Andrew Small on China's Role in Afghanistan
This interview, conducted by Christiane Bjerglund Andersen, was originally published by RÆSON magazine online. It can be read here in its original Danish language version.
What is the most important objectives for China to achieve in Afghanistan – and how will they go about it?
China wants to see a broadly stable, capable Afghanistan with a government that’s sympathetic to Chinese interests, or at least neutral. It wants to ensure that hostile powers and strategic competitors have a restricted role in the country. And it wants an environment that’s secure enough for its economic projects to move ahead. It is also concerned that it doesn’t get sucked into the problems there and that its involvement in the country doesn’t turn China into a target for militant groups. In practice, that has resulted in them putting a toe in the water with certain investments but otherwise sitting on their hands – neither actively cooperating with the West nor actively undermining it, and maintaining positive but not particularly deep relations with the current Afghan government. What they do next will depend on the nature and speed of Western withdrawal, the prospects for a political settlement, Pakistan’s role, and a number of other questions. Until it’s clear where some of these developments are headed, they will step up their current economic and diplomatic involvement somewhat but will not risk getting over-exposed.
Is China happy with the coming withdrawal of NATO and the US from Afghanistan?
China is apprehensive. It certainly doesn’t want to see a long-term U.S. or NATO presence so close to its border, or Western military bases in what, for China, is a strategically significant location. But it fears that a rapid withdrawal will leave a chaotic aftermath – potentially leaving it to pick up the pieces, particularly if there is spillover into Pakistan. Right now, they are urging a “goldilocks” approach on the Americans: not too fast, not too slow. More broadly, they also fear that the withdrawal reflects shifts in U.S. global force posture that place more focus on the Asia Pacific region – and hence China.
One concern of China has been the possible links between Afghan Islamist militants and its own Uighur insurgents. How do you estimate these ties? Will China be more successful in containing these threats than the other countries have been so far?
Relations between Uighur groups and Afghan militants are relatively weak – even under the Taliban, China had reached agreements on the elimination of Uighur training camps in Afghanistan, and their cause is not widely supported among the principal insurgent groups. The Uighurs tend to be linked more closely to some of the Turkic groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, but they have a far less mainstream role, and many Chinese counter-terrorism experts are skeptical about the capacity of organizations such as ETIM or TIP to function autonomously and effectively. In the worst-case scenarios in Afghanistan, the risks to China would undoubtedly grow, but the Chinese government has been pretty effective at ensuring that Uighur militants are de-coupled from extremist groups in the region. The greater threat is from within Xinjiang itself, far less from outside elements.
Given both China’s economic interests in Afghanistan and the concern over transborder militancy, China has a stake in ensuring Afghan peace and security. What ways do you expect this to be manifested?
The transborder elements of the militancy are still relatively modest and tend to be oversold – the Afghan border itself is effectively sealed and so the only direct transborder threat tends to come via Central Asia. A scenario that saw major spillover from Afghanistan into those states would certainly be a concern to China but barring that, they’re relatively confident that they can firewall themselves from direct cross-border problems. More significant is the combination of economic / resource interests and the broader desire to shape the strategic environment around their periphery. They did very little during the civil war in the 1990s but they’re not likely to repeat that approach post-2014. To date, they’ve been very reluctant to take any steps in Afghanistan that might be seen to support the U.S. and NATO presence – even in pressing ahead with their own economic projects, which would have been helpful. But with withdrawal looming, they’re already starting to step up their own assistance, their involvement in training programs, and their diplomatic activity in international forums on Afghanistan, such as Istanbul and Bonn. They have even embarked on a new and fairly modest program of bilateral cooperation with the United States. Over the medium term, I expect that they will be diplomatically and economically active to a far greater degree than they have in recent years. But if it comes down to it, although China would prefer to see a stable Afghanistan, they’re not going to take any risks to make that happen – and can live comfortably enough with an unstable Afghanistan as long as the instability is contained in Afghanistan itself.
When it comes to Afghanistan, Pakistan seems to be the other end of the stick that one has no choice in picking up. What role does Pakistan play in the Chinese-Afghan relationship?
Pakistan helps to look out for Chinese interests in Afghanistan – its extensive intelligence network in the country, and close relations with insurgent groups mean that it can inform and assist China to a fair degree. There has been some assumption on the Afghan side that by awarding China certain contracts, they will effectively operate under Pakistani protection. The Afghan government has also been keen for China to use its influence over Pakistan with respect to its Afghan policy, but so far there’s little sign of that. Pakistan also discourages China from certain initiatives that Afghanistan supports, such as the opening up of the Wakhan corridor – Pakistan doesn’t want the establishment of a rival trade route to the Karakoram Highway – but it was unlikely that China would have gone ahead with that anyway. China also mirrors certain Pakistani positions – for instance in elements of its stance on Indian involvement in Afghanistan. But China does have a set of interests in Afghanistan that are quite distinct from Pakistan’s and those differences are likely to become more obvious after the U.S. withdrawal.
The Chinese mode of foreign investment abroad usually involves the import of a large number of Chinese labourers, engineers and workers in other supporting functions, which means that the proportion of local staff is small. Given the experiences from other regions, what impact will Chinese investments have on the growth of the Afghan economy?
This is true – but the upside is that they tend to get their infrastructure projects delivered pretty quickly. If China took on a substantially expanded economic role in Afghanistan, the benefits to the economy would clearly outweigh the costs, but the question is whether they’re willing to take on that role. Additionally, in Afghanistan, they are conscious of the heightened need to handle local sensitivities carefully if they want to proceed with their economic projects at all. For the Aynak investment, they’ve had to deal with protests over exactly that issue – of local jobs – and for one of their road-building projects, they faced local rumors that they were using laborers who were Chinese convicts. They’ve navigated around these problems and they know that – unlike in some countries – they can’t just fix a deal with the central government and proceed as they wish.
Since the Chinese winning bid for the contract on the Anyak copper mine more than three years ago, actual development of the prospect has been slow, even before the discovery of an archeological site. Does this reflect that the motive behind the investment is basically strategic, that is, to gain first mover advantages and preclude other players from securing the resources, and only secondarily to develop a business?
It is certainly an investment that’s seen more as a strategic foothold rather than something they expect to be functioning anytime soon. There are various issues –they just haven’t been sure what sort of Afghanistan they could expect to see, so didn’t want to press ahead until they had greater clarity on the emerging political and security environment. They still don’t. In addition, they have been reluctant for the success of the project to redound to the benefit of the Americans – they didn’t want Aynak to play a role in supporting their long-term presence in the country. The company itself, MCC, has been very skittish about security issues. And to be fair, the Afghan side hasn’t helped at times either – some of the legal and bureaucratic processes have also slowed things down. I think they do want to develop the project – they just want to get the timing right.
Several American commentators have talked of the injustice of China making money in Afghanistan under the auspices of Western military might. Sour grapes or fair critiscism?
China would be making money in Afghanistan without a Western military presence there – probably more – and they don’t see a U.S. security umbrella as the best way to protect their economic projects. They would rather not see a Talibanized Afghanistan but they would deal with them if they had to, and did so relatively successfully in the past. The problem has been that China has been doing too little economically, not that it’s reaping some great bounty from Western presence. It is fair criticism to say that China has done virtually nothing to support stability in Afghanistan, but the complaining about Chinese economic projects seems to me to miss the point.
Given the ownership structure of Chinese firms, Chinese firms have been able to overbid private Western firms for resource projects in the third world, to some consternation it might be added. Are the Chinese firms simply paying too much for uncertain investments – and by extension for the Aghan adventure?
China places a different value on some of these investments from private Western firms – yes, maybe it’s overbidding in one sense, but it sees strategic utility in locking up access to some of these resources and in its companies gaining international experience and footholds. Whether that makes economic sense is another matter but it’s the Chinese government that’s ultimately providing financing for many of these deals and their calculations are not purely economic in nature. The Aynak and Sar-e-Pol deals don’t look to be bad value anyway, and in any case, as the Chinese see it, they are just stuck with having to pay out for these higher risk investments because most of the easier and more attractive ones elsewhere in the world have already gone.
Compared to countries such as the US, UK, Canada, and Japan, China is a fairly minor actor on the Afghan stage in terms of absolute investment and involvement. Are we overestimating the impact of China?
This is true so far – and it’s possible that China will maintain its relatively restricted level of involvement. But if you look at most countries around the region, the norm is very much for China to become one of, if not the, largest trading partners and investors, and there’s no intrinsic reason why that shouldn’t be the case in Afghanistan too. The combination of war and Western presence has held them back but if we were to see a relatively stable, post-American Afghanistan in the years ahead, I would expect that to change. In addition, China is barely present in the Afghan political sphere – Pakistan, Iran, India, the United States, Turkey, Russia and so on, have relationships and a scale of political activity that China doesn’t get close to. What this does mean, however, is that China is one of the few broadly neutral external actors in Afghanistan, which could yet prove important in the years ahead. The other element to the whole thing is that once China moves in, odds are that it’s pretty much there to stay – that’s not necessarily true of any of the Western powers.
Andrew Small is a Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.