On 28 October, Ashraf Ghani, the newly-elected president of Afghanistan, landed in Beijing, making China the destination of his first international visit after assuming office. The timing and the visit are telling. The West has been attempting to convince China to take the lead following the completion of the troop withdrawal. Given how China’s engagement with Afghanistan has not been extraordinary over the past ten years, what does an intensified Kabul-Beijing bilateral mean for both parties?
China’s Engagement with Afghanistan: An Assessment
From 2001-2014, the China-Afghanistan bilateral remained rather lacklustre. Beijing has so far only contributed a measly US$250 million in aid to the country. In fact, Chinese involvement in the reconstruction of the country was minimal until 2011. However, given the sizes of the economies and overlapping geopolitical, internal political and economic plans, among others, China today is an important partner for Afghanistan.
The upswing in this bilateral is indeed timely. The recent boost in the Beijing-Kabul bilateral has oft been backed by a win-win narrative, listing three areas as mutual interests. However, will this camaraderie bring about substantial returns for both parties?
Energy: China is a growing economy that is constantly energy-hungry. Despite its forays into Africa, securing energy security in the neighbourhood is also extremely important. Afghanistan is abundant in natural resources such as oil, natural gas, copper, iron ore, and other rare earths. Furthermore, it is in the process of rejuvenating its economy to ensure stability and self-sustenance post the Western troop withdrawal and reduction in foreign aid. A finger in the Afghan energy pie is important for Beijing that, while expanding its energy sources, is simultaneously diversifying them. It already has a stake in Kazakhstan’s Kashagan oil field, and the functional and expanding Central Asia-China natural gas pipeline that passes through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
However, foreign investment in the Afghan energy sector is difficult due to security threats. For his part, Ghani is undertaking what he sees as in the best interest of his country. The new government must not be swayed by the positive turn of events and stay focused on the country’s best interests. Abundance in resources also brings with it the likelihood of a resource curse that has already emerged with the possibility of the destruction of the Mes Aynak archaeological site. Given how Ghani plans to make energy the bulwark of the Afghan economy, he would do well to learn from the African experience of engaging with China, and deploy knowledge from successful resource-rich countries in Europe and Latin America to put in place effective mechanisms to ensure transparency and the avoidance of a resource curse situation.
Security: China’s security concerns vis-à-vis Afghanistan is almost always viewed from the Xinjiang lens. China’s Xinjiang Province shares a small, rugged border with Afghanistan’s Badakshan Province. The bordering Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has seen much unrest, and insurgency by Islamist groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) who have links with other Islamist groups in the region have worried China for a long time. However, the border between Afghanistan and China is rather short, and any cooperation between the two would not deliver any substantial difference in dealing with the ETIM cadres. In fact, China would do well to further engage Pakistan to make a difference. However, that Beijing is also looking at Kabul could mean that it has lost its confidence and/or trust in Islamabad’s contribution to dealing with the ETIM extremists, who are often sheltered and trained by Pakistan-based jihadist outfits. Alternately, China could simply be using the Xinjiang narrative to portray to the world that it is genuinely interested in contributing to ensure security and stability in Afghanistan, while using this as a tool to complete its image of having an ‘all round interest in Afghanistan’.
Trade: Afghanistan has been projected as a key component of China’s New Silk Route initiative via which Beijing plans to revive the historical Silk Route - a trade route that connected China, West Asia and Europe. This fits perfectly in Ghani’s strategy to revive the country’s economy, make it a “hub of regional trade, transit and peace,” and reduce reliance on aid. However, Afghanistan does not feature in the New Silk Route map that has been made public. The New Silk Route in fact bypasses Afghanistan and enters Iran by through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Unless China is in the process of drawing a new access route into Iran’s Chabahar port via Afghanistan, the New Silk Route will not bring great returns for Afghanistan. A new route plan is plausible, given how Beijing has expressed its interest in developing the Port, thereby providing it with an option other than Pakistan’s Gwadar Port to access other West Asian countries, and Africa.
In either case, the likelihood of Afghanistan becoming a transit hub - an upshot of the dividends that can be reaped by being on the New Silk Route Corridor - is higher than that of it becoming a trade hub. Regardless, Ghani must ensure that the country’s manufacturing sector gets a boost and that the Afghan market is not inundated with Chinese goods.
Ghani’s Task: Trust but Verify
China has played its cards deftly and has effortlessly come out looking like the knight in shining armour, despite making paltry contributions over ten years. This is essentially a manifestation of Deng Xiaoping’s policy of ‘keep a low profile and bide your time’ in incumbent Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership strategies.
For China, engaging with Afghanistan is more about pragmatism and furthering its own agenda than genuine concern for the country or the region. That this move does promise returns for Afghanistan as well as the region is simply a fortunate happenstance that China can use to further its image as a responsible regional and global player.
In the euphoria of potential stability, Kabul must not forget the principle of ‘trust but verify’.