia via Afghanistan. there is no necesscity for China to involve in Afghanistan since there is open corridor between northern XJ and Central Asia.

August 2, 2012 at 21:34

It is interesting that western academics tend to encourage China to be engaged more in Afghan.  however, the Soviet lesson in Afghanistan and Chinese policies towards domestic Muslims in Xinjiang may indicate that deep involvement into Afghanistan will drag China into second Afghan jihaddist conflict.  Japanese involvement there is simply part of its service to the U.S. and the need to get more resources from Central Asia via Afghanistan.  there is no necessary for China to involve in Afghanistan since there is open corridor between northern XJ and Central Asia.

August 2, 2012 at 01:36

but then i would completely expect that china knows what its own interests are and do not need a associate professor at Asia pacific center to tell them what to do and its action taken into account many more details that we or anyone else thats not a part of the chinese government do not have access to.

August 2, 2012 at 00:52

No one is libeling China, and your overreaction exposes your insecurity with your position.  Both of the author's two main arguments for why China should provide some kind of aid to Afghanistan, would truly be in China's own interests.  China is directly interested in the stability and security of its periphery and is especially sensitive to the radicalization of its Islamic minority along with possible safe havens in Afghanistan.  China also has a strong interest in acquiring resources and in preserving the safety of the monetary investments it has made in Afghanistan in its efforts to get them. 
You may not agree, but its not outlandish to suggest China help out a little more than it currently is. 

August 2, 2012 at 00:42

It was really fun how you accused Japan of "reflexively" going along with "US-led international order," then proceed for your own part to reflexively go on a diatribe against it. 

August 1, 2012 at 23:04

"Think about it: when has Japan adopted a policy toward another country OTHER than on of meekly offering assistance?This is not out of some noble charitable sentiment, but a reflex that lacks rational calculation.Assistance is NOT a responsibility; states DO NOT owe each other anything but good neighbourliness"
Relax.Tokyo is simply practicing so-called enlightned self- interest in it's foreign policy.And it's probably better than selling AK-47 to rogue regimes and use veto at UNSC  to help dictators like Beijing does too often.
"Suffice it for me to say that if Japan and Nato countries are so concerned about backward impoverished third world countries, they should direct their "foreign assistance" to Bangladesh, Chad, Mali, Niger, etc.."
The work has already been done for the poor nations.Japan already is the largest aid donar to Bangladesh since her independence in 1971.Focus on Afghanistan comes not only she is one of the most poorest nation on the globe,but also a war-torn country.
China is now the second richest nation on earth

Nigel Ferguson
August 1, 2012 at 13:11

This article is generally crock and not grounded in fact and realities. Suffice it for me to say that if Japan and Nato countries are so concerned about backward impoverished third world countries, they should direct their "foreign assistance" to Bangladesh, Chad, Mali, Niger, etc.. Why focus only on Afghanistan? Stop trying to falsely libel China in a situation that exist only in the head of the writer.

August 1, 2012 at 13:10

Japan is not an example for anyone. Its actions betray a foreign policy ridiculously beholden to the US-led international order that it basically has no independent policy of its own. Think about it: when has Japan adopted a policy toward another country OTHER than on of meekly offering assistance? This is not out of some noble charitable sentiment, but a reflex that lacks rational calculation.Assistance is NOT a responsibility; states DO NOT owe each other anything but good neighbourliness. China is not the father of Afghanistan, or the cause of its many problems. Therefore, the author's attempt at guilt-tripping (cleverly disguised to help reinforce the US agenda in Afghanistan) is not going to work, because he is simply imposing responsibilities on China without any justification beyond the history of Japanese subservience.
I also think it is somewhat insulting to the people of Afghanistan that "international" assistance is raised to such paramount importance. The extent of assistance should be to limit hostile third parties from interfering in Afghanistan, but to actually frame the country as some kind of helpless toddler incapable of fending for itself is pretty low.

August 1, 2012 at 11:24

china is still a developing country itself, while japan may not have as much total GDP, its GDP per capita is much, much higher than china's, thus anytime it spends on aid people can  ask shouldn't it be improving the lives of its own (very poor)people with that money? and its a very valid question. and while a stable Afghanistan is good for china, why can't china free ride exactly? there are some nations directly responsible for the mess in Afghanistan and china isn't one of them, then there are other willing to donate,, that doesn't mean china has to, since when was there a law forcing nations to donate?. as for international leadership, china  isnt exactly ready for that role, no point in rushing into it.

Joe Zhifu
January 30, 2014 at 17:46

Where are the international forces of the willing that poured 1 million tons of military hardware into the poor country. Now poorer. This country was bombed by the Brits in the early days and now by a consortium. Sort it out please.

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