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Foreign Policy

Possibility and Limit of Sino-US Cooperation on the Afghanistan Issue

Jan 28 , 2014
  • Shao Yuqun

    Director, Center for American Studies, SIIS

The year 2014 will be of paramount importance to the development of relations between China and the United States. During their meeting at Sunnylands in June 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Obama came to a consensus on building a new type of major power relations between the two countries. Given the fact that it is a brand new type of major power relations never seen in human history, there will not be any established experience for them to draw from. What they will have to do, therefore, is find a solution through practice, or by ‘crossing the river by touching the stone in it,’ as the Chinese saying goes. Already, Beijing and Washington have agreed to take 2014 as a year of ‘actual action’ toward development of a new type of major power relationship and specific cooperation to enhance mutual trust, avoid unnecessary confrontation and prevent the innovative initiative from becoming a mere ‘concept without content.’ 

Shao Yuqun

As it has planned, the US will pull its military forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 so as to achieve a true global strategic transition. The situation in this South Asian country, however, has remained a major concern to the Obama Administration. Seeing that the United States is unable to solve the issue all by itself, the Obama Administration has been calling for cooperation with other countries in the region. It has also expressed the hope that China could play a bigger role on the Afghanistan issue. As Afghanistan’s neighbor, China has always kept a close eye on the development of this situation. Joining efforts with the United States and other countries in the region to pull Afghanistan out of the current political, security and economic mire definitely conforms to China’s national interests. 

On the Afghanistan issue, China and the United States may possibly cooperate in the following fields: 

Political Field 

To bring the Afghanis to play a leading role in accelerating their course of political reconciliation will be of common interest to China and the United States. China and the United States may advance the peaceful development of this course, by encouraging dialogue and negotiation, and discouraging violence and conflicts. The general election scheduled for the spring of 2014 will be a crucial development to set the direction of the process of political reconciliation. Before the presidential election, China and the United States should press the Afghanistan government and its pertinent political rivals for talks, thus ensuring its smooth conduction; after the election, the two should push the new government to cement its ruling position as early as possible and further stabilize the domestic political situation. On the global level, China and the United States as two of the permanent members of the UN Security Council should not only strengthen bilateral coordination and cooperation at the UN level, but also join voices to call for closer attention and more support by the international community to Afghanistan’s course of political reconciliation. Regionally, China and the United States should work enthusiastically to win attention from regional cooperative bodies and their members to the political issues in Afghanistan. The 4th foreign ministers’ meeting of the Istanbul Process, for instance, is scheduled for the second half of this year in China. China and the United States may well take it as a platform for cementing their cooperation. They may also initiate multilateral consultations and talks on the Afghanistan issue or take part in those orchestrated by countries in the region. As they themselves are concerned, China and the United States should safeguard the authority of both the ruling Karzai administration and the new government to be elected this year so as to transmit some legal blood into their peace drives. Together, China and the United States have already completed two rounds of training programs for Afghanistan diplomats. They may launch some more similar programs in the future. 

Security Field 

There is a blatant lack of military mutual trust between China and the United States in this field. Moreover, China disagrees with the US military presence in this region and its drone raids on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions that have caused heavy civilian casualties. As a result, it will hardly be possible for China and the United States to cooperate in any traditional security field. However, they can cooperate on those non-traditional security issues, such as counter narcotics, relief to displaced persons, maintenance of border security, or training of police forces. An example in case is anti-drug operation. According to a UN report, unauthorized poppy cultivation in Afghanistan kept growing in 2012, proof that the Afghanistan government has reaped little from its action against poppy cultivation and production. As a neighbor, China has been turned into a major outlet for and victim of drug trafficking out of Afghanistan. The United States has also long wished to cut off the chain of the terrorist factions and the Taliban in Afghanistan for funding terrorism and violence through drug trafficking. Unfortunately, no existing mechanism of international cooperation has proved a successful solution to the Afghanistan drug issue. Given the expectation for a continuous deterioration of this issue after 2014, China and the United States should step up their coordination and cooperation in this field. They may also take a series of confidence-building measures to promote cooperation between countries in this region in non-traditional security fields. 

Economic Field 

There stands in Afghanistan a big space for resource and energy development cooperation between China and the United States, energy cooperation between Afghanistan and other countries in the region, as well as infrastructure and agricultural development in this South Asian country. China has already started investment in some copper and oil projects in Afghanistan, a move warmly welcomed by the Afghanistan government. In addition, China has entered into pragmatic cooperation with the Afghan government in infrastructure and agricultural development fields. For all the veiled criticism by some US scholars and media against China’s investment in resource and energy development in Afghanistan, alleging that ‘China’s move may produce some mid-term results for Afghanistan but will sow the seed of jeopardizing the latter’s long-term sovereignty,’ they must nevertheless admit that these investments from China will definitely benefit the stability and development of the Afghan economy from a mid-term point of view. And ‘even the US embassy in Kabul has partnered with the Chinese on low-key capacity-building projects’. It is possible for China and the United States to extend their experiences in the training of Afghan diplomats to other fields such as farming skills and teacher training. They can join forces to provide the Afghanis with agricultural investment, farming skills and personnel support. They may start with some pilot programs and broaden them out when successful. They may also jointly offer medical services to the Afghanis. 

Restrictive Factors 

It must be admitted, however, Sino-US cooperation on the Afghanistan issue will remain limited due to the following restrictive factors: 

First, the United States maintains an ill image in central and south Asia due to the erroneous policy adopted by the junior Bush Administration and continuation of part of this policy by the Obama Administration, leading to the continuous rise of anti-US sentiment in some countries in this region. During their course of cooperation, China and the United States should follow an independent and impartial policy stand on the Afghanistan issue, base their efforts on the stand upheld by Afghanistan and other countries in this region, and take the interests of these countries into closer consideration when mapping out pertinent policies. This, however, may lead to some conflicts between China and the United States during their course of cooperation. 

Second, the United States, anxious to pull out of Afghanistan, has kept stressing cooperation with regional countries including China. Due to its geopolitical considerations and ideological traditions, however, it has remained unfriendly to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and suspicious of investment by China’s State-owned enterprises in Afghanistan. Nor, is it inclined to give up interference in the internal affairs of other countries. All these will obstruct its long-term cooperation with China on the Afghanistan issue. 

Another factor is the double standards applied by the United States to anti-terrorist operations, a fact that will greatly dampen its cooperation with China on the Afghanistan issue. On June 26, 2013, a violent terrorist attack hit Shanshan in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. A US State Department spokesperson, however, took the chance to criticize China’s ethnic and religious policies. Yet another repetition of its similar stand by the United States on China’s core interests and key concerns including policies on minority areas including Xinjiang, this has once again showed the double standards followed by the United States on anti-terrorist efforts, a stand that will greatly hinder its cooperation with China in anti-terrorist operations. A deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan after 2014 will definitely impact security and stability in China’s western areas. If the United States keeps to its double standards, Sino-US security cooperation involving Afghanistan will hardly get ahead. 

For all the limitation of Sino-US cooperation on the Afghanistan issue, this type of cooperation is still of positive significance to the efforts by Beijing and Washington to build a new type of major power relationship. It is our hope that they will take this as a starting point to increase their strategic dialogue on issues concerning central and southern Asia and, in particular, communication on the new Silk Road initiative and the development of a new Silk Road economic belt. Any effort by them in this field will greatly benefit economic cooperation and security stability in this region. 

Shao Yuqun is the Director of Center for American Studies, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

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