As U.S. troops withdraw and President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai assumes presidency, Afghanistan is entering a new stage of historical transition. Since China is pressing ahead with good-neighborly diplomacy on its periphery and proposing a “Silk Road Economic Belt,” China-Afghanistan cooperation also faces significant opportunities. President Ghani’s China visit and the Istanbul Process will open a new chapter in the two countries’ relations.
Stability in Afghanistan is directly connected to that in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR). China and Afghanistan share common interests in dealing with extremism, terrorism and separatism. Before 9/11, contingents within the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) had undergone training in Afghanistan and received financial support and ideological indoctrination from al-Qaeda, resulting directly in an upsurge of terrorist activity in Xinjiang during the 1990s.
After 9/11, the ETIM stopped training in Afghanistan. Some ETIM activists, who had hidden in the tribal areas of Pakistan after the outbreak of the Afghan war, have been colluding with ETIM contingents at home to conduct terrorist attacks in Xinjiang. In recent years in particular, terrorist threats have worsened in Xinjiang. A stable Afghanistan can be considered as an important external condition for stability in Xinjiang, a basic precondition for China to realize its strategic and extensive regional interests.
Chinese economic and trade interests in Afghanistan are also on the rise. As the Islamic state at the crossroads of Eurasia is about to open a new historic chapter, its cooperation with China is deepening further. U.S. President Barack Obama’s reference to China as a “free-rider” had much to do with Afghanistan. Americans believe China has taken advantage of U.S. preoccupation with the war on terror and accelerated development, enjoying U.S.-provided security dividends. In Afghanistan, they think, it has been the U.S. sending in troops and China grabbing economic benefits.
This notion should actually be approached from a different angle, however. China acknowledges that U.S. anti-terror endeavors in Afghanistan have to some extent facilitated its own fight against terrorism, and that economic and trade ties with Afghanistan have also brought it some practical profits. But China has also had a role in assisting Afghanistan’s reconstruction, which indirectly reduced U.S. burdens there. Therefore, Sino-Afghan cooperation is not a zero-sum game where China gains and the U.S. loses. Instead, cooperation benefits both.
In fact, China has no plan to monopolize Afghanistan, the so-called geopolitical hub of Eurasia. Proceeding from the simplistic perspective of Sino-U.S. competition and geopolitical factors, some people believe a turbulent Afghanistan can distract the U.S. and create a more desirable environment for China’s development. Truth is, as China gains strength, the Sino-U.S. relationship is entering a stage of comprehensive bilateral “gaming.” The U.S. has been unable to even fend for itself on many issues. Even if U.S. forces stay in Afghanistan, they won’t constitute much threat to China. On the contrary, if an extremist regime emerges in Afghanistan, it will be a significant threat to all neighboring countries, not to mention its negative impacts on security conditions in Xinjiang. In this sense, China and the U.S. share more common interests that differences in Afghan stability.
As a rising power with shared borders with Afghanistan, China will certainly pursue its goals of strategic security on the prudent basis of comprehensive balancing. In recent years, China has participated in almost all multilateral international conferences concerning the Afghan issue, displaying an active attitude never seen before in China’s foreign policy. Judging from the cooperation agreements reached during President Ghani’s China visit and the policy statements China made at the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Istanbul Process, China is now truly committed to making accomplishments on the Afghan issue. In short, China doesn’t seek hegemony or even dominance there. Instead, China’s strategic goal in Afghanistan is seeking constructive participation and win-win cooperation. China and the West have different concerns regarding Afghanistan. China cares more about regional stability than about what kind of government will be built.
The war on terror in Afghanistan is now history. China needs to reconsider how to protect its interests there and achieve anticipated accomplishments. China wants to is to take advantage of the two countries’ fine relations throughout history invigorate this relationship through Afghan reconstruction and fresh strategic cooperation.
Respect for Afghan independence remains an important precondition. U.S., European and Japanese aid to Afghanistan’s reconstruction always comes with certain conditions. China’s adherence to the five principles of peaceful coexistence has always been endorsed by Afghan governments of different times. Therefore, China should continue to stick to the principles of equality and respect for Afghan sovereignty and dignity in providing assistance. Under such a precondition, China can secure national interests by doing the following:
First, strengthen economic and trade links with Afghanistan, thereby promote bilateral cooperation in the security field in a step-by-step manner. Currently, the U.S. and its NATO allies are no longer willing to contribute more to Afghan stability. Chinese investments have provided the country, one of the most turbulent countries worldwide, with thousands of jobs. And it will contribute more. By bringing more practical benefits to Afghanistan, China will obtain necessary resources and meanwhile help Afghan reconstruction and its efforts to establish a healthy national economic system. Over time, China will be rewarded for its philosophy of “amity, sincerity, mutual benefits, and inclusiveness” in its relations with Afghanistan.
Second, build up peculiar Chinese influence on Afghanistan. Judging from current conditions, China is taking a defensive stance on the Afghan issue. With the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China has tremendous potentials in helping solve the Afghan issue. But it can’t solve Afghanistan’s own problems. Sending troops to Afghanistan is impossible, unrealistic and highly risky. But it will consider enhancing bilateral security collaboration, and control security risks with friendly ties.
Third, enhance political influence on Afghanistan in an all-round manner. At present, about 1,000 Afghan officials and technological personnel are receiving training in China. China is enrolling more and more students from Afghanistan. The Confucius Institute at Kabul University has reopened. In the long term, China should widen its channels of influence, highlighting friendly feelings and exchanges between the two peoples, cultivating stronger forces that know and are friendly to China.
Fourth, China and the U.S. may carry out mutually complementary cooperation in areas where their interests overlap or don’t contradict. The U.S. still has security advantages, while China has its channels economically in Afghanistan. The two countries are not in opposition when it comes to solving the fundamental conflicts. Their collaboration is conducive to Afghan stability, and Afghanistan can become a litmus test for their “new-type major-country relationship.” China and the U.S. should seek common ground between the Chinese proposal of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the American proposal of the “New Silk Road Plan.”
Like wine, China’s status and influences in Afghanistan will get better with time. The most optimistic prospect is that China and Afghanistan open up the Wakhan Corridor and recreate the prosperity of the ancient Silk Road. The Wakhan Corridor is a long narrow river valley linking the two countries. If Afghanistan can become stable, China can build a railway or highway to connect the two countries, enabling closer and larger-scale exchanges. Of course, there still is a very long way to go before the Wakhan panhandle becomes a corridor of economic and trade exchanges between the two countries.