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Opportunity in Afghanistan?

Aug 24, 2021

Is the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan an opportunity for China? Conventional thinking on international relations yields affirmative answers. But the more sensible answer is that the future is unknown.

If some of America’s allies who sent troops to Afghanistan over the past 20 years were baffled by the peace agreement the U.S. got itself into with the Taliban in 2019, the sentiment is all too familiar to China. The United States has repeatedly denied China’s request to extradite Chinese passport holders detained by the U.S. military, for example. It wasn’t until 2014 that the U.S. released them from its Guantanamo military prison in Cuba. As seen from China, America’s global war on terror was selective along time-honored geopolitical and geostrategic fault lines.

Afghanistan — both its society and polity — is little understood in China. So is the 20-year of history of the American presence in that country. Whatever was happening between the U.S. and Afghanistan was, for China, a fait accompli.

In geographical terms, the Wakhan corridor connects Afghanistan and China. For thousands of years, that land has remained inaccessible to average residents from both countries. Even without the surge of religion-inspired violence on the other side of the border, the corridor was a buffer against unlawful immigration.

Still, in terms of economic geography, with Afghanistan being landlocked, the country’s much touted mineral resources have repeatedly proved difficult to access for foreign investors. Over the past 20 years, Chinese mining companies signed contracts to develop the Mes Aynak copper mine, located 25 miles southeast of Kabul, only to find its policy and security environments prohibitive. Complicating matters were allegations of spying at the location as recently as January this year. The dream of future Chinese business operations in Afghanistan is certain to continue, with corporate reputations being a commodity in international competition.

Some Chinese news outlets are already reporting positive expectations about infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. In November 2007, a Chinese mining company obtained a 30-year right to extract deposits in Mes Aynak. And, the country can benefit from having more infrastructure, from electricity to roads.

But if there is one thing that history books do confirm about the sociopolitical sentiments in Afghanistan, it is that canine and even rabid acts against foreign presence in the name of preservation of sovereignty prevails in the fights among political entities in that country. Nobody should imagine the situation will be different in the future.

More to the point, Afghan society is not immune from the ever more wildly divergent interpretations of what constitutes “sovereignty” in the wider world. It would be wrong, and even fatal, for Chinese business entities attracted to Afghanistan to limit their understanding to the words of a government authority. As in other societies, average Afghans, particularly those not in power or who are uncomfortable with their governing authorities, have a say in what the foreign business presence in their country means for them. That, in turn, is a manifestation of demand for sovereign control and influence.

Can Afghanistan be expected to be cooperative with China in the latter’s pursuit of security? Commenting on the change of power in Kabul in recent days, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson expressed hope that the Taliban will honor its pledge to never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China. What it takes for that to happen remains to be seen, in part because the existence of militant elements targeting China and Chinese interests is hard to assess.

But for China, the most reliable means of defense against cross-border acts of violence continues to be eliminating possibilities of collaboration on the Chinese side of the border. The irony, for China, is that its pursuit of economic development in Xinjiang, including job creation for all ethnic minorities, theoretically speaking, can enhance its pursuit of domestic security. Given the international reaction in recent years, some of which stem from emigrants from Xinjiang to other countries, China faces a continuous challenge. Only when citizens feel secure about their lives can a society expect to see its national security enhanced.

In the wake of changes in Kabul in recent days, China should participate in the vision of stable development in Afghanistan. It will be wise for China to help navigate the changing socioeconomic landscapes there by participating in multilateral efforts and projects. This is even necessary, as any foreign country or business entity that’s perceived by Afghans — of whatever political inclination — to be taking advantage of their society is likely to be met by resistance or even violence. That, in turn, will not be conducive to positive developments in relations between the two countries.

In short, the termination of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is not as much of a game changing development for China as it is sometimes portrayed to be. For China, Afghanistan is a neighbor that won’t move away. Future complications cannot be ruled out, as this has been true for a very long time. 

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