Dialogue January-March, 2012, Volume 13 No. 3
China's Evolving Evolving Post-2014 Afghanistan Strategy
Ever since President Obama’s path-breaking announcement in June 2011 that the US ‘combat’ missions in Afghanistan will end by 2014 and that from that time, the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security, a new alert seems to be gripping the People’s Republic of China (PRC) pushing it towards formulating a post-2014 Afghanistan strategy. Official pronouncements, authoritative media articles and output from influential think tanks are confirming such a trend.
China’s official responses require to be highlighted first. The PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson said (24 June 2011) that "it has been the PRC’s consistent stance that the independence and sovereignty of Afghanistan should be respected. We have noted President Obama’s withdrawal plan and hope the US safeguards a peaceful and stable transition". The Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi stated to Afghan President Karzai (Bonn, 5 December 2011) that the PRC would ‘continue to firmly support Afghanistan’s own efforts in maintaining independence, integrity and territorial sovereignty and enhancing peace, stability and development’ .Subsequently, China in response to a report on Karzai’s welcome to a Taliban decision to open a liaison office in Qatar, said (Foreign Ministry spokesperson,5 January 2012) that " the Chinese side supports the national reconciliation efforts of Afghanistan and hopes to see early realization of peace and stability in the country. We are happy to see progress made in Afghan national reconciliation. At the same time, we believe that the outside should fully respect the choice of the Afghan government and people with regard to the issue of peace talks and create an environment helpful in attaining progress of reconciliation".
To discern trends, responses from authoritative media (People’s Daily, China Daily, and Global Times etc ) also need attention. Some articles carried by them referred to comments by Prof Ye Hailin of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), about the huge cost involved in US operations in Afghanistan and the likely prohibitive cost for China if it attempts to fill the ‘power vacuum’ resulting from US withdrawal. They also carried opinions of some other well connected Chinese scholars. According to Professor Ji Zhiye of China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), Afghan situation is likely to get complicated after the US withdrawal in 2014 and that China and India, two countries having interests in Afghanistan, can play a bigger role in Afghanistan, setting aside the disagreements regarding Pakistan ( Professor Ji, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, 22 April 20011). His CICIR colleague, Hu Shisheng echoed the same view and said ("What Troops Pull out Means for Kabul", China Daily, 21 July 2011) that the "US troop pull out can not solve the deep rooted problems in Afghanistan and the region. Instead, it may give rise to very difficult political and strategic problems". Major regional powers will use the withdrawal to fill the vacuum in geographically and strategically important Afghanistan, which will further complicate the Afghan political landscape". Another scholar, Zhu Feng, Deputy Director of the Centre for International & Strategic Studies, Peking University, visualized ("China and the Afghan End Game", Global Economist, 2 August 2011, http://englishcaijing.com.cn/2011-08-02/110797016.html) China’s big power role in the region, but saw ‘no immediate advantage in proactive engagements in Afghanistan after US pull out’. He especially pointed to the benefits to the US in co-opting China in the matter of stabilizing Karzai regime. Prof Yuan Peng of the Institute of American Studies of CICIR felt (Keith B.Richburg, ," China Warily Watches US Withdrawal From Iraq", The Washington Post, 15 December 2011) that the US pull out from Afghanistan and Iraq signals Washington’s shift of focus from the Middle East and South Asia to East Asia, from counter-terrorism to dealing with emerging powers. Is it for encircling or containing China? ". Prof Zhang Jiadong of Fudan University said (Global Times, 16 December 201) that "after the US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, China needs to play an important role in fighting terrorism in Central Asia. But reduction of US presence may also result in economic and political gains to China".
While what has been said above can be termed as signals to the likely directions in China’s post-2014 Afghanistan strategy, it will be useful to have a look into the existing Chinese approach towards Afghanistan, in order to making possible some comparative projections for the future. The roots of Beijing’s current policy towards Afghanistan can be traced to the China-Afghanistan Joint Statement issued at Beijing at the end of President Karzai’s visit to China (23 to 25 March 2010).Through that Statement, the PRC reaffirmed its stand of not interfering in the internal affairs of other countries including Afghanistan and respecting Afghanistan’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Chinese President Hu Jintao spelled out five priority areas for building China-Afghanistan "comprehensive cooperative partnership of good neighborliness, mutual trust and friendship for generations", most important of them having been "promotion of bilateral economic collaboration". Though on the occasion, the Chinese side wanted Kabul to take additional measures to counter regional drug trafficking and terrorism originating from Afghanistan, its emphasis was on strengthening bilateral economic ties, particularly to boost mutual trade, investment and technological transfers covering sectors like transportation, agriculture, energy , mining and infrastructure. The Chinese side’s emphasis was on cooperation with Afghanistan in the fields of trade, energy and counter-terrorism, which appeared to be in its larger security interests on the basis of realization that Afghanistan and Pakistan provide essential transportation and trade links between China and the resources-rich Central Asia and the Middle East. Beijing also offered Afghanistan side on the occasion aid for additional defence supplies and military training, short of direct combat support, suggesting that Beijing does not favour its military involvement in Afghanistan, in order to avoid being seen as aligning with the NATO-led anti-Taliban coalition. As Chinese analysts felt (China Daily, 20 March 2011), Beijing may fear that any such alignment could encourage Taliban to intensify its terrorist attacks against the PRC.
In conclusion, it can be said that the following could be the prominent features of the PRC’s post-2014 strategy - (i) neutralize outside interference in Afghanistan or any filling the vacuum by regional powers (with countries like India in mind?), (ii) adopt a line to protect China’s energy interests in Central Asia and the Middle East , taking building of economic ties with Afghanistan, a neighbor important for Beijing for oil transportation, as an extension of this line, (iii) continue to prefer an approach which de-emphasizes direct military involvement in Afghanistan (iv) giving no active support to NATO’s role in Afghanistan and (v) concede if necessary a role to Taliban in the Afghan reconciliation process (China’s passing no judgment on Taliban office in Qatar and no criticism of US-Taliban secret talks, to be noted).
India signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan on 4 October 2011; it is first of its kind for New Delhi in South Asia and first such accord with any country for Afghanistan. Coming close to the proposed US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, the development assumes high significance. Islamabad may worry that India- Afghanistan accord may result in loss of its influence in Afghanistan; it may especially be concerned with New Delhi’s plans under the accord to train Afghanistan troops. At the moment however, as press reports indicate, it is playing down the importance of the accord, viewing it as a ‘sovereign’ activity of two nations. What is going to be China’s response is not clear yet; at least there has so far been no official Chinese disapproval of India-Afghan partnership. Meanwhile, the PRC’s state-owned National Petroleum Corporation recently signed a US$ 700 million oil exploration contract with the Afghan government, first such one, demonstrating Beijing’s priority to tapping energy resources in Afghanistan. This comes at a time when it is already competing with other major powers for resources in Central Asia. In an overall sense, it is thus very likely that as US withdrawal from Afghanistan comes closer, the geo-political rivalry among major powers in the region may accelerate.