As U.S. Eyes Afghanistan Withdrawal, Will China Up Its Role?

Beijing faces growing rivalries with its Pacific neighbors, but in Central Asia it finds a warmer welcome

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Jim Watson / Pool / Reuters

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, left, and Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak attend a joint news conference in Kabul on June 7, 2012

The U.S. “pivot” to East Asia is looking increasingly like a game of musical chairs. The military, diplomatic and economic shift, which President Obama first presented last fall, was envisioned as a response to the winding down of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the increasing military power of China. Last week, while traveling in Asia, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that by 2020 about 60% of the U.S. Navy’s warships would be stationed in the Pacific Ocean, vs. a roughly 50-50 split between the Atlantic and the Pacific today. But even as the U.S. shifts to the East, China is looking to its far west, to the very place the U.S. is planning to quit. The U.S. and its allies plan to withdraw most of their troops from Afghanistan by 2014. China, however, has large and growing interests in the country with which it shares a short, mountainous border. Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai met on Friday with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao in Beijing, where they announced a new strategic partnership. Afghanistan was also made an observer of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security group made up of Russia, China and four Central Asian states, which was holding its annual summit in Beijing.

(PHOTOS: The U.S. Military in the Pacific)

In recent years, China has become a key investor in Afghanistan. In 2007, China Metallurgical Group won a $3 billion lease to mine the Aynak copper field in Logar province, the largest single project in the country. Last year, Afghanistan approved China National Petroleum Corp.’s bid to drill for oil and natural gas in Sari Pul and Faryab provinces, the first concession granted to a foreign firm. Trade between the two countries is small but rapidly growing, increasing from $25 million in 2000 to $234 million last year. But while China looks to Afghanistan to fulfill part of its appetite for energy and raw materials, its chief interest is security. China has been wary of the U.S.-led Western military presence in the country. At the same time, Beijing suspects that some of the Uighur militants behind attacks in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang have received training and shelter in Afghanistan under the previous Taliban regime. Likewise, China is a market for Afghanistan’s booming heroin production. Part of Friday’s declaration signed by Hu and Karzai included a renunciation of terrorism, extremism, separatism and organized crime, a sign of China’s concerns about Afghanistan’s influence on stability in Xinjiang.

Hu also met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing last week, where the two reaffirmed their common stance against intervention in Syria. As Panetta was traveling through Asia visiting U.S. allies and partners, Putin’s Beijing turn signaled that China also has friends in the neighborhood. While China is facing rivalries with Vietnam and the Philippines over territorial claims in the South China Sea and with Japan over parts of the East China Sea, the SCO fosters stability among China’s Central Asian neighbors. As the U.S. plots its Afghanistan withdrawal, some observers in Russia and China have suggested that the grouping should lead Afghan peace talks, citing the lack of direct involvement in the U.S.-led war against the Taliban as a key advantage for the regional bloc. But despite the appearances of Sino-Russian comity in Beijing, the massive neighbors have very divergent goals that prevent deep cooperation, independent analyst Bobo Lo argued in a New York Times Op-Ed.

(PHOTOS: Fighting for Afghanistan’s Future)

China, which refused any participation in the coalition force in Afghanistan, either through the contribution of troops or in a resupply role, will continue eschewing any military involvement. Instead, Beijing hopes that increased investment will improve stability while helping provide the raw materials consumed by China’s economy. “Faced with the threats of extremism and drugs, the long-term strategy is to start with economics, the establishment of regional transportation networks and to expand Afghanistan’s trade with Central Asia and China, letting China’s economic engine to drive economic development in Afghanistan,” Chen Xiaochen, a journalist and researcher, wrote on Monday in China Business News, a Shanghai-based financial daily. “The local people have employment, and the support for terrorism will be reduced. With the replacement planting, local people will be able to grow fewer poppies. Afghanistan is a high-risk area, but that means returns will be high.”

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