Why China Should Do More In Afghanistan

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Why China Should Do More In Afghanistan

While nations like Japan pour money into development aid, Beijing has largely stayed on the sidelines.

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.