Chinese President Xi Jinping is currently on the final leg of a South Asia tour that included stops in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and finally, India. He was originally also scheduled to stop by in Islamabad, but political instability in Pakistan resulted in that visited being postponed. Nevertheless, China missed a major opportunity by failing to schedule a presidential visit to Afghanistan: a country facing daunting political and military transitions this year. Xi could have substituted his planned stop in Islamabad with a stop in Kabul, but he chose not to.
In February, when incumbent Afghan President Hamid Karzai spoke with Xi on the sidelines of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games in Russia, Xi conveyed that China “hopes that the Presidential election in Afghanistan will go smoothly and that Afghanistan will achieve a steady transition and move towards lasting peace and stability.” As events over the summer have demonstrated, this has not been the case. Afghanistan’s two presidential candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, remain in a dispute over the ongoing audit process of the votes cast in June as well as the issue of forming a national unity government following the election. Xi could have conveyed China’s interest in seeing the candidates abide by the U.S.-sponsored plan.
Additionally, amid reports that the Afghan government is on the cusp of insolvency, offers of Chinese assistance–either immediately or in the future–would have paid off handsomely for Beijing. China is already a major investor in Afghanistan, but its contribution in direct foreign aid terms remains small. Although investments like the $3.5 billion Chinese stake in Afghanistan’s untapped natural resources demonstrate China’s growing commitment there, Beijing could do more to pitch itself as a major partner for the country following U.S. and NATO withdrawal.
Xi could have also used a stopover in Afghanistan to counter perceptions that China’s overarching interest in Afghanistan is in security. In a visit to Afghanistan earlier this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi left the impression that counter-terrorism, particularly denying Afghan territory as a safe-haven for terrorists who operate in western China, was Beijing’s top priority. While security cooperation is important to China, surely Beijing recognizes the perils of governance deficits and political instability for the future security of Afghanistan. As NATO and the United States prepare to leave, with no Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) or Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) in sight, Beijing’s continued support will prove invaluable.
By stopping in Kabul, Xi could have issued a vote of confidence in the future of Afghanistan. At a time when the country remains politically deadlocked, awaiting the results of a June run-off presidential election, a show of support from China could have reduced the uncertainty of the future. Xi may not have been able to make it to Kabul this time around, but it is likely that Afghanistan will be on the agenda when he meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as India and China look to Afghanistan as a potential area for cooperation. Recently, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Kabul, meeting with the presidential candidates and demonstrating India’s value as a partner to whomever emerges as Afghanistan’s next leader.
Despite the tremendous opportunity, what could have been is now irrelevant. The matter that Xi chose not to visit Afghanistan during this critical time in its political history will likely be unimportant for the future of the bilateral relationship. Soon, Afghanistan will have a new president and will set forth to chart its future following the withdrawal of foreign forces. While Beijing chose to remain on the sidelines as Afghanistan weathered the fallout of its disputed elections, it will hopefully choose to become more visible after 2014.