China has big plans for an economic and diplomatic push to the west, as evidenced by the emergence last year of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “Maritime Silk Road.” China is envisioning these projects partly as foreign policy tools to draw China closer to South Asia, Central Asia, and the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. However, there’s also an important domestic policy aspect, in that China hopes to make its restive western province, Xinjiang, into an economic hub, increasing development and (presumably) decreasing violent outbursts from the native Uyghur population.
China’s renewed interest in its western neighbors comes at a sensitive time. As my colleagues Zach and Ankit discussed in a recent podcast, the security situation in Afghanistan, not a rosy picture to begin with, is about to get a lot more complicated. U.S. and NATO troops are scheduled to pull out of Afghanistan in 2014. With current President Hamid Karzai refusing to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain after the drawdown, the Pentagon is even considering a “zero option” that would result in all U.S. troops leaving the country. U.S. officials, including General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, are not sanguine about Kabul’s ability to hold out against a potential Taliban resurgence on its own.
Chaos in Afghanistan, particularly Al Qaeda or other extremist terrorist groups returning, would be a blow to the U.S., but it would also be a disaster for China. Parts of China’s new economic plans (notably the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) are already in doubt due to security concerns. Should the Afghan government (which is scheduled to elect a new president in April) collapse following the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops, it would further destabilize the entire region—posing a threat to China’s “Silk Road Economic Belt.”
Worse, China is worried that instability in Afghanistan (and Pakistan as well) will provide a training ground for terrorist groups seeking to split Xinjiang province off from the rest of China. Violent incidents in Xinjiang have already become increasingly common in recent years. Even more worrying, terrorist attacks have been carried out far from Xinjiang, including an October 2013 intentional car crash in Tiananmen Square as well as the March 1 knife attack in Kunming Railway Station.
Underscoring the threat, Reuters recently conducted a telephone interview with Abdullah Mansour, the leader of the Turkestan Islamic Party. Reuters quoted Mansour as saying, “We have plans for many attacks in China …We have a message to China that East Turkestan people and other Muslims have woken up. They cannot suppress us and Islam any more. Muslims will take revenge.” Mansour reportedly operates in Pakistan in an area close to the Afghanistan border, and both the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban are believed to work with and aid Uyghur separatist groups.
China’s concern that terrorism will continue to spread is driving its engagement with Afghanistan. During the recent National People’s Congress, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the press that China would “work with Afghanistan and other neighbors of China to resolutely fight all terrorist forces.” He added that “Afghanistan’s peace and stability has a direct bearing on security in China’s western region.”
To help ensure this “peace and stability” for both Afghanistan and the region, Wang Yi pledged that China will “work with the international community to actively facilitate political reconciliation in Afghanistan, support the peace and reconstruction efforts and encourage Afghanistan to be more involved in regional cooperation.” As a sign of these efforts, China plans to host a ministerial conference of the Istanbul Process on Afghanistan later in 2014. The Istanbul Process in a regional dialogue designed to promote trust and cooperation among Afghanistan and regional countries. Besides Afghanistan and China, other participants include Azerbaijan, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and the UAE. The U.S. is a “supporting nation,” along with Australia, Japan, Canada, and the EU.
China is a big supporter of such regional dialogues, particularly when they are steered by regional countries (and not the U.S.). But it will take more than dialogues and meetings to ensure Afghanistan’s stability in the post-war era. China will have to play a more direct role in helping Afghanistan rebuild, including through economic assistance.
Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to provide such aid when he met with Karzai while both were in Sochi to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. Xi particularly mentioned personnel training as an area where China could help Afghanistan. Foreign Minister Wang Yi made similar promises during his February trip to Kabul, where he offered “training and material assistance to Afghan military and police.” Wang also mentioned Chinese “support for Afghanistan to develop its economy and improve its people’s livelihood,” including infrastructure projects and Chinese investment in energy.
Ultimately, though, despite China’s deep concern for the future of Afghanistan and regional security, Beijing will not replace the U.S. in terms of troop presence. It’s still an open question whether or not Afghan security forces can stand on their own to face internal threats from the Taliban and extremists groups. Ironically then, despite continued concerns about U.S. hegemony and containment, China stands to benefit from a BSA that allows American troops to remain in Afghanistan. China’s plans for economic assistance and political reconciliation require a baseline of stability to be effective, and a U.S. presence could provide that baseline.