China presses ahead with Pakistan nuclear deal - and contemplates U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan
In Beijing last week to catch up with Chinese security experts on Afghanistan and Pakistan, with two issues the main focus.
Having talked on-and-off with people there about the Chashma-3 and 4 deal since it was first announced, this was the first occasion where I was greeted with disciplined – and largely unapologetic – talking points on the subject. Once the predictable lines were out of the way – the deal has no military application, Pakistan needs energy, the plants will be under IAEA safeguards – the Chinese analysts I spoke to were entirely explicit about the fact that it was a tit-for-tat strategic response to the India-U.S. deal. No-one, however, suggested that there would be anything comparable to the U.S. campaign to win approval from the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Instead the expectation was that it would simply be allowed to slip by – as one put it: “Obama needs China’s help on Iran and Pakistan at this stage; the United States will not really oppose it”.
I was also struck by the emergence of a different conversation about Afghanistan: “We are talking about withdrawal now – we think that’s where it’s headed – and we are saying to the Americans that if you do withdraw, it will be a disaster for you”. Neither of those claims represents a settled consensus: many in the strategic community are more than happy to see the United States pull out, “as long as it’s responsible”, and plenty of other analysts expect only a minor drawdown of American presence in the coming years. But the topic is now firmly on the agenda, and there is a degree of frustration about China’s options: “In the event of withdrawal, we can work with Russia and we can work with Pakistan. We can’t do anything ourselves, it’s too dangerous to risk”; “We don’t have so many instruments in Afghanistan – we only have economic tools – this is why we support reconciliation with the Taliban and a neutral Afghanistan. All the other regional countries have the groups that they can work through – we don’t”.
And while there were some gleaming eyes about mineral deposits, the mood among Chinese companies appeared somewhat sour: “Security is always the number one issue. Why is the Aynak investment proceeding so slowly? China Railway Group admitted that they underestimated the cost and risk of their road-building project…and MCC Group [which runs Aynak] pulled out of the Hajigak bidding process”. One way to mitigate that – Chinese security presence. Reports persist of “decommissioned” Chinese military personnel at the Aynak facility. “Sure, if they’re wearing plain clothes, what’s wrong with that?” quipped one Chinese former diplomat. All those people asking for Chinese troop contributions may already have their wish.