As U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, China is poised to act as a stabilizing force in the region, reaping the benefits of American military efforts. Though the Chinese are not significantly or directly contributing to Afghan security by means of military involvement or aid, economic potential in the country is too attractive to ignore, resulting in quite substantial investment. A number of state-owned enterprises (SEO’s) are pursuing resource development projects in Afghanistan. The Afghan government views Chinese development of their abundant natural resources and construction of infrastructure as integral to future peace and prosperity in the country. The Chinese are eager to play a more influential role in Afghanistan, which could prove immensely profitable and enhance their security interests. Someone must fill the vacuum created in Afghanistan when American forces pull out lest the government collapses due to civil conflict. The best candidate for this job is China.
China has long recognized the importance of a stable Central Asia to its own stability and security. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), founded in 1996 as the Shanghai Five, was created as a regional organization focused on Central Asian security. Since 2001, the group has been paying close attention to the conflict in Afghanistan. For China, the lead party to the SCO, instability in Afghanistan threatens the fragile peace in its western regions. Xinjiang, a province in the far northwest of China and home to a Muslim minority group (Uighurs), has seen unrest of late. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the most prominent dissenting political group active in the province, calls for an Islamic state in Xinjiang and has direct ties to terrorist activities. Following the September 11 attacks, China’s mission to the UN authored a document outlining ETIM terrorist activities and the inner workings of the organization. Uighur terrorists have attempted multiple hijackings in the past and are responsible for other acts of violence in the region, including a recent attack on a police station that left eleven dead. The Afghan Taliban has noted ties to these Muslim terrorist and separatist groups. The 2001 document concluded that “Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan have provided the Eastern Turkistan terrorist organizations with equipment and financial resources and trained their personnel.” The connection between the Taliban and terrorist groups within China is cause for alarm. If the Taliban regain control over Afghanistan, it is China’s fear that they will facilitate a sanctuary for such groups. The SCO is an institution created for the purpose of collective security, but with its policy of non-intervention, this is a difficult task. Beyond military cooperation and intelligence sharing, the scope of SCO capabilities is limited. SCO policies mirror those of China: in it’s ancient history, foreign military intervention is essentially nonexistent. China’s leaders prefer to utilize soft power to influence regional politics. Economic means have proved most successful to these ends.
The preferred Chinese strategy pursuant to state security is economic development. This policy has been enacted in Xinjiang and is being extended to Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a country with vast natural resources, including oil, silver, copper, gold and other precious metals. A U.S. task force headed by the Pentagon described the country as the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” Valuations of Afghan mineral reserves estimate a figure of $1 trillion. Add oil and natural gas to the collection of resources and the figure becomes much higher. The Chinese government, through state-owned enterprises (SEO’s), has set in motion plans to develop these resources. China Metallurgical Group Corp. along with two other Chinese firms won a $3.5 billion bid to develop the Aynak copper fields, the largest undeveloped copper reserves in the world. It is estimated that these fields contain up to $88 billion worth of copper ore. This is just one of multiple enormous development projects driven by Chinese investment. Although these projects have seen setbacks recently due to security threats, Aynak alone was attacked 17 times in 2012, the long-term prospect of Chinese interests in Afghanistan remain encouraging. When Chinese-driven development comes to fruition in Afghanistan, it will bolster the Afghan government’s ability to train, equip, and sustain domestic security forces while putting ease to civil unrest due to increased prosperity.
Afghanistan and China are natural partners in strengthening the post-conflict Afghan economy. Within President Hamid Karzai’s cabinet are numerous Maoists, remnants of the Cold War communist encroachment on Afghanistan. The cooperation between Beijing and Kabul is grounded in much sturdier foundation than that between Kabul and Washington. In addition, the benefits of Chinese investment in Afghanistan are mutual. Both states will see progress in their security interests. For Afghanistan, economic development will promote internal stability. As NATO forces begin to leave and foreign aid becomes less robust, developing domestic mineral deposits will act as the impetus for post-war reconstruction of the Afghan economy. A stable economy is paramount for the government to gain legitimacy and fend off a resurgence of the Taliban. Economic security is an effective protection against civil unrest.Beyond profitability, Chinese investment in Afghanistan provides both economic and territorial security. With the economic downturn impacting China’s two largest trading partners — America and Europe — diversifying into new markets is necessary. Afghanistan will act as a hedge against diminished growth in the West. China’s real security concern is domestic, though. The government has and will continue to be hyper vigilant in snuffing out civil unrest. Its far western regions have historically been a hotbed for resistance to the state, particularly in the province of Xinjiang. Foreign parties, especially the Taliban, aid disruptive activities in the region. A strengthened Afghanistan with the ability to manage internal affairs and combat insurgencies is intertwined with Chinese security interests.
After a decade-long war in Afghanistan, the United States is resigned to the ambiguous results of the conflict and ready to relinquish primary responsibility of the country, as a post-2014 Afghanistan without U.S. military presence is a legitimate possibility. China’s increasing influence in the country is becoming an uneasy reality for U.S. policymakers, but Washington should have no qualms about China’s interest in Afghanistan. First, America seems both unwilling and unable to finance Afghan reconstruction and maintenance of domestic security. With China offering to foot the bill, the U.S. should accept Chinese influence in Afghanistan. Both China and the U.S. share a mutual interest in enabling Afghanistan to police its own territory and effectively combat terrorist organizations. The manner in which China is going about attaining these goals should ease the concerns of expansionist ambitions. A concern of the U.S. is that Afghanistan will once again be a satellite state of a communist power. Historically, China has shown essentially no ambition to create an empire. Even the semi-autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang have been part of the Chinese umbrella of power since the thirteenth century at the latest. The prevailing Chinese identity throughout time has been that China is the “Middle Kingdom” and those outside of its realm are barbaric, not worthy of being drawn into its territory. This is why Chinese policymakers have become so adept at utilizing soft power to exert their influence beyond their borders. China’s investment in Afghanistan most definitely influences Afghan political decisions and actions while maintaining its sovereignty. In addition, China’s presence in Afghanistan will positively impact other regional powers. China is well positioned to pressure Pakistan to stop turning a blind eye to terrorist organizations within their borders. The long history of cooperation and friendship between Beijing and Islamabad will cause Pakistan to take seriously China’s calls to eradicate these groups. Also, China will act as a more legitimate counterbalance to Russia in Central Asia.
The future of Afghanistan is uncertain at best. America and NATO are scheduled to withdraw most or quite possibly all of their troops in 2014. Without foreign military presence and dramatically reduced foreign aid, post-2014 Afghanistan is desperate to ensure that the past twelve years will not be for naught. Chinese investment will develop the Afghan economy, allowing Afghanistan to avoid becoming the world’s next failed state. Economic growth and prosperity will allow the government to support its own security forces and discourage civil unrest. The benefits of Chinese interest in Afghanistan are twofold. The Afghan economy has great potential and the country’s vast natural resources offer an opportunity for tremendous profits. Also, a stable Afghanistan would contribute to a more secure China. Terrorist groups in Afghanistan threaten the peace in China’s western territories. While Chinese influence in the region intensifies, it should not be cause for concern to policymakers in Washington. Anti-terrorist security concerns run parallel between the two countries and the burden of Afghan reconstruction will not rely as heavily on U.S. support. Chinese activity in Afghanistan may seem surprising at first, but is actually wholly logical. Central Asia has long been underdeveloped and underprivileged, time and again consumed in a superpower’s expansion of control. Chinese exertion of power in the region is refreshing and encouraging as it does not aim to remove autonomy, but rather pursue congruent economic and security interests. At the hands of western military intervention, the past twelve years have devastated the region, especially Afghanistan. Now that the war is ending, China is stepping in to rebuild not only a country, but also the lives of millions.