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China Can Break Its Free Rider Reputation on Afghanistan

Aug 27 , 2014

Prompted by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who asked Barack Obama whether China, as the “biggest energy investor in Iraq,” should behave more as stakeholder there, the president replied that the Chinese “have been free riders for the last 30 years and it’s worked really well for them,” whereas the United States has had to bear the burdens of maintaining international security and prosperity for the good of the world. Although Obama might not have intended to be so blunt, his remarks do reflect a widespread view within Washington that China, in order to minimize its foreign risks and costs, has not been as helpful as it could regarding a range of global challenges, ranging from climate change, to Middle Eastern security, to the war in Afghanistan. 

Richard Weitz

With regard to the latter, Chinese officials have preferred that the whole international community, as many countries as possible, support Afghanistan’s independence and development with aid, diplomacy, and other contributions. They have encouraged the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia, and especially the United Nations to cooperate with the Afghan government to suppress terrorism and the drug trade and promote the country’s socioeconomic development. China has welcomed the massive Western economic and security assistance to Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past decade. 

Chinese firms are helping develop Afghanistan’s physical infrastructure and natural resources. In the economic realm, China has provided modest development aid to Afghanistan and engaged in limited training of the Afghan National Police. Yet, China’s security ties with Afghanistan remain far below between the PRC and many other Central and South Asian governments. Beijing’s reluctance to side openly with NATO in Afghanistan reflects a fear of antagonizing the Taliban and other Islamist militant groups, which could retaliate against the PRC‘s economic interests in Afghanistan and or by encouraging militarism among China’s Muslim minority. China has also been able to free ride on Western economic aid and military operations in Afghanistan, which has yielded benefits to China with few costs. 

Chinese policy makers have become more comfortable over time with the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Chinese analysts have come to recognize that the U.S. forces there have not threatened China. Instead, they have concentrated on suppressing the Taliban and other Eurasian-based terrorist movements that threaten the Beijing-friendly regimes in Central Asia and support Uighur militants seeking to end Beijing’s control over Xinjiang. Furthermore, Chinese firms have enjoyed U.S. protection from local terrorists without China’s having to contribute its own combat forces or incur other major costs. 

Chinese concerns have therefore increasingly focused on fears of a U.S. combat withdrawal occurring prematurely, which Chinese policy makers see as leaving them to clean up a mess not of their own creation. They have encouraged President Hamid Karzai and his successors to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States. Implementing the BSA, which does not grant the Pentagon any permanent bases there, is a prerequisite for other Western militaries to remain in the country for a few years on training the Afghan National Security Forces. 

Neither U.S. nor Afghans officials have placed much pressure on China to change its economically focused Afghan policy. The United States and its NATO allies have not seriously pressed Beijing to send Chinese troops to Afghanistan, open China’s borders to NATO military transit to Afghanistan, or make other major contributions to the ISAF mission there. They have generally accepted the Chinese argument that China can best help realize Western goals in Afghanistan by investing in the country’s raw material sector and helping develop its economy. Afghans likewise see foreign trade and investment from China as perhaps their best means for reducing their dependence on international assistance, which currently covers almost all their government’s budgetary expenditures, even if they suspect that not all the hoped-for economic benefits from the Chinese projects will materialize. 

Chinese policy makers naturally wish to maintain their low profile in Afghanistan and limit their economic and security assistance to the Afghan and Pakistani governments, encouraging them to rely on Western aid instead, but such an option will probably not be available given the declining Western role in this region. They are now considering various options for promoting a favorable economic and security environment in Afghanistan even with reduced Western economic and military assistance. 

The opportunities for better cooperation between China and the United States are limited. China will not substitute for the decreasing U.S. economic and military support for Afghanistan in any comprehensive way. Thus far, Chinese policy makers consider their stakes in Afghanistan modest and perceive the dangers of adopting a much higher profile in that country as exceeding the possible benefits. Given China’s modest interests at stake in Afghanistan and the various specific and general limitations on China-US security cooperation, opportunities for bilateral cooperation regarding Afghanistan are limited. 

Fortunately, Beijing and Washington do not need identical interests or views to cooperate directly. They can collaborate in complementary ways on overlapping or non-conflictual interests. U.S. policy makers need to think creatively what the Chinese can do by themselves in their own interest that also advance U.S. and Afghan interests. For example, the United States and China have different approaches towards economic development, but they can be more complementary than conflictual. China is best positioned to support large public infrastructure projects, whereas Americans can best develop free-market institutions and the rule of law. 

Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute.

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