Can China save Afghanistan?

With Afghanistan’s reconstruction on the brink, what could the EU and U.S ask Beijing to do?

Meeting his Afghan counterpart, President George Bush recently highlighted civilian reconstruction work that has improved daily life in Afghanistan. But the Taliban, relying on safe-havens in Pakistan, have made this the most violent year since the U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime in 2001.

Analysts now worry that NATO’s Afghan mission will fail unless dramatic changes take place. With talk underway of an Iraq-style surge of U.S troops, the search is on for other ways to boost the international effort. One topic that always makes it into these debates is the role of China. With its record of rapid infrastructure build, huge sums of capital  and close ties to Pakistan, many hope that Beijing can be persuaded to play a bigger role in Afghanistan.

China has its own clear interests in Afghanistan’s stabilisation. During the Taliban regime, Beijing suspected Al Qaeda of training separatists in Xinjiang province. Were the Taliban to return to power, Beijing worries these ties may be resumed and reinforced. Instability in Afghanistan may also increase the export of Afghan drugs into China; in 2004, Chinese officials conceded that up to 20% of heroin in the People’s Republic could be of Afghan origin, a figure which has probably since increased.

Then there are China’s commercial interests. For example, Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei partnered with the Afghan government to implement Afghanistan’s digital telephone switches, providing 200,000 subscriber lines. More recently, the China Metallurgical Group Corporation won a $3 billion bid to develop the Aynak copper deposits; the mine is the largest foreign direct investment in Afghanistan’s history and, once up and running, could provide an amount equal to 40 per cent of the Afghan budget. Beijing also intends to build a coal-fired electric plant, and has even talked about constructing a railway line connecting the Pakistani port of Gwadar with Aynak and even Tajikistan. Afghanistan’s unexplored reserves of oil, natural gas and iron ore could also help satiate China’s demand for energy and raw materials.

A Taliban takeover of the Pashtun-dominated area around the Aynak mine would probably endanger China’s economic investments. Even if Beijing could reach an accommodation with the Taliban – after all, China has relationships with many pariah states and the Sino-Pak relationship may prevent the Taliban from attacking Chinese facilities – Beijing would probably prefer dealing with the post-Bonn polity rather than an obscurantist Islamist regime. Beijing certainly wants to see U.S forces to leave the region in the long-term – as made evident in the Chinese-backed 2007 Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting that asked the a U.S to leave Central Asia – but accepts that, for now, NATO is needed to keep the peace.

China has traditionally strong ties with Afghanistan; during the Cold War China was an ardent opponent of the Russian invasion, even arming the Mujahideen and boycotting the Moscow Olympic Games. In December 2001, after the U.S-led ouster of the Taliban was assured, Beijing established diplomatic ties with the Afghan Interim Administration and Chairman Hamid Karzai who, in turn, visited Beijing when he became president, meeting with the Communist leadership.

China has opened a large embassy in Kabul and was quick to provide Afghanistan 30 million yuan (US $4 million) worth of humanitarian aid in 2001. At the Tokyo conference, China’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Wang Xuexian, pledged to help the country’s reconstruction with US$1 million, which was followed up by pledges of aid worth US$150 million. China took part in the Parwan irrigation project as well as the reconstruction of hospitals in Kabul and Kandahar. In 2008, China decided to provide an additional 50 million yuan (US $6 million) in aid whilst Beijing hosted the singing of a Good-Neighbourly Treaty in June 2006.

But how can China’s renewed relationship with its western neighbour be made to help not only Beijing? First, because of China’s privileged relationship with Pakistan, Beijing should be asked to work with the Pakistani military, helping them re-orient away from a defensive posture towards India and towards fighting the Taliban. This will be difficult and meet strongly-held resistance inside Pakistani military and intelligence circles, but without such a re-reorientation – which the West are not trusted to facilitate – the Taliban will continue to receive support from their former patrons in the ISI. 

Helping Pakistan tip the scales towards stability must also be a Chinese priority. At the UN a new grouping of countries – “Friends of Pakistan” – has formed. China could take a lead and, showing that foreigners care about Pakistan for Pakistan’s sake, offer to appoint an Assistance Envoy as well as host a high-level donor’s conference in Beijing to help it ally’s development. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) contain proved commercially viable reserves of marble, copper, limestone and coal and China should be asked to take the lead in preparing investment, working with the World Bank.

China should be asked to up its contribution to helping re-build Afghanistan. Its portion of the international community’s $ 26 billion development assistance is likely to remain small, but where China can really assist is in helping the Afghan government finance and build large-scale infrastructure that benefit the wider Afghan economy rather than just specific Chinese investments. China’s ability to train personnel in the millions can also be put to good use, especially in the medical and engineering fields. For example, Beijing could adopt Kabul University’s Engineering Faculty.

Finally, the resource-heavy reform of the Afghan police is crying out for more international assistance.  China has an excellent record in overseas civilian policing, e.g. in Haiti and East Timor, and should be asked to train and provide mentors for the Afghan police.

The problems plaguing Afghanistan’s reconstruction are beyond a deux ex machina, including greater Chinese involvement. But Beijing can play a greater and more useful role both in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and in lessening Pakistani-Afghan tensions. U.S and European leaders have been quick to remind Beijing that with China’s rising global power comes global responsibility. What better way to show that Beijing understands this by taking a greater role in guarantying regional security?

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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