The 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is fast approaching. China has just over a year before Afghanistan fades from the West’s radar and Western attention toward the country shrinks substantially. However, it is not clear that Beijing has properly considered what it is going to do once NATO forces leave and pass the responsibility for Afghan stability and security to local forces.
And more crucially, it is not clear that China has thought about what it can do with the significant economic leverage it wields in the region. Afghanistan offers China the opportunity to show the world it is a responsible global leader that is not wholly reliant on others to assure its regional interests.
Traditionally, Chinese thinkers have considered Afghanistan the “graveyard of empires.” They chuckle at the ill-advised American-led NATO effort and point to British and Soviet experiences fighting wars in Afghanistan.
But in reality, the presence of NATO forces provided China with a sense of stability. Beijing correctly assumed that NATO’s presence in Afghanistan would mean regional terrorist networks would remain focused on attacking Alliance forces rather than stirring up trouble in neighboring countries like China. NATO’s targeting of Islamist groups also had the effect of striking anti-Chinese Uighur groups that had sought refuge in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban or al-Qaeda. These Uighur groups would otherwise have focused their attention on targeting China.
Yet as the date of American withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches, this security dynamic is changing. While China does worry about the threat of Islamist Uighur groups striking from their Afghan bases, this concern is relatively marginal. The bigger problem is the potentially negative repercussions for the rising number of investments from China’s private sector in Afghanistan and its surrounding region. These investments are part of a broader push into Central Asia that flows from an effort to develop China’s historically underdeveloped province of Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan.
The prospect of an Afghanistan returning to chaos is, therefore, not appealing to policymakers and business people in Beijing. This scenario would bring instability directly to China’s doorstep, and this instability could potentially expand northward into Central Asia or southward into Pakistan. China would suffer from further chaos in either direction.
The solution to this problem is complex. China is not necessarily expected to invest heavily in security efforts and rebuilding Afghanistan’s security apparatus, though a more substantial contribution in this direction than the offer to train a nominal 300 policemen that China made last year in Kabul would be helpful. Rather, China could focus on what it is able to do best: invest in Afghanistan and develop its abundant natural resources.
Chinese state-owned firms have already invested in oil fields in Amu Darya in northern Afghanistan and a copper mine in Mes Aynak, southeast of Kabul. These investments have had mixed success.
Amu Darya has produced for the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), though its current status is unknown. Problems and uncertainty with China’s investments in Central Asia are reflected in the difficulties of two other Chinese companies—the Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper—in the south.
In part this is because companies operating in the south face understandable security concerns that range from locals angry because they feel they were not justly compensated for their land that was affected by the mine, to Taliban-affiliated groups eager to punish the central government by undermining efforts to develop the country.