Can China Win in Afghanistan?

China has long been working to strengthen relationships with nearby Central Asian states. While and economic development are primary motivations for Beijing’s interaction with , a press release for a recent International Crisis Group report notes that instability in the region is becoming a cause for concern:

China’s influence is growing rapidly in Central Asia at a time when the region is looking increasingly unstable.

[…]But the Central Asian republics are increasingly beset by domestic problems. They are also vulnerable to a potentially well-organised insurgent challenge. Jihadists currently fighting beside the Taliban may re-focus their interest on the region after the 2014 withdrawal from . Many in Beijing are alarmed by the range of challenges Central Asia faces.

[…]Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, China and its Central Asian neighbours have strengthened relations, initially on the economic front but increasingly on political and security matters as well. Central Asia’s socio-economic and political problems make it prone to turmoil and vulnerable to extremist organisations, both foreign and domestically generated.

Instability or conflict in one or more of the Central Asian states would impact China, as its economic interests depend on a stable security landscape. China’s investments are exposed not only to potential security crises but also to political whims of autocrats and grassroots violence.[…]

The scheduled 2014 withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan is increasing concern about the future of Central Asia – a region already marked by conflict and instability. After detailing these concerns, The Economist looks to China, the massive state that seems poised to next wield heavy influence on the region:

[…]America and Russia both carry the scars of long, draining entanglements in Afghanistan. Neither can be expected to enforce Central Asian peace. America has at least spelled out a more optimistic vision of the region’s future as “the new Silk Road”, linking Asia and Europe. The most powerful influences along that road, however, may flow from the East. China already has three profound interests in Central Asia: in securing supplies of energy; in the land route to Europe; and in ensuring stability in its own, restless part of Central Asia, Xinjiang. In return, its growing economic weight and pragmatic, “non-interfering” foreign policy make it an attractive partner for unappealing governments.

Indeed, China has been making efforts to deepen its ties to Afghanistan. What would the outcomes be if China does become the next player in the long and tragic tradition of hegemonic influence in Afghanistan? A piece from the Global Times offers a few scenarios, then prescribes its idea of Beijing’s best practices to promote stability in the long-conflicted country:

[…]China should take the initiative in Afghan affairs, while avoiding the failure of US intervention.

[…]As a result [of US intervention], Afghanistan depends heavily on the outside world, especially the West, and its own development is seriously lagging behind. China’s future Afghan policy should primarily aim to establish a self-supporting, self-sustaining, and gradually developing Afghanistan.

In security, China needs to closely cooperate with the former occupation armies and Afghanistan’s neighboring nations, and incorporate Afghanistan into platforms of regional cooperation, like the .

[…]In economic terms, China ought to help Afghanistan develop its financial capabilities through investments, and provide employment opportunities and infrastructure.

[…]If China can mobilize various economic powers, utilize oil gas and mineral resources in Afghanistan, and help it establish relevant industrial chains, the security situation can be ultimately stabilized.

Also see prior CDT coverage of China’s relationship with Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia. Also see CDT coverage of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – the regional security organization famous for its non-interventionist stance and often seen as a counterbalance to NATO (Afghanistan was granted SCO observer status in June).

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