During the past dozen years, China’s economic and strategic interests in Afghanistan have grown considerably. These interests include promoting the security of China’s western provinces; suppressing potential terrorist threats to Chinese nationals or PRC territory; securing access to the region’s energy resources as well as trade and investment opportunities; cultivating Beijing’s image as a benign international actor that respects rather than exploits other countries; securing diplomatic support for Beijing’s position regarding Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and other issues; and preventing Russia or the United States from emerging as a regional hegemon.
Chinese representatives have expressed an interest in helping the Afghan government to maintain security and reduce the country’s narcotics production and exports. The PRC has engaged in limited non-combat training of the Afghan National Security Forces. Yet, China’s security ties with Afghanistan remain much less developed than those between the PRC and many other Central and South Asian governments. In addition to economic cost considerations, China’s reluctance to side openly with the Kabul government reflects a fear of antagonizing the Taliban, which if it continues to grow in strength could retaliate against the PRC‘s growing economic interests in Afghanistan and perhaps again stir up trouble among China’s Muslim minority. It also results from a calculation that any Chinese military role would have little impact on the war’s outcome given the already large foreign military presence in Afghanistan and the country’s history of resisting foreign influence and serving as the graveyard of empires.
The PRC has sought to advance its agenda regarding Afghanistan directly, including through bilateral diplomacy and economic and security assistance. Additionally, China is working with other countries, especially Pakistan, and multinational institutions, particularly the United Nations and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Chinese leaders have not challenged the legitimacy of the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, and the PRC delegation to the United Nations has regularly voted to renew the force’s Security Council mandate. In various bilateral and multilateral fora, Chinese and U.S. representatives have repeatedly agreed to collaborate regarding Afghanistan.
Until now, Beijing has tolerated the large U.S. role in fighting Islamists insurgents in Afghanistan and Central Asia, as well as U.S. support for these countries’ economic development, as acceptable means to achieve these objectives. But the decreasing U.S. military and economic presence in the region requires Beijing to revise its calculations. While PRC policy makers naturally wish to maintain their low profile in Afghanistan, such an option is vanishing. Chinese analysts recognize that China, Pakistan, and their Central Asian neighbors will become more vulnerable to Eurasian-based terrorist movements that seek to subvert Central Asia governments friendly to China and support Uighur militants seeking to end Beijing’s control over the Xinjiang, whose economic development is closely associated with the economic and security environment in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Beijing’s diplomacy currently aims to embed the Afghan issue within a regional framework that will prevent the emergence of a dangerous security and institutional vacuum following the withdrawal of most, if not all, U.S. combat forces by the end of this year. China’s preferred outcome is a negotiated peace settlement among the warring Afghan factions, supported by neighboring countries and the great powers, and blessed by the United Nations. These international partners would agree to preserve Afghanistan’s neutrality and collectively contribute to the country’s political, development, and economic reconstruction. This scenario would establish a more favorable environment for PRC investment in Afghanistan, reduce some sources of regional terrorism and narcotics trafficking, and facilitate use of Afghanistan’s territory as part of the Afghan-Pakistan-Central Asian “silk road” connecting China’s trade and investment with the rest of Eurasia and Europe beyond.
This is an outcome acceptable to the United States, though U.S. officials also are concerned about the nature of the constitution, wanting to see the preservation of some Western-imported civil liberties and human rights. In addition, they would like China to contribute more to achieving this outcome. Until now, China has mostly assisted the counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan by investing in the country’s raw material sector and helping develop the economic infrastructure (especially transportation) to better exploit these natural resources. These investments help divert Afghans away from illicit commercial activities such as opium production and provide revenue for an Afghan government struggling to sustain its enormous security establishment. The United States should there support this limited PRC contribution, even while pressing for more.
For example, the United States might secure additional Chinese training and equipping of the Afghan National Police, which has important counterterrorist functions such as keeping the Taliban from reestablishing operations in areas cleared by the Afghan National Army. PRC institutions could do more to teach Afghans various dual-use technical skills helpful for the country’s economic recovery as well as national security. Washington might also persuade Beijing to join Russia and NATO countries in helping train and equip Afghan counter-narcotics personnel given PRC concern about Afghan-origin narcotics entering their country. The United States should consider developing wider ties with the SCO on Afghan-related issues in the hopes of securing additional Chinese support under the cover of a multinational framework.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.