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Eyeing rich bounty, China in line for Afghan role


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In this January 22, 2013 photo, An Afghan man walks past a shop selling tools made in China in Kabul, Afghanistan. China is accelerating its involvement in Afghanistan as US-led forces prepare to withdraw. — AP Photo

China, long a bystander to the conflict in Afghanistan, is stepping up its involvement as US-led forces prepare to withdraw, attracted by the country's vast mineral resources but concerned that any post-2014 chaos could embolden insurgents in its own territory.

Cheered on by the US and other Western governments, which see Asia's giant as a potentially stabilising force, China could prove the ultimate winner in Afghanistan, having shed no blood and not much aid.

Security, or the lack of it, remains the key challenge: Chinese enterprises have already bagged three multibillion dollar investment projects, but they won't be able to go forward unless conditions get safer. While the Chinese do not appear ready to rush into any vacuum left by the withdrawal of foreign troops, a definite shift toward a more hands-on approach to Afghanistan is under way.

Beijing signed a strategic partnership last summer with the war-torn country. This was followed in September with a trip to Kabul by its top security official, the first by a leading Chinese government figure in 46 years, and the announcement that China would train 300 Afghan police officers. China is also showing signs of willingness to help negotiate a peace agreement as Nato prepares to pull out in two years.

It's a new role for China, as its growing economic might gives it a bigger stake in global affairs. Success, though far from guaranteed, could mean a big payoff for a country hungry for resources to sustain its economic growth and eager to maintain stability in Xinjiang.

''If you are able to see a more or less stable situation in Afghanistan, if it becomes another relatively normal Central Asian state, China will be the natural beneficiary,'' says Andrew Small, a China expert at The German Marshall Fund of the United States, an American research institute. ''If you look across Central Asia, that is what has already happened. ... China is the only actor who can foot the level of investment needed in Afghanistan to make it succeed and stick it out,'' he adds.

Support from the US

Beijing fears chaos, or victory by the Taliban, would allow these groups greater leeway. The US is encouraging Beijing to boost its investment and aid in Afghanistan and backs its participation in various peace-seeking initiatives, including a Pakistan-Afghanistan-China forum that met last month for the second time.

Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai says there has been a greater sharing of intelligence between his country and China, and a joint US-Chinese program to mentor junior Afghan diplomats. In one of the only cases of such cooperation in the world, the US brought 15 diplomats to Washington, D.C., last month, after they had received similar training in China. Similar three-way programs are being developed in health and agriculture.

"Recently, China has taken a keener interest in the security situation and the transition process, and we are more than happy that this is increasing,'' Mosazai says. “It's certainly a change, a welcome change.''

He adds that Beijing could play a crucial role in forging peace in Afghanistan because of its close relations to Pakistan, from where several Taliban militant groups operate.

Relationship with the Taliban

Davood Moradian, who heads the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies in Kabul, says the Chinese are treading carefully, realizing they lack expertise in a complex political landscape that has tripped up other great powers.

"The Chinese are ambiguous. They don't want the Taliban to return to power and are concerned about a vacuum after 2014 that the Taliban could fill, but they also don't like having US troops in their neighbourhood,'' he says.

Should the Chinese step into the peace process, either as a principal intermediary or through Pakistan, they could carry considerable weight.

"They are rare among the actors in Afghanistan in that they are not seen as having been too close to any side of the conflict. All sides are happy to see China's expanded role,'' Small says.

Though China doesn't want a Taliban takeover, Beijing regards the group as a "legitimate political force,'' says Small. Beijing was on its way to recognizing the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks that led to the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.

The Afghan government has backed off from earlier criticism that the Chinese were not contributing their share to security and reconstruction of the country.

"There was an attitude that the Chinese were just interested in profiting from other people's loss, the blood and sweat of American and other troops,'' says Moradian. "But that is changing.''

Investments in Afghanistan

Over the past decade, China's trade has boomed with Afghanistan's resource-rich neighbours in Central Asia. For Turkmenistan, China trade reached 21 percent of its GDP in 2011, up from 1 percent five years earlier, according to an Associated Press analysis of International Monetary Fund data.

The equivalent figure for Tajikistan is 32 percent of GDP, versus 12 percent in 2006. China's trade with Afghanistan stood at a modest 1.3 percent of GDP in 2011. Eyeing Afghanistan's estimated $1 trillion worth of unexploited minerals, Chinese companies have acquired rights to extract vast quantities of copper and coal and snapped up the first oil exploration concessions granted to foreigners in decades. China is also eyeing extensive deposits of lithium, uses of which range from batteries to nuclear components.

The Chinese are also showing interest in investing in hydropower, agriculture and construction. Preliminary talks have been held about a direct road link to China across the remote 76-kilometre border between the two countries, according to Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry.

Wang Lian, a Central Asia expert at BeijingUniversity, notes that superpowers have historically been involved in Afghanistan because it is an Asian crossroads, and China would be no exception. "It's unquestionable that China bears the responsibility to participate in the political and economic reconstruction of Afghanistan,'' he says. ''A stable Afghanistan is of vital importance to (China). China can't afford to stand aside following the US troop withdrawal and in the process of political transition.''

A stable Afghanistan, Wang says, is vital to the security of Xinjiang, China's far west where militants, some who have received sanctuary and training along the Pak-Afghan border, are seeking independence.

Comments (9) Closed

Ahmed j Jan 26, 2013 10:22pm
The interesting part is that the Russians and the US used military might to force themselves in and failed and Chinese will simply sneak in without any internal resistance. Chinese never support any nation with developmental monitory loans like the west, which eventually goes in private pockets. Chinese always help with material and structural assistance and that would help the Afghans where corruption is alarmingly high. The only way into Afghanistan is through Pakistan and Chinese built Gawadar seems useful. Even Iran will gain with Chinese presence. The losers are the West and most of all India. Indian military and economic investment on Afghan soil is many folds. Judging the political shift in Pakistan's favour and Pakistan
pathanoo Jan 26, 2013 03:32pm
Once the Afghans experience the Chinese; they will appreciate and rue for the Americans to come back.
Ahmer Jan 26, 2013 05:12pm
Pakistan needs to be wary. After all the sacrifices we have made for our Afghan brothers, we do not want another super power dominate such a sensitive neighbour, however close a friend China might currently be.
the pak Jan 26, 2013 07:37pm
Why can,t Pakistan take the advantage from China friend ship like the other countries do Afghans even USA do ????
ali Jan 27, 2013 12:58am
Chinese presence in Afghanistan will also balance India`s penetration and the Chinese will also be more acceptable then the US and NATO to the local warlords and the taliban.
IndiaUSA Jan 27, 2013 07:53am
US will never leave will also have some kind of presence there and it is good for the peace and stability of region.
Dr. Wali Jan 27, 2013 07:59am
simple because we do not think "Pakistan First"
Riaz Jan 27, 2013 05:46am
Other countries have decent rulers who care about their country. Pakistani rulers have only one interest; rob Pakistan. No foreign country has any respect for Pakistan and very rightly so. No one trusts corrupt people.
khanm Jan 27, 2013 07:07am
In this bizarre world of economy no one is your friend. You you have to safe guard your interest.....,. No one else would.... in order to survive use your brain not your muscles just like Chinese did