Chinese Views of Post-2014 Afghanistan
Zhao Huasheng is Professor and Director of the Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
As 2014 begins, the U.S. and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force is preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan. Whether one considers how China is seen by Afghanistan or how Afghanistan is seen by China, both countries’ views of each other have undergone great changes since the beginning of the war in 2001.
During the past half century, China has played a secondary role in Afghanistan. From the 1950s until the 1980s, the Soviet Union was Afghanistan’s largest trading partner, its greatest source of aid, and a close friend; as a result, Afghanistan was drawn into the Soviet sphere of influence. The Soviet Union had a monopoly on influence in Afghanistan until 1989, when it was compelled to withdraw its troops. Since the new outbreak of war in Afghanistan beginning in 2001, the United States has performed the role the Soviet Union once played. It has stationed large numbers of troops on Afghan soil, has played a crucial part in the Afghan government, and continues to oversee the country’s security and politics. During both periods, China certainly played a role in Afghanistan’s affairs, but not a particularly decisive one.
The situation today is quite different. As Afghanistan enters a period of transformation, international society, as well as the Afghan government itself, will generally expect China to assume a larger role in Afghanistan and participate more proactively. This includes providing more investment, aid, and other development assistance, as well as taking on more responsibility for the country’s stability. During a visit to Beijing in September 2013, Afghan president Hamid Karzai said that he hopes China will continue to help bring about peace, security, and stability in Afghanistan, in addition to playing a constructive role in improving the relations with neighboring states.  He also expressed a desire for the two countries to strengthen their trade and cultural cooperation and a hope that China will help Afghanistan boost its capacities, develop its economy, and improve the lives of its people.
Afghanistan has also changed in the eyes of China. Previously, the country was seen solely as an external threat to security. While Afghanistan remains a contributing factor to external instability, it has become a partner that offers many potential benefits to the Chinese economy, as well as opportunities for China to further develop its influence on the periphery. China already has economic interests in Afghanistan that should not be overlooked. In 2008, for example, a Chinese company won rights to the Aynak copper mine project. In 2011, China National Petroleum Corporation signed a contract to acquire the oil fields of the northeastern provinces of Sar-i-Pul and Faryab. Both projects required China to make a huge investment. When they begin operation, the minerals, oil, and gas produced will need to be exported, requiring further investment in the construction of railroads and pipelines. Through these projects, China hopes to acquire the resources needed to sustain its economic growth and simultaneously contribute to the reconstruction of Afghanistan’s economy by providing the country with capital, technology, and employment opportunities, as well as considerable profits and tax revenue.
Yet as China increases its investment in Afghanistan, it also must address the problem of how to protect its economic interests. The largest risk arises from instability. Chinese investors are powerless in the face of Afghanistan’s political, social, and religious conflicts, and China is incapable of solving these political and security problems on its own. In the face of such challenges, Chinese investors and political leaders must work with the international community to stabilize Afghanistan and establish good relations among all the country’s factions and clans. For China, this is particularly important in the areas in which Chinese companies are located. In September 2013, President Xi Jinping proposed a vision to build a “Silk Road economic zone,” which has been seen as proof of China’s strategy of developing its western provinces.  Due to its position as the crossroads of Central, South, and West Asia, Afghanistan has an important role in this plan.
Because of these economic and security developments, both countries are becoming increasingly important to each other. As China emerges as one of the countries with the largest influence in Afghanistan, its once straightforward interests have already become more complex. Afghanistan, for example, shares a border with the Chinese province of Xinjiang and therefore has a lasting influence on Xinjiang’s periphery. Afghanistan also remains an observer state in the Shanghai Cooperation...
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 Li Xiaokun, “Afghanistan Seeks Active Beijing Role,” China Daily, September 28, 2013.