China eyes its Afghanistan moves

When prestigious groups feeding into the Obama administration—from the Center for American Progress to the Center for a New American Security—write about China’s engagement with events in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, they tend to do so only tangentially. Yet Chinese reasons for involvement are pervasive and their influence on events, especially those surrounding America’s own “war on terror” in Afghanistan, is profound even when it is understated.

When the Western press deals with Chinese involvement in Afghanistan at all, it is with a dismissive air. The massive copper mine at Aynak, a US$3 billion dollar investment which will become the world‘s second largest single copper source, is described as piggybacking America’s security efforts and the result of a faulty bidding process. Yet China will pay Afghanistan US$400 million a year and half the profits from the mine. It has arranged for 1,000 Afghan police to protect the mine and the complex will have major downstream infrastructure effects—40,000 local jobs, national road and rail links as well as a hefty surplus of power to send to Kabul, which currently only gets a few hours of electricity a day.

The Afghan government says it gave the contract to Chinese companies because they would begin work immediately, rather than wait until the security situation improved, as US bidders wished. Mines that have been sitting vacant in Pakistan’s troubled regions for over a decade perhaps reminded the Afghans that for American companies the situation might never be secure enough.

China’s investment in Afghanistan’s communications network is usually glossed over too. Chinese firms Huawei and ZTE, the former suspected in India of having links with the Chinese intelligence and military establishments, are major equipment suppliers for Afghan internet and mobile phone services: when Afghans contact their NATO colleagues, it’s probably using a China-made communications link.

While China is not yet a trading partner for Afghanistan on the scale of India or Pakistan, which each receive about a fifth of the nation’s exports, it would like to be. And Western assumptions that Beijing will simply rely on the United States and its NATO partners to provide ongoing security for its investments are probably misplaced. It has been sending signals otherwise, mostly ignored in the West. An essay by the deputy general of the China Council for National Security Policy Studies, Li Qinggong, appeared in the government-run China Daily was titled “Afghan peace needs a map”. That was duly followed by a second, “Taking high road to Kabul”, by the same author. Taken together, the two essays set out a scenario where a US and coalition withdrawal is replaced by a UN Security Council-mandated peacekeeping force, neatly sidestepping China’s stated policy that it is opposed to the Afghanistan war. Mr Li writes that, should the United States withdraw military forces, China would help facilitate “deployment of international peacekeeping missions in its land and accelerating its reconstruction process.”

Chinese intentions for Afghanistan post US withdrawal have been reinforced by a recent joint statement from the foreign ministers of Russia, China and India. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, told reporters that “we can not stand aloof and impartial on what’s going on in the friendly neighbouring countries and adjacent countries too”. Earlier, this July, the Shanghai Co-Operation Organisation’s meeting concerned itself, among other things, with  “finding a way out for war-ravaged Afghanistan”. Colonel Matthew Hall, former chief analyst for Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, argues that NATO should provide China with a chance to further its international standing and position in the region by encouraging it to take an active role.

Were China to become more involved, its influence could be considerable, especially with Pakistan’s military. As Pakistan’s largest trading partner and major ally, China can bring more far leverage to bear than the United States can on matters like Pakistan‘s support for militant groups. China is also one of India’s biggest trading partners. So far, it has pursued a dual-track policy of provocations towards India while relying on that economic reality to head off direct confrontations. With China having a hold of all the important economic and military levers on the sub-continent, being able to economically strong-arm Afghanistan, Pakistan and to a lesser extent India, a UN peacekeeping force becomes much more possible politically.

There is a fair bit to like in such a plan, for almost all concerned. The US and its Western allies get out of a quagmire intact, China gets resources and the chance to act like a superpower. Russia gets regional stability, the other SCO nations get increased trade and the opportunity to act beneficially on the world stage. Pakistan gets strategic depth and the Afghan Taliban probably get some kind of power-sharing reconciliation with Karzai.

The main losers would be al-Qaida, Pakistan-based jihadi groups and India. The latter would need some pretty big economic carrots from China and the United States to swallow losing short-term influence in Afghanistan to its northern rival. But India would benefit too from removal of Pakistan’s reasons to use proxies, and in the longer term, from the chance to grow into the superpower it should be without having to waste energy on Pakistan or China for at least a couple of decades.

That  breathing space might be crucial for India, more so than any  conceivable strategic interests it has in Afghanistan. Although the Indian armed forces are engaged in an unprecedented expansion of naval and air force projection capacity, it is nowhere near able to take on its main regional rival. Like Britain and the United States before it, India sees its future as a naval and economic powerhouse. If China wants to turn inland, India should help it to do so.