Afghan President Hamid Karzai is one of many foreign leaders in Shanghai this week for the Conference on Interactions and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). While in Shanghai, he met with President Xi Jinping to discuss the future of China-Afghanistan relations.
Xi said that China is “ready” to increase cooperation with Afghanistan, including offering “aid to the country’s reconstruction of peace.” Xi promised that China would work with Afghanistan on the construction of the Silk Road Economic Belt, Beijing’s ambitious vision for linking China to Europe via Central Asia and the Middle East. As part of this, Xi affirmed China’s support for increased investment in Afghanistan.
In an interview with CCTV, Karzai spoke highly of China’s “trust and friendship and support” for Afghanistan and said he and Xi agreed on the need for “even deeper and broader” ties. He also called the Silk Road Economic Belt “necessary for the broader development of this whole region.” Karzai said Afghanistan would support the project, because of its economic benefits and because of the bridge it would create between Central and South Asia and the West.
However, plans for investment and other economic cooperation between Kabul and Beijing remain highly dependent on the security situation on the ground. With NATO troops due to withdraw at the end of 2014, there are concerns that the Taliban and other militant groups might seriously threaten the government’s control over all or part of Afghanistan. This could create a nightmare situation for China, where poorly controlled, remote areas of Afghanistan act as a breeding ground for terrorists and extremists.
Accordingly, in his meeting with Karzai, Xi expressed his hope for “a unified, stable, developing and friendly Afghanistan.” Xi also promised to increase China-Afghanistan cooperation against what China calls the “three evil forces”—separatism, extremism, and terrorism. Karzai responded that Afghanistan is willing to work with China on those issues, and that he “expects China’s continued help for stability, reconciliation and development in Afghanistan.”
Karzai doesn’t have much longer in office; a run-off election to determine the Afghan presidency will be held on June 14. On the topic of security, both candidates (Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani) have said that they would sign a Bilateral Security Agreement that allows for a limited number of U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan post-2014. Karzai also promised Xi that Afghanistan will seek close relations with Beijing regardless of who wins the election.
Exactly what role China will play in promoting Afghan security is an open question. To date, China has mostly engaged with Afghanistan economically, through investment. This is not unimportant; as Karzai noted in his CCTV interview, development aid is crucial for a stable Afghanistan. However, China has also recently increased its involvement in other, more security-minded forms of cooperation, including the training of Afghan police and security forces. As confirmation of this trend, U.S. State Department officials told The Guardian that “concerns on terrorism” rather than economic concerns are now “driving Chinese policy in Afghanistan.”
The future of Afghanistan’s security is of great concern not only to China, but to the other regional players represented at CICA. Afghanistan was on the agenda even at Xi’s meetings with other leaders. China and Russia issued a joint declaration expressing their belief that Afghanistan should “become a peaceful, stable and prosperous nation without terrorism and drug crimes,” while Xi and the President of Kazakhstan promised to work together on the Afghan situation. The future of Afghanistan is a major topic of discussion for CICA this week, and is also high on the agenda of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
As China “marches West” with its ambitious Silk Road (and Maritime Silk Road) plans, security and stability in its western neighbors will be even more crucial for Beijing. Afghanistan is the major x-factor in regional stability, which means China will have to pay special attention to Afghan security to ensure its own foreign policy and domestic goals are met.