China’s model of economic development has yielded significant economic leverage in Afghanistan, but NATO forces are set to withdraw next year and Rafaello Pantucci writes that Beijing needs to formulate and implement a security strategy for the region:
Traditionally, Chinese thinkers have considered Afghanistan the “graveyard of empires.” They chuckle at the ill-advised American-led NATO effort and point to British and Soviet experiences fighting wars in Afghanistan.
But in reality, the presence of NATO forces provided China with a sense of stability. Beijing correctly assumed that NATO’s presence in Afghanistan would mean regional terrorist networks would remain focused on attacking Alliance forces rather than stirring up trouble in neighboring countries like China. NATO’s targeting of Islamist groups also had the effect of striking anti-Chinese Uighur groups that had sought refuge in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban or al-Qaeda. These Uighur groups would otherwise have focused their attention on targeting China.
Yet as the date of American withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches, this security dynamic is changing. While China does worry about the threat of Islamist Uighur groups striking from their Afghan bases, this concern is relatively marginal. The bigger problem is the potentially negative repercussions for the rising number of investments from China’s private sector in Afghanistan and its surrounding region. These investments are part of a broader push into Central Asia that flows from an effort to develop China’s historically underdeveloped province of Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan.
The prospect of an Afghanistan returning to chaos is, therefore, not appealing to policymakers and business people in Beijing. This scenario would bring instability directly to China’s doorstep, and this instability could potentially expand northward into Central Asia or southward into Pakistan. China would suffer from further chaos in either direction.
A meeting on Afghanistan is scheduled later this month between a Chinese delegation led by Luo Zhaohui, director general (Asia) in its foreign ministry, and an Indian team headed by Yash Sinha, additional secretary in charge of Afghanistan in the ministry of external affairs.
For China, this is a big shift considering it has never recognised India’s role in Afghanistan.
For the first time, Beijing will discuss with India the post-2014 scenario in Kabul – when a majority of the US-led NATO troops will exit the war-ravaged country – and how the two neighbours can cooperate on Afghanistan.
The Asian giants will also discuss the threat from the Taliban and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.