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Afghanistan: Challenge and Opportunity for U.S.-China Relations

Richard Weitz

Although the United States and its NATO allies do not plan to withdraw all their military forces from Afghanistan for several more years, expectations of their eventual departure have already begun to influence the international relations of the region. The international coalition is eager to leave behind a benign regional environment that helps achieve a stable and prosperous Afghan state regime able to contain widespread political violence and terrorism on its territory.

Many other governments in Afghanistan’s region share these goals, including China. Nonetheless, PRC leaders have likely had conflicting feelings towards the NATO military presence so close to their vulnerable western borders.

On the one hand, they have welcomed NATO’s efforts to suppress the Taliban and other regional terrorist groups that in the past have sought to overthrow PRC-friendly governments in Central Asia and backed Uighur Muslim militants seeking to detach Xinjiang from Beijing’s rule. The PRC has also benefited from the extensive financial support the United States has provided Beijing’s close ally Pakistan. These aid flows have far surpassed those provide by China itself.

In addition, reduced regional terrorism and instability help make Afghanistan and its neighborhood a more favorable environment for PRC investment. During the last few years, Chinese companies have acquired a leading presence in Afghanistan and several Central Asian countries have emerged as major energy suppliers for China. Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia, has especially benefited from the growth in China trade with these countries, which has been facilitated by the suppression of the trans-Eurasian terrorist movements that had been based in Afghanistan before the Taliban was deposed in late 2001 by the U.S.-led invasion.

On the other hand, the Chinese, like other Eurasian governments, fault NATO for failing to finish off the Taliban. They are also highly critical of NATO’s inability to prevent the massive increase in the export of Afghan narcotics since 2001. PRC commentators also express concern about long-term U.S. ambitions in the region. A common fear is that the United States is trying to sustain a military presence in Afghanistan, to China’s west, as an element in its region-wide containment strategy against the PRC that also includes India, Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, and other countries.

Even so, Chinese analysts recognize that on balance they have benefited from the U.S military efforts in Afghanistan since, unlike many other countries, the PRC has not had to make a major contribution to support it. Whereas American pressure has induced many of Afghanistan’s neighbors to grant the Pentagon military bases and transit rights, and has led many other countries to provide combat forces for the unpopular Afghan campaign, China has essentially been able to benefit from these military exertions without having to contribute to them. PRC officials have resisted U.S. and NATO pressure to contribute combat forces to ISAF, send police trainers to Kabul, or allow the Pentagon to send military supplies to Afghanistan through Chinese territory (the Wakhan Corridor is often cited as a possible route).

Now the start of the drawdown in U.S. and NATO forces is facing Beijing with a challenge and an opportunity. China can no longer free ride on foreign military operations in Afghanistan. PRC analysts note that the impending NATO military withdrawal increases the terrorist threat to Central Asian countries that are already challenged by the potential spread of the chaos in the Arab world. Some Chinese experts believe these developments could also threaten their own country’s security and stability, including by endangering the PRC’s regional energy and economic interests and perhaps by making it easier for foreign terrorists to operate on Chinese territory.

But Beijing also has an opportunity to exert responsible regional leadership and increase its support for the Afghan government to compensate for the Western military withdrawal. Fortuitously, China is chairing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) during the next twelve months. PRC policy makers should take advantage of this situation to induce SCO members—which include China, Russia, and all the Central Asian countries except for bloc-averse Turkmenistan—to increase support for the Afghan government.

Despite their occasional differences, China and the other SCO members agree on the value of collaborating against the common threat of drug trafficking and regional terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai has been a regular guest at SCO summits since 2004. Afghanistan has recently been seeking to elevate its status within the SCO to that of an official observer nation. A SCO-Afghan Contact Group coordinates the large number of SCO initiatives that concern that country. In March 2009, the SCO convened a special international conference in Moscow on Afghanistan that included American and other foreign observers.

Although SCO members are unwilling to send their own combat forces to Afghanistan, they can help train the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. The member governments could also increase their military aid to these Afghan Security Forces. Russia and several Central Asian states have Soviet-era weapons like helicopters that could prove quite useful for the Afghan counterinsurgency campaign. China can contribute important equipment to the Afghan National Police, which has the important responsibility of keeping the Taliban from reestablishing operations in areas cleared of its guerrillas. The planned SCO Development Bank and free trade zone could also help Afghanistan provided that country was covered by these initiatives.

PRC policy makers naturally wish to maintain their low profile in Afghanistan, but such an option is vanishing. They must begin now to consider how to embed the Afghan government within a regional framework that will prevent the emergence of a dangerous security and institutional vacuum following the NATO troop withdrawal.

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