By Raffaello Pantucci (潘睿凡)
First published in 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post) June 12, 2012
(original text in English below, including final paragraph omitted in Chinese)
作者 潘睿凡 发表于2012-06-12 03:05
China Should Develop its role in Afghanistan
This week’s decision by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to make Afghanistan an observer member and President Karzai’s separate bilateral meeting to sign a strategic agreement with China are signals that China is eager to play a greater role in Afghanistan’s future. However, while these high level actions are positive demonstrations of intent by Beijing, China needs to be sure to follow through if it is to be seen to be playing a greater role in stabilizing its neighbour after the American withdrawal in 2014. Currently, China is not a major player in Afghanistan. A fact that was repeatedly made clear as I went around Kabul asking about China’s interests and influence in the country. Afghans would clearly like to see China play a role, but from what they can see at the moment, China is instead focused on taking Afghanistan’s natural resources while others guarantee security and work to stabilize the country.
There is very little visible evidence of Chinese presence in the country. Many Chinese traders who used to populate the markets or run restaurants closed down and returned home in 2008 as the security situation deteriorated. Those that are left keep a low profile, like most foreigners in the country, reduced to hiding behind high walls and security teams. But at a strategic economic level, China is very visible, winning large contracts to mine for copper in Aynak (southeast of Kabul) and a contract to open a gas field in Amu Darya (in the north of the country).
And in these large contracts we can see how China could play a bigger and more positive role in the country. Aynak sits in Logar province, an underdeveloped region that would benefit from the jobs and opportunity the copper mine and other infrastructure (trains, roads, a power station, coal mine and local schools) that come with the project would bring. And analysts spoken to on the ground believe that the very favorable terms that CNPC agreed to develop the gas field with the Afghan government in Amu Darya are a sign of CNPC’s desire for future oil projects in the region. This is interpreted as a long-term interest in Afghanistan. And at a political level, this week’s announcements in Beijing at the SCO Summit are a sign that the regional body is paying attention to Afghanistan, while the signing of an agreement between Afghanistan and China are a show of the bilateral relationship.
But when talking to officials, politicians and locals in Afghanistan this sense is not what is being understood. Instead people point to the large amounts of aid and investment that China puts into Pakistan rather than them and believe that China prefers Pakistan over Afghanistan. Furthermore, the long-standing requests for the Wakhan Corridor to be opened have been answered with a lengthy feasibility study into whether the project can be done. This is seen as a Chinese strategy of simply sealing off Afghanistan from China and letting it resolve its security problems by itself. Something even more visible on the ground in Daptar in Xinjiang (the last border town before Afghanistan in China), where the Karakoram Highway sweeps magnificently through the village and on to the Kunjerab Pass with Pakistan while the road to Afghanistan remains a closed dusty track. Afghanistan feels it is missing out on the potential trade benefits with the Chinese economic giant and feels like it is being purposely cut off.
And in many ways this Chinese perspective is easy to understand. Afghanistan is currently a security problem and opening the border might let trouble flow directly into China. But the problem is that aside from the big projects mentioned earlier, there is little evidence of a larger Chinese strategy of what to do with Afghanistan and what to be preparing for after 2014 and the American withdrawal. In Kabul people kept asking what the Chinese strategy was for Afghanistan, with most concluding that there was no clear thinking going into this subject.
This is a problem, as what happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on Central and South Asia. Talking to officials and local experts in Dushanbe and Tashkent, who sit on the border with Afghanistan, there is a high level of concern about what 2014 means. And instability and uncertainty in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is something that will impact the entire Central Asian region and therefore Xinjiang, as well as Chinese investments in throughout region. Looking south: Pakistan will also suffer if Afghanistan falls into chaos, something that will further have direct impact on Chinese interests in the country, but also the great projects that China has undertaken to connect itself to the warm waters of the Gulf through Pakistan.
Expectations in Kabul are not very high. The hope is not that China will deploy forces to guarantee security or that China will suddenly come and replace America as the main player in the nation. Instead, the hope is that China will instead enunciate a clearer strategy towards the nation that ties in efforts to improve stability and security with large strategic economic investments. Currently on the ground the investments are seen as holding pieces of territory without investing in them, while what efforts towards stability are either invisible or considered irrelevant. And at a political level, while the brokering of a China-Pakistan-Afghanistan trilateral was an interesting and positive development, it is unclear that it has changed much on the ground.
All of this in a region of the world that has long been a cauldron of insecurity and which is adjacent to China and in which China has quite obvious strategic interests. The decision to bring Afghanistan further into the SCO framework is a good start and the strategic agreement a further signal of China’s willingness to participate in the country’s future, but the time has come for China to clearly enunciate its strategy towards Afghanistan and to make a more visible commitment towards the country’s secure, prosperous and stable future.
This could come in a number of different ways: first, China could help companies like MCC resolve their current difficulties on the ground and get projects going. This would require helping the Afghan government resolve some bureaucratic issues, but focused attention from Beijing might help speed this process up. Secondly, China could focus more attention on getting Afghanistan’s infrastructure (energy lines, pipelines, roads, trains) connected to regional networks – this will help bind the country into its region and help development. Thirdly, the China-Pakistan-Afghanistan trilateral format should be expanded to bring more actors to the table beyond diplomats, like state owned companies and economic ministries. This will help bring relevant actors to the table to discuss development together and help foster greater regional integration. And fourthly, China should help steer the SCO in the direction of more active counter-narcotics work. Currently, the organization talks about the problem a lot without doing much visibly. Encouraging greater border surveillance, stopping the flows of precursor drugs into the country and offering farmers alternatives to growing drug crops are all projects that the SCO could focus on with Chinese leadership and would help Afghanistan move beyond reliance on this crop.
But the most significant move that China could make is to ensure that it makes further visible progress in its relationship on the ground with Afghanistan before the American withdrawal in 2014. It is understandable that China wants to wait to see what the environment looks like post-2014; but at the same time, whatever the scenario post-2014, Afghanistan will still be next door to China. So waiting is somewhat unnecessary and is only going to delay development in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s future is clearly going to be both important and to some degree tied to China’s. China is in a position to play a very positive role in fostering a peaceful future for the nation, starting work on it now is something that will only reap dividends.