Different from the earlier narrative that China was free-riding from U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan, more recent developments have focused on China’s expanding political involvement, deepening security ties, and economic investments in Afghanistan. However, the description of China as the largest, and potentially, the most influential player in Afghanistan is misleading. Through closer scrutiny of the nature and scope of China’s current goals and involvement in Afghanistan, it is easy to draw the conclusion that China’s intervention in Afghanistan is limited.
Traditionally, China’s attitude toward Afghanistan was indifferent and disinterested. This was primarily due to the traditional perception in China that Afghanistan is “the graveyard for great powers.” But it was also due to the fact that the country was marginal as an asset or a liability for China’s national interest. China observed the developments in Afghanistan since the 9/11 attacks, which quickly distracted the U.S. attention from focusing on the West Pacific. China sought almost no active role in Afghanistan and maintained a low profile in the reconstruction of Afghanistan until around 2010.
This traditional view changed with the spillover effect of Afghanistan’s deteriorating domestic security situation into China’s northwestern province through the Wakhan Corridor and through Pakistan. The July 5 riot in Urumqi and the ensuing rising violent attacks in Xinjiang highlighted the importance of counter-terrorism and stabilization campaigns inside Afghanistan for China. Beijing started to push for bilateral cooperation on counter-terrorism and participate in multilateral forums on peace. In this sense, Chinese investment projects, the Anyak copper mine and the Amu Darya basic oil deal only represent secondary, and as it later reveals, marginal interests of China.
Chinese intervention in Afghanistan peaked in 2014. This was demonstrated through a series of events, including foreign minister Wang Yi’s visit of Afghanistan, President Ghani’s first overseas trip to China, China’s hosting of the fourth foreign ministerial conference of the Istanbul process, and the appointment of the first Chinese Special Envoy for Afghanistan Affairs. China reached a long list of agreements with Afghanistan during Ghani’s state visit, including a 2 billion RMB commitment on free grants, capacity building, training, and economic cooperation. Most noticeably, China began direct involvement in the mediation between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban, as well as between Afghanistan and Pakistan. These efforts, in the Chinese perception, culminated in the meeting in Murree, Pakistan in July 2015.
The unprecedented level of intervention soon made China a prominent player in Afghanistan. China’s ability to press Pakistan and impact the Afghan Taliban is widely seen as its signature contribution to the stabilization and reconciliation in Afghanistan. However, the U.S. decision to withdraw troops before the end of 2014 threatened to leave a chaotic Afghanistan spilling instability over to Xinjiang, endangering China’s domestic counter-terrorism campaign, and the Silk Road Economic Belt promoted by President Xi Jinping.
Despite increasing media attention, China still does not see itself as the solution to the Afghan problem, as it has neither the extensive national interests nor the resources to pursue them in the country. China couldn’t shepherd the Murree process out of its quagmire after the revelation of Mullah Omar’s death and subsequent struggle for succession in the Taliban leadership. In the ensuing Quadrilateral Coordination Group meetings on the Afghan peace and reconciliation process, China participated consistently, but has been criticized for not pressuring Pakistan and Taliban for more cooperation.
China’s economic investment in Afghanistan generates an even bigger misperception about the extent of China’s involvement in the country. Despite the common view that China’s westward Silk Road Economic Belt has to go through Afghanistan, the fact is that Pakistan, rather than Afghanistan, is the key country for the campaign. Afghan President Ghani must be exceedingly disappointed after making numerous appeals for China to invest in Afghanistan, as Chinese investment remains menial and insignificant. Even during the peak year of China’s political intervention in 2014, China only invested $5.9 million in Afghanistan, inconsistent with the rhetoric of commitment. This amount further decreased by 65% in 2015 to $2 million. In sharp contrast, Chinese investment in Pakistan in 2014 was as high as $1 billion. Although it fell quite sharply in 2015 to $210 million, the portfolio is still 100 times larger than in Afghanistan.
China is more interested in cutting the loss in Afghanistan rather than expanding its investment portfolio. The unstable investment environment of course is the tacit factor undermining any investors’ interests. China learned its lesson first-hand from the ill-fated projects it has engaged in. The Anyak copper mine has run into repeated delays/suspensions due to archaeological excavation, security threats. and disagreements with the Afghan government over the franchise and associated infrastructure projects. Similarly, the Amu Darya Basin oil development also fell into disputes related to the refinery location and Kabul’s introduction of Western competition in the same region.
China’s interest in Afghanistan is limited. Its bottom line is an internally stable Afghanistan that does not spill over extremism and terrorism into Xinjiang, while it has little aspiration for democracy promotion or a role in Afghan domestic politics. China’s need to intervene and facilitate peace in Afghanistan is self-serving, but its ability to produce the critical result is limited. China contributes aid and investment to Afghanistan, partly for the stabilization and partly to be seen as a responsible great power. Yet their scope and scale are hardly comparable to the aid by Western donor countries or Chinese investment in neighboring countries such as Pakistan. The risk is too high for China to stay out, but that is far from making Afghanistan a Chinese priority. A realistic assessment of China’s motivation and level of intervention will be critical to the formulation of U.S. expectations and corresponding strategy to engage China for cooperation in Afghanistan.