Afghanistan’s future security is facing uncertain times, no less helped by China’s ambiguous attitude. China’s role in Afghanistan and its silence towards the Taliban’s attacks on NATO and Afghan civilians draws criticism from many quarters. China has refused to send troops to Afghanistan or open its border there for NATO military operations. NATO members argue that China has benefited from a “free-riding” policy in Afghanistan: taking the economic benefits without imposing anti-Taliban political actions or involvement with training Afghan policemen. This is in contrast to the United States and its allies, who have invested over 2.3 trillion U.S. dollars in their Afghan operations, and the heavy human cost of deaths of 1,000 NATO and 2,000 U.S. troops respectively. This leads to the question: does China care about who will rule Kabul?
The above criticisms are understandable as China has both the potential and capacity to play a more significant role in improving the security of Afghanistan, an important issue concerning the international community. For instance, China has a strong strategic partnership with Pakistan; the country which can influence the Taliban effectively. Pakistan Prime Minister Y. Reza Gilani has described this relationship with China as “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, and sweeter than honey”. So, China could compel Pakistan to cut its ties with terrorist networks, but China did not.
However, it would be mistaken to assume that China does not care about development in Afghanistan. In fact, China is deeply concerned for Afghanistan’s future after the 2014 withdrawal of US troops as this could have a de-stabilising impact in the region. China’s concerns are related to the security situation in Xinjiang (a Muslim minority region of China) and to the supply of natural resources from Central Asia. For the former, there is no reason why China would support the Taliban in gaining national power again. Rather, Beijing is more worried that Taliban rule in Kabul would mean the reconnection with insurgent groups in the Xinjiang autonomous region of China such as East Turkistan Islamic Movements (ETIMs), rather than with the Communist Party in Beijing.
Natural resource supply is also an important consideration for China. Two state-owned Chinese companies have already secured projects in Afghanistan for one of the biggest copper deposits in the world and the first ever oil extraction investment. The China Metallurgical Corporation (MCC) has invested roughly $4 billion in Aynak copper which is the largest foreign direct investment in Afghanistan. Plus, China’s National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has won the first oil extraction project in the northern part of the country where they will invest $7 billion over 25 years.
In his 2010 visit to China, Afghan President Karzai stated that “Afghanistan would follow America’s democracy and China’s economic success”. Considering widespread corruption and election fraud, there is less room for American democracy, while untouched natural resources and pro-Beijing attitudes create space for China. It seems that as the US is heading out, China is heading into Afghanistan.
Qayoom Suroush is a journalist formerly affiliated with Bamdad News Agency in Kabul and a graduate researcher at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Academy in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan). His research interests include Afghan politics and security.
Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors