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Afghanistan: A Dilemma for China and the US

Both countries have an interest in Afghan stability post-2014. They should consider cooperation.

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

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.

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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.

First, each country needs to figure out what costs it is willing to pay for Afghan security. Both countries publicly declare their desire for a prosperous and safe Afghanistan, but neither has made headway in exploring what international institutions it will need in order to reach the desired end stage. China, given its policies of peaceful development and respect to sovereignty, will resist pressure to step up its involvement in security matters. The U.S., for its part, will be intensely hesitant about China taking on a more robust role in Afghanistan. Yet the past ten years have proven that when it comes to Afghanistan, what works best is often not what any party favors.

Second, the U.S. and China should immediately initiate both formal and informal dialogues regarding Afghanistan post-2014. Experts can meet in a Track II setting to formulate policy options, while Track I meetings can follow. These meetings need to be candid and based on past arrangements that proved successful, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in Southeast Asia and anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

Third, both countries should utilize international institutions in which they have influence in order to build a comprehensive Afghan security policy. For the U.S., this means working with its strategic allies to provide continued training for Afghan security forces, foreign aid and private investment. In China’s case, it means engaging the Shanghai Cooperative Organization to mobilize resources throughout Central Asia.

Fourth, and most importantly, both countries need to cooperate in their engagements with both Afghanistan’s leaders and South Asian leaders. The U.S. can leverage its relationship with Afghanistan’s government to further interaction between China’s leaders and their Afghan counterparts. Both countries can engage Pakistan’s new government to show a united will that encourages Pakistan to do more to inhibit destabilizing groups operating in Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Finally, India should be brought into talks with respect to its diplomatic operations in Afghanistan and its own investment in the country.

Difficult, But Not Impossible

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It will be immensely difficult for the U.S. and China to cooperate on Afghanistan. Over the long term, however these two countries have parallel national interests when it comes to Afghanistan and that must be the basis of all forward movement. Added to the complexities of the bilateral relationship are the intricacies that will be required when working with the Afghan, Central Asian, Pakistani, and Indian governments. In short, this is no small task. The alternative, however, will certainly be a more chaotic Afghanistan and by extension, a more unstable Central and South Asia.

This effort will be more difficult for China, for it will require them to revise their stance on international security engagement. There is no chance that China will send security forces to Afghanistan, but it is equally unlikely that another international force will replace NATO. Thus, China must engage the security situation directly. As such, the U.S., given its experience in Afghanistan, will have an opportunity to encourage China to take on a more responsible international security role.

Again, this process will not be easy, but it allows an opportunity for the U.S. and China to engage in coordinated security policy. Both countries desire stability in Afghanistan and it is that, not external problems within the bilateral relationship, which must be the focus of both countries. There is no more pressing issue in Central and South Asia than Afghanistan.

Jeffrey Payne is the Senior Research Associate at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.