China’s Afghanistan Challenge
Image Credit: People's Republic of China Foreign Ministry

China’s Afghanistan Challenge


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.

Lifei Long
July 28, 2013 at 03:38

True, America made another global mess…they are good at that and quiting, but they can't clean up their own house for over a million veterans coming home from two invasions with proper medical care, so how they clean up anything? China is not the issue here.

Lifei Long
July 28, 2013 at 03:28

I agree…why should China come along and clean up another American mess, its their failure like Vietnam so America alone has the shame for losing the game.

May 15, 2013 at 17:34

would be great if the great power will clean up the mess.  

[...] published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and The Diplomat on April 2, [...]

April 27, 2013 at 18:18

Well-said Katia!  You're right, China could care less if Afghanistan is prosperous.  The author should have mentioned the $30 million bribe the MCC paid Afghanistan's Minister of Mines for rights to the Aynak copper mine.

It also surprised me that the author left out Pakistan's role in Afghanistan.  China has no interest in Afghanistan beyond acquiring its natural resources which I'm sure it will achieve via back-room deals with Pakistan post-2014.

April 10, 2013 at 22:05

The writer of the artical is not being sincere in that China should come in now to ensure a stable afghanistan.NATO countries that contributed to that mess should reconstruct that country after bombing it to stone age era and should not even think of passing the reconstruction role to china. whatever economic conditions NATO maybe in they have a duty to rebuild Afghanistan.its also possible they occupied Afghanistan to control the heroin drug….

April 8, 2013 at 13:16

An unstable Afghanistan best suits China's (economic only) interests. There are plenty of examples from Africa to Asia. China and Russia will have to come to some agreement with whoever controls Afghanistan to exchange resources for weapons. No party will have a problem over it. Western interests cannot be defended in the middle east as we can see.

[...] Read Here – The Diplomat [...]

April 7, 2013 at 19:51

Afghanistan may fade from west's radar, but the west will never fade from Afghans' radar!

China must avoid confrontation with the Taliban at all cost. Give them whatever they demand and carryout business. Going by China's dealings with certain regimes in Asia and Africa, it is very likely. Make friends, not enemies.


Mohd. Kamal
April 7, 2013 at 19:09

Is it as easy as the writer say?  The Taliban is a political Islam entity.  And that in itself is a problem. Until the fuedal, intellectually half baked interpretation of Sunni Islam is rectified by the people in power, fundamentalist or radical political-religio entities like the Taliban will forever be a problem as in a world of ever increasing knowledge, political Islam will never engender a stable society what with their massive suppression of human rights over their people.  Sunni Islam-ruled countries, if left to themselves (assuming they had no oil wealth), chances are they would regress and become failed states just on account of tribal thugs grabbing power and running the country thereafter based on empty (brains ie). Maybe the world of non Muslim countries  should TOTALLY eschew any contact and relationship with all Sunni Muslim countries. It will be interesting to see how they far they fall behind other continually advancing countries in the world. If the Al-Qaeda 9/11 terrorist act was indeed a false flag incident, then Afghanistan should had been left to themselves as a poor peaceful idyllic goat herding country, minding its own business and not disturbing anyone nor presenting a security threat to any country.  The question arising here is – was Al Qaeda ever a terrorist group and is the current war on terrorism a contrived situaion to consolidate the despotic superficially democratic American government's control over its people and the world? Was Afghanistan ever a security threat?  Is it now and if so, why is that so?  Perhaps the writer is right.  Peace and progress will return if the militarized American government pull out from the world and return to their shores and let the world sort itself out. China then can play a role with the shadow of the Americans out of the picture.

[...] China advice for the coming year in foreign policy. The piece has already been re-printed in the Diplomat and I believe may be being re-published on East Asia Forum. I also want to use this opportunity to [...]

April 7, 2013 at 11:31


A former writer of the television series, Lost In Space

April 7, 2013 at 04:35

In addition to all that, the United States is also directly involved in the production and export of Afghan narcotics. American soldiers patrol poppy fields and American planes as well as Afghan airlines are involved in smuggling them abroad.

April 6, 2013 at 11:46

"China has just over a year before Afghanistan fades from the West’s radar and Western attention toward the country shrinks substantially."

But there will still be U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014. I think it's better for U.S . to stay there to clean up the mess they made. You can't push all your problems to China.

April 6, 2013 at 09:38

I don't understand why China needs "stable and prosperous Afghanistan." China needs a stable country, that is true, but it does not need prosperous country.  If it needed prosperous countries then half of black Africa where China has been investing for couple of  decades will now be prosperous.  China has never been a do-gooder country, it does not need and it does not want to be in a nation-building business. It needs oil and raw materials and will do everything to get them.  Like in South Sudan where manager of the Chinese National Petroleum Company opened fire on rioting workers killing 18. or like in other African countries. Afghanistan is no different.

Further, China has good relationship with Pakistan, and Pakistan likes to keep Afghanistan weak and subservient to Pakistan interests. Also Pakistan likes to have plausible denial in case of Pakistan sponsored Afghanistan based terrorist groups attacking Indian Kashmir. And terrorist groups based in Afghanisan make unlikely a  formation of strong, central government in Afghanistan.

talking points
April 6, 2013 at 06:51

China can try to make a win-win situation. but China is not equiped to hold Afghanistan peace. 

April 6, 2013 at 04:48

A Yuan goes in and 1.01 comes out is what counts.

Well said! China has never been a "missionary power" – all they want is a profitable transaction, nothing more, nothing less.

April 6, 2013 at 04:08


An astute and insghtful response to the article.  The article also neglects to mention that China has already dealt with an unstable Afghanistan, that for decades prior to the American invasion Afghanistan was a basket case and in those decades prior Afghanistan was, as now, still on China's border.  

April 6, 2013 at 03:18

There are many lessons learned by the United States in Afghanistan. The one that all nations understand is: Nation-building cannot be taken lightly and may take a generation or more to accomplish, if ever. Once the Western nations pull out, they will never return. Afghanistan will be failed country as far as they are concerned. And China? The West does not have a monopoly in stupidity, but China has a few more smart people [I may be wrong]. Getting involved can only be an economic decision. A Yuan goes in and 1.01 comes out is what counts. There are no other reasons to be there.

There is only one industry where Afghanistan is a world leader: heroin. 157,000 hectares in cultivation which yields 820 tons yearly; and about 100,000 deaths by addicts yearly. Who wants to get involved in that mess? The United States and their allies in Afghanistan has failed to stem production and has seen a remarkable growth in poppy cultivation since the troops has arrived. Ha! The US has made it safer for the growers to operate!!!!!!

China will keep Afghanistan at arms length. Any article that says otherwise is not outright wrong per se, but a bit naive.

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