China, the world’s No.2 economy by gross domestic product, is playing a bigger role in the war-torn country. China National Petroleum Corp., the country’s leading oil producer, signed a mega-million deal with Afghan government last December, making China the first country to be able to exploit oil and natural gas in the country in decades.
But recent developments have shown that Beijing’s interest in the region extends beyond its economic interests. In a commentary posted on July 4, former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami suggested that China is also eyeing Afghanistan’s security and stability in the post-NATO era.
In the article titled “China’s Afghan Game Plan”, Ben-Ami, a foreign policy and national security expert, wrote “…A vital security zone to China’s west, Afghanistan is also an important corridor through which it can secure its interests in Pakistan, and ensure its access to vital natural resources in the region…”
Ben-Ami argued that since China’s Muslim-minority province of Xinjiang is bordering on Afghanistan, it faces imminent risks of a Taliban takeover, such as a replay of what happened in 2008 and 2009 when Muslim Uighurs took anti-Beijing protests to the streets and caused huge clashes with Han Chinese.
Amid the criticism from the international community over how the violence was handled, the Beijing government has been remaining low-ley on its security claims on the ultra-sensitive autonomous region. Moreover, since the U.S. and NATO troops remain active in Afghanistan where the Chinese government blamed Taliban for providing military training for the Uighur insurgents, China has tried to avoid direct military engagement in the area.
Ben-Ami pointed out that even with the western powers withdrawing, China is unlikely to change its soft touch on the regional security and stability issues.
“Judging by China’s behavior in other parts of the world, any military cooperation is likely to be extremely modest and cautious,” Ben-Ami wrote, basing his assessment on China’s refusal to contribute to the $4.1 billion multilateral fund to sustain Afghan’s security forces.
Instead, Ben-Ami said China is more interested in securing its own benefits that are tied to the region – exploiting natural resources and blocking Taliban-trained forces from entering the border, and both of these goals will be accomplished in “the Chinese way” by using soft power.
During the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization in June, Chinese President Hu Jintao reached a bilateral cooperation agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, laying out a consensus on safeguarding Afghanistan’s stability. Increasing military presence was not on the agenda.
“The preferred Chinese way would be that of cooptation and dialogue.” Ben-Ami said. He argued the only possibility China will bolster its troops in the region would be if it detects another round of insurgent-organized attacks.
Despite Ben-Ami’s conjecture that China’s increasing role in Afghanistan will not pose an immediate threat to the western world, some U.S. defense experts warn that the U.S. and NATO forces should not withdraw too soon.
With more than 400,000 NATO military personnel currently based in the country, experts worried a large-scale downsize will cause them to lose the war that they have been fighting for more than a decade.
Ronald Neumann, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, said the presumption that the NATO troops could walk away from the country worry-free is “threatening” and “unrealistic”, since the insurgence forces remain sporadic and strong while the training period for local Afghan government forces was too short that they are unable to take over the leadership from NATO immediately.
“You have to leave people in place for at least two to three years,” Neumann said at a discussion last week at the Brookings Institution, who just visited Afghanistan in May, “We are not winding down the war on terrorism. We are only winding down our part in it.”
They agreed that besides fighting the insurgents, the U.S. and NATO, like China, also have duties in Afghanistan in the coming years, such as strengthening its economy and establishing transparency and accountability within the local government.
Alex Thier, assistant to the administrator at the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs in the U.S. Agency for International Development, said that though NATO has helped the Afghans to develop “more rapidly than any previous decade in the history,” by no means he could call it a complete success.
“The progress remains fragile due to ongoing insurgency, lack of political settlements, corruption and still-weak society and institution.” Thier said, “We need to ask what is normal for the people of Afghanistan and how do they see their own future?”