While China’s power is being debated in political and scholarly circles, its international presence is certainly becoming more visible. In the media, much of the spotlight has been on China’s eastern border which has overshadowed Chinese activity with its western neighbors in Central Asia. Particularly, Afghanistan has witnessed an upsurge in Chinese interest over the past decade. Since 2001, it has been hard to avoid the activities and events in Afghanistan, even for China. The American presence there undoubtedly fits into the Chinese fears of US encirclement. However, 2014 is a defining year for China’s relationship with Afghanistan. Indeed, this year is a time of transformation for Afghanistan, as new leadership will be ushered in and American presence will fade. This critical juncture is a time when China can begin to move from the margins of international efforts and be more proactive in shaping a successful future for its underdeveloped Muslim neighbor. In augmenting its role in the war-torn nation, China has advanced its strategic objective of resource and territorial security. So, what does China’s role in Afghanistan mean to the US?
Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, and its prospects in a post-conflict world have been hinged on its vast natural resource wealth. According to the United States Geological Survey, there is over $1 trillion of mineral fortune, locked in the ground, pending extraction (or $3 trillion, as appraised by Afghanistan’s Minister of Mines) The mineral potential in Afghanistan is lucrative; the attraction of investors will also open up other areas of economic development including employment, domestic revenues, trade, and critical infrastructure. Overall, mining developments are seen to be “a pillar of future economic growth in Afghanistan.” Therefore, as long as there is economic intrigue, China is prepared to participate in Afghanistan’s economic reconstruction.
China has been demonstrating its efforts and commitment to Afghanistan through economic rebuilding, as maintains a more reserved role in political interaction, and no role in military support. Its predominant draw to Afghanistan originally concerned its resource security, but also in the face of an uncertain future now is much more alarmed by a potential unstable neighbor. It is certainly in China’s interest and purview, for the long and short term, to contribute and ensure Afghan stability. The largest risk arises from instability, which would greatly affect economic development. Chinese leaders understand that stability in Afghanistan directly influences China’s domestic security, particularly in its western provinces. In this way, Afghanistan is the perfect opportunity for China to develop its influence on the periphery.
Strategists are fully aware that Afghanistan is positioned in a critical location. At the crossroads of Central, South, and West Asia, Afghanistan has an important role in regional development and integration that China cannot ignore, especially if it is to pursue the ‘New Silk Road’ vision. It is in this regard that Beijing, which normally would oppose a close US presence, has urged the Afghan President to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US to continue containing insurgent activity. The BSA is unquestionably an important factor that will determine the future internal dynamics of Afghanistan, especially in the short term, for both China and the US. For the long term, the strategic importance of Afghanistan for the US is likely to wane, unless it experiences a reemergence of transnational terrorism. The push for continued US investment in Afghanistan will lose potency as the US readjusts its global strategy. If the situation greatly deteriorates, the US can simply walk away, a luxury that China does not have.
However, for the US, Afghanistan will only continue to play into strategic thought to counter an unstable Pakistan, which is far more threatening to its interests. First, Pakistan has a population five times that of Afghanistan, not including a larger diaspora in the US. Additionally, Pakistan is a nuclear state, and home to a myriad of capable extremists and insurgencies, that inevitably poses a greater risk. In this regard, the US would naturally wish to maintain a base of which to stage operational or drone strikes to counter greater regional threats to US security and interests. Markedly, Afghanistan’s strategic position overlooks Iran, Russia, Pakistan, India, China, and the rest of Central Asia.
Regardless of their other issues, a stable Afghanistan is of mutual interest for both the US and China. The US is concerned its labors over the past 13 years will quickly become undone if the complete transition of administrative and security responsibilities does not succeed, and Afghanistan again becomes a haven for global terrorists. In this same light, China fears potential spillover that will jeopardize its internal security. While the past saw Americans openly criticizing the Chinese for their lack of security contributions and free-loading off of US and NATO efforts, the US is now actively promoting Sino-leadership in Afghanistan post-2014. Afghanistan may just be a new chapter for US-Chinese relations. It will provide the two powers an opportunity to build their relationship through cooperation, which can lay the groundwork for a more productive partnership over the long term.