Afghanistan: A Dilemma for China and the US
Image Credit: NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan via Flickr

Afghanistan: A Dilemma for China and the US


As NATO forces continue the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan, the People’s Republic of China finds itself in a conundrum. With tensions flaring throughout the Asia-Pacific, in part because of a more aggressive Chinese foreign policy, the last thing Beijing wants is to face a security risk along its western border. Regardless of Beijing’s wishes, it will need to become more involved in efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. The United States and its international partners thus have an opportunity to provide incentive for China to become a more reliable international security participant. Unfortunately, China seems unable to escape the inertia of its own politics, while the United States is increasingly consumed by concerns involving Chinese activities in the Asia-Pacific.

The Afghan Element within US-China Relations

The U.S.-China relationship is certain to define 21st century international relations to a great degree. As such, the two countries, as well as the world, are scrambling to better understand the relationship. China’s complaints about bilateral ties stem from a view that the United States is unfair to rising powers and, in particular, disregards Chinese traditions and history. The U.S. position is framed as one where China is an irresponsible stakeholder within the international system. China is content to free-ride off the efforts of others, while exploiting the goodwill of surrounding countries and global powers.

These portrayals aren’t completely inaccurate in either case, but they do not sufficiently define this bilateral relationship. It is undeniable that trust between the U.S. and China is low and that many parties within both countries see each other as opponents. Yet, much of the tension in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship is linked to territory, commerce, and relationships throughout the Asia-Pacific region. If we move beyond the Asia-Pacific, then greater opportunity for cooperation exists.

As such, the future of Afghanistan offers an opportunity for these two major powers to work together in furthering Afghan national – as well as South and Central Asian regional – security. With the majority of NATO forces to leave Afghanistan in 2014, China is realizing that its investments in Afghanistan will be at risk, its Central Asian trade threatened, and its relations with Pakistan strained. In short, China needs to take steps to protect its interests.

The U.S., its population exhausted from war and its politics focused on domestic problems, is consumed with withdrawing its security forces from Afghanistan. However, Washington does not wish to watch Afghanistan fall into absolute chaos. Not only would it be negatively affected by the further loss of life, but it would also make the country’s years of investment meaningless and create a security vacuum that may once again require a major U.S. presence.

Thus, China wants to protect its Western border and the U.S. wishes to find a means to enhance Afghan security. This issue can be a basis for building cooperation between the two countries, while avoiding the tension stemming from the Asia-Pacific. Unfortunately, neither country is focused on the Afghan issue in respect to the other. That must change.

Bilateral Strategic Cooperation

Too many in the United States view China as an inevitable strategic opponent, ignoring counterevidence in favor of a quasi-Cold War worldview. Likewise, many analysts in China argue that the United States is a diminishing power intent on inhibiting China’s growth. Neither country should be so easily caricatured as such. Both countries’ foreign policy establishments constantly debate how to move forward bilateral relations. What both countries need to do is recognize mutual interests. Mutual interests, particularly outside the Asia-Pacific region, should be the source of U.S.-China international cooperation. In the security arena, Afghanistan’s stability is a major threat and a vital opportunity.

Brett Champion
August 7, 2013 at 22:23

Whether or not China's Muslim population becomes radicalized will have little, if anything, to do with Afghanistan. That question will likely only be answered by how the Han Chinese authorities treat the Uighur minority in Xinjiang. As of right now, it doesn't look good for China. The Chinese are, for all practical purposes, in the process of trying to colonize their western territories; Chinese are moving into Uighur and Tibetan lands and displacing the native populations at ever increasing rates. Beijing claims that it is doing this so as to encourage economic development in Xinjiang and Tibet, but the real reason is that it is trying to tip the ethnic balance in those provinces to try to legitimize its hold over what should be independent countries. Not surprisingly the local populations aren't happy with this policy and are beginning to engage in active resistance, though as yet on a small scale. While Tibet gets most of the press in the West, the real worry for China is Xinjiang, as the Uighurs have a ready-made base of support outside China on which to draw. That is where Afghanistan (plus the other Central Asian Muslim states) comes in. China needs to cosy up to the people in those countries in order to try to keep them from providing support for any Uighur resistance movement that might surface in the future. That effort would, however, most likely be futile. China is going to find out very soon that a country's status in the international pecking order matters a lot more to how other people react to what it does than does its actions.

9 dashes, 4 dishes, 1 soup
July 30, 2013 at 15:32

Bankotsu is right. China should go into Afghanistan and clean up the mess the Americans made. It should be an easy job. The PLA will be welcomed as liberators. 

July 30, 2013 at 06:24

Elsewhere are articles that China has already secured agreements with Afghanistan to mine the extensive lithium and other mineral, perhaps including Rare Earth Elements, that US Geological Surveys discovered in Afghanistan over the last 10 years. 

Similarly in Iraq, China procures 1.5 million BBD of Iraqi crude, and is positioned to explore / develop new  fields. 

Was this from a 'Blazing Saddles' script?  The US Cavalry pays heavy blood price, the US taxpayer stoops to obediently send its dollars and children into the path of danger, and the cunning Chinese reap the lasting benefits.  You can almost see the Hollywood character grasping his cigarette holder backwards as he smiles and acknowledges the superiority of his ancient civilization…

Dewey Last
July 30, 2013 at 05:51

Afghanistan will eventually revert to Taliban control. 

The United States is fighting Pakistan in Afghanistan. The Obama administration understands this as we went after Osama bin Laden without informing the Pakistani government. As soon as we leave, the Taliban will invade province by province just like the fall of South Vietnam. We will see this on CNN. 

The region is a center for Islamic fundamentalism. China will do well to keep an arm's length from intervention or in any way provoke the people of Afghanistan. China fears radicalization of their Islamic minorities. What may seem prudent and profitable may turn out to be the beginnings of suicide bombings in the train stations of Shanghai. 

Time to cut our losses and leave. If we need to have any military action in countries such as Afghanistan or Iran, we should turn off the lights by bombing their power plants. An agrarian nation may dislike the United States, however they will not be able to mount a particularly potent attack for centuries, if ever again.

Thomas W
July 30, 2013 at 02:36

Surely, there will be no Taliban tail. They are desperately begging for the US' leaving Afghanistan asap & will do their best to facilitate this withdrawal . They will remember till their last breaths that 'never be stupid again to mess with America' from now on. The real grave concern here is the insecurity for the whole region after the Americans' departure, with big problem for China (Xinjiang) & Russia ( Chechnya). Then central Asian countries ,Iran, India, & Pakistan come next. Those countries must cooperate with one another on the Afghanistan issue for their own security after the Americans' withdrawal.

July 30, 2013 at 00:33

Alas… It's a mess that is at China's backdoor and can not be ignored.

July 29, 2013 at 14:26

"Or Beijing can send in twenty divisions of the PLA and see how it plays out. What could possibly go wrong?"

Afghanistan is the mess of the U.S. U.S. should sort it out, not dump the mess to China. Endless troublemaking from U.S.

July 29, 2013 at 13:32

The pass it is a small border easy for the PRC to contain. The worry for the PRC is Pakistan becoming destabilized, not from it’s border with Afghanistan. If Afghanistan cannot control internal security it cannot control physical security of it borders. The FATA will become increasingly destabilized spreading into greater Pakistan. Something for another generation to worry about in the future broken arrows out of a destabilized Pakistan and what to do about.

July 29, 2013 at 10:44

Now the biggest challenge facing USA is to handover the mess in Afghanistan and leave without getting the Taliban on its tail. To this end US agencies try hard to get India, Russia and China entangled in the Afghan situation. None should get involved. If they do, Taliban will come after them instead of USA.

Chinese interests in Afghanistan are purely commercial and anything incidental to it. It doesn't matter Taliban, AQ or the Afghan government that helps China get those. Democracy and human rights in Afghanistan are the biggest obstacles to Chinese economic exploitation. China must see to it. Policy consistency is essential for the Chinese version of economic cooperation and changing governments is anethema.

Russia must also follow a policy of indifference towards Afghanistan after the bad experience few decades ago.

A mess in Afghanistan affects the west, not the region. We saw that during the last time Taliban ruled Afghanistan (1992 to 2002). This time it will be no different unless Russia and/or China needlessly gets involved. With Saudi Arabia tipped to be the biggest military spender from 2013 onwards after USA, China and Russia, there is no point in trying to disarm AQ in Afghanistan. If you can't beat them, join them! I recon this is exaclt what Russia, Iran and China are going to do in Afghanistan.

July 29, 2013 at 01:03

I agree that the fourth point is the most important point. However, the most important point in this fourth point is Pakistan's duplicity with the United States and Pakistan's alliance with China. Pakistan is the God father of Islamic extremism and destabilization and terrorism in South Asia. Pakistan has had a clear hand in the empowerment of Islamic extremism and terrorism in the region. As long as Pakistan is not strongly warned and punished for such activity, Afghanistan and India will continue to suffer the problems of terrorism. India is strong enough and its democracy, economy and military power has historically defeated all Pakistani destabilization efforts, however, in Afghanistan none of those factors exist and only and international commitment can stop the Pakistani-Islamic extremist destabilizing force.

July 28, 2013 at 23:46

I don't really understand about afganistan issues which related into U.S and CHina.. if i ain't wrong both countries China and U.S doesn't really seek for better security in Afgan but in advance to make a hegemonic effects to afgan politics and security options. However it is possible that China armies are going to stand beside U.S armies in Afgan but the both tensions which lead to something unstable must be considered as well as the benefits for the both countries and the Afgan. According to " difficult but possible " , politics would be changed as well as the changed goverment in certain positions . Especially the status quo .

July 28, 2013 at 14:52


''..China finances U.S government debt, how come free ride?'!!

Again you sound just like an old broken recorder, Bankotsu. I really don't think you're  that sort of stubborn… silly person! Listen up my 'beloved comrade'. China bought the US Tbonds just for the sake of buying down its RMB for its own export advantage over other competitors ( unfair trade practice: currency manipulation!) & also for its default-free investment (safest), not for funding  America as most of you people've thought. Got it?  Thousands of Americans have sacrificed their lives in Afghanistan & trillions of dollars having been spent for the war against the global terrorists there & now your China coming out from nowhere & asks for 'cooperation'  in exploring & exploiting the  Afghan natural resources. Mind you, if that's not a free-ride, then what do you call it?  Is it exactly "the way of  doing business"  with  Chinese….characteristics"?

9 dashes, 4 dishes, 1 soup
July 28, 2013 at 13:11

A modest proposal and a modest alternative: China can pay the US for security. It can also pay the Taliban & the tribal alliances protection money. If China pays everybody off – that should buy it some peace for awhile. 

Or Beijing can send in twenty divisions of the PLA and see how it plays out. What could possibly go wrong?

It's only Afghanistan. It should be a piece of cake for the CPC to manage.

July 28, 2013 at 07:40

Adversary maybe, but at time it is wiser to work for a common goal to achieve what is best for both party. Not alway both country must be st logger.head.

July 27, 2013 at 19:03

Western hemisphere has OAS, africa has African Union, but Eurasia doesn't have an organisation that groups together all the eurasian states from the atlantic to the pacific. The SCO will have to play such a role. All states in Eurasia will have to join SCO in the future.

The 2013 Euro-Asia Economic Forum will be held from Sept 26-28 in Xi'an, the capital city of Shaanxi province. The 2013 Euro-Asia Economic Forum standing committee was established in Beijing on July 5. The Euro-Asia Economic Forum is dominated by Shanghai Cooperation Organization countries, and it is also an international conference of the Eurasian region… 

T.B. Simmons
July 27, 2013 at 03:24

Interesting discussion.  When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, China and the United States cooperated against the Soviet presence there.  From the Chinese side, both the government and military viewed the Soviet push into Afghanistan as an endeavor to surround China and achieve regional hegemony.  Around the time the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Soviets also supported Vietnam's intervention in Cambodia.  The Chinese were uninterested in having Soviet troops stationed in and around China's northern and southern borders. Thus the Chinese government aimed to foster an environment in Afghanistan antagonistic to the Soviet Union.  To this end China allied with the US to prevent Soviet hegemony and to avoid direct confrontation with the Soviets. The Chinese government's aim, since the establishment of the PRC in 1949, is to establish an independent and neutral Afghanistan.  Today in Afghanistan in addition to significant commercial investments particularly in the energy and mining sectors, the Chinese government has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in non-military assistance since 2002 to Afghanistan.  Moreover China's former security chief Zhou Yongkang in 2012 announced that China's Public Security bureau will fund, train, and equip Afghan's police.  Furthermore other Chinese entities such as universities hold training programs for Afghan nationals in areas of diplomacy and such.  In short, the US and China have cooperated during the Cold War in Afghanistan against the Soviets.  And today they do have many areas of potential cooperation.  Thus because both governments want a stable Afghanistan, cooperation is feasible.  However the Chinese government will not authorize troops on the ground there for any reason because a Chinese presence on the ground of a Muslim country will spell trouble for Beijing's relations with the Xinjiang Uighurs. And the government will be skeptical of cooperating with the US, if the CIA is one of the major actors operating there.

July 26, 2013 at 22:32

You are quite correct about about the US debt, but how does the US disregard "Chinese traditions and history"?   The Chinese did quite a bit of that during their Cultural Revolution.  And today, at the Anyak mines in Logar Province, Afghanistan, the Chinese are prepeared to destroy magnificent Silk Road antiquities which stand in the way of "progress". 

July 26, 2013 at 22:18

"China is content to free-ride off the efforts of others, while exploiting the goodwill of surrounding countries and global powers."


…As the United Nations finds its peacekeeping missions stretched around the world, China is now a major troop contributor. It has the largest number of peacekeepers of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council…

There's no free ride.

July 26, 2013 at 19:26

"China is content to free-ride off the efforts of others, while exploiting the goodwill of surrounding countries and global powers."

China finances U.S government debt, how come free ride?

China has too much US government debt​


"China’s complaints about bilateral ties stem from a view that the United States is unfair to rising powers and, in particular, disregards Chinese traditions and history."

Don't forget the plundering of global economy through dollar hegemony.

U.S. has plundered world wealth with dollar: China paper

July 26, 2013 at 13:40

As you know the official name of the Shanghai Cooperative Organization is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. 

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