By Raffaello Pantucci
April 06, 2013
The 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of troops from
is fast approaching. China
has just over a year before Afghanistan
fades from the West’s radar and Western attention toward the country shrinks
substantially. However, it is not clear that Beijing has properly considered what it is
going to do once NATO forces leave and pass the responsibility for
Afghan stability and security to local forces.
And more crucially, it is not clear that
has thought about what it can do with the significant economic leverage it
wields in the region. Afghanistan
the opportunity to show the world it is a responsible global leader that is not
wholly reliant on others to assure its regional interests.
Traditionally, Chinese thinkers have considered
Afghanistan the “graveyard of
empires.” They chuckle at the ill-advised American-led NATO effort and point to
British and Soviet experiences fighting wars in Afghanistan.
But in reality, the presence of NATO forces provided
China with a sense of stability. Beijing correctly assumed that NATO’s presence in Afghanistan would mean regional terrorist
networks would remain focused on attacking Alliance
forces rather than stirring up trouble in neighboring countries like China. NATO’s
targeting of Islamist groups also had the effect of striking anti-Chinese
Uighur groups that had sought refuge in Afghanistan under the protection of
the Taliban or al-Qaeda. These Uighur groups would otherwise have focused their
attention on targeting China.
Yet as the date of American withdrawal from
approaches, this security dynamic is changing. While China does worry about the threat
of Islamist Uighur groups striking from their Afghan bases, this concern is
relatively marginal. The bigger problem is the potentially negative
repercussions for the rising number of investments from China’s private sector in Afghanistan and
its surrounding region. These investments are part of a broader push into
Central Asia that flows from an effort to develop China’s
historically underdeveloped province
of Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan.
The prospect of an
Afghanistan returning to chaos is, therefore,
not appealing to policymakers and business people in Beijing. This scenario would bring
instability directly to China’s
doorstep, and this instability could potentially expand northward into Central
Asia or southward into Pakistan.
would suffer from further chaos in either direction.
The solution to this problem is complex.
not necessarily expected to invest heavily in security efforts and rebuilding Afghanistan’s security apparatus, though a more
substantial contribution in this direction than the offer to train a nominal
300 policemen that China
made last year in Kabul
would be helpful. Rather, China
could focus on what it is able to do best: invest in Afghanistan and develop its
abundant natural resources.
Chinese state-owned firms have already invested in oil fields in Amu Darya in northern Afghanistan and a copper mine in Mes Aynak, southeast of Kabul. These investments have had mixed success.
In part this is because companies operating in the south face understandable security concerns that range from locals angry because they feel they were not justly compensated for their land that was affected by the mine, to Taliban-affiliated groups eager to punish the central government by undermining efforts to develop the country.
But these companies also often find they lack a full understanding of the environment in which they are trying to invest. Orchestrators of projects that begin with the best of intentions and large investments, like the Mes Aynak mine, find themselves burdened with a local government response that is confused. Confusion turns to anger when these projects fail to deliver elements that were supposedly included in the original contract. For example, the local Afghan government initially believed that MCC and Jiangxi Copper would build a train line in the south. But the companies claim the contract only stipulated it would conduct a feasibility study. They also claim that the security situation has driven Chinese workers to refuse to work on the site, though reports about whether these stoppages are actually occurring are unclear.
The difficulty of this deal contrasts with the rapidity with which Chinese energy giant CNPC was able to bring online the oil field in
Political complications with the local Afghan strongman Rashid Dostum have held
up work, and it is not clear that they have been completely resolved. The field
has produced some oil that was transported across the border by truck into Turkmenistan,
where it is refined at a separate CNPC site. The company has also said that it
is going to develop a refinery in Afghanistan to help facilitate
Afghan energy independence.
These two projects show the potential benefits and downsides to investing in
Large mining projects like these have the potential to be help rebuild parts of
and transform the economy from one that is reliant on the drug trade and
foreign aid to self-reliance.
Even if they were all successful, however, Chinese investments alone would not transform
into a stable and prosperous state. China
also needs to leverage its power within the region and persuade other countries
to engage in Afghanistan
in order to complete this transformation. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization
(SCO), a regional entity led by China,
has done very little in Afghanistan
due to a lack of agreement among members about what exact actions to take.
China believes the SCO should do more, but other member countries believe a bilateral approach is better that a multilateral one
and that focusing on building individual relationships in Afghanistan will help strengthen their particular interests. This is
unfortunate as the SCO could be a useful vehicle through which China and other
regional actors could undertake efforts to counter the narcotics trade in the
region and strengthen border controls.
And at the social level,
China needs to foster
person-to-person contact with Afghanistan.
Last year during a visit to Kabul, the most
striking characteristic of ’s Confucius
Institute—one of the Beijing-backed centers that promote Chinese
language and culture across the world—was the absence of Chinese teachers and
Afghan students. This stood in contrast to other Confucius Institutes in Kabul
University Central Asia with dozens of students crowding around
excited teachers. The security situation undoubtedly complicates things in Kabul, but there are
safer parts of the country in which to operate. To further encourage societal
ties, Beijing could try to entice more Afghans
to study and work in China
through scholarships and study grants.