The dragon in the Hindu Kush: China’s interests in Afghanistan

April 20, 2009

The dragon in the Hindu Kush: China’s interests in Afghanistan


It appears that China is forging closer ties with post-Taliban Afghanistan. Afghanistan, meanwhile, is also undoubtedly interested in Chinese investment as it seeks to diversify its international relations away from the West. However, China’s increasing interest in Afghanistan creates a host of implications – within Afghanistan, China and the region as a whole.

Three reasons stand out as explanations for China’s increasing involvement.

First, China requires natural resources from abroad to fuel its fast-growing economy. Afghanistan possesses a critical set of natural resources. In 2008, China’s Jiangxi Copper Co. and China Metallurgical Group Corp. jointly invested approximately US$3.5-billion to acquire 100-per-cent mining rights to Afghanistan’s Aynak copper field, the world’s largest unexploited copper field. This contract was a significant victory for China, the world’s largest copper consumer.

Second, both China and Afghanistan share an interest in combatting the “three evils” of extremism, terrorism and separatism. For Beijing, these “three evils” are located primarily in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, which shares a 76-kilometre-long border with Afghanistan and is populated by Muslim Uyghurs. According to Beijing, members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement have been going into Afghanistan from Xinjiang since the late 1990s to receive training and support from the Taliban and al-Qaeda, thereafter re-entering China and conducting terrorist acts in an effort to gain independence.

This outcome is unacceptable to the Chinese Communist Party, whose legitimacy rests partially on its ability to keep China unified. The loss of Xinjiang might embolden Tibet to seek greater autonomy, if not outright separation; it might also encourage Taiwan to declare official independence. As a result, China has beefed up its border security in this area. Whether it intends to secure this border from within Afghanistan remains to be seen.

Finally, a stable Afghanistan can help China attain its broader regional interests. Bringing security and stability to Afghanistan will require bringing an end to the material and territorial support provided by Pakistani militants in the Afghan-Pakistan border region; this might help ensure the survival of a regime in Pakistan that remains friendly to China. Moreover, it can help protect Chinese strategic and economic interests in Pakistan that intersect with Afghanistan. China has invested heavily in the strategically important deep sea port of Gwadar in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, which borders Afghanistan’s unstable southeast. The port lies some 400 kilometres east of the Strait of Hormuz, through which 60 per cent of China’s oil imports travel. It also provides China with a forward operating base from which to better project its naval power and ensure the safe passage of its seaborne energy shipments. A new rail line linking the Aynak copper mine with Gwadar is being considered, as is another linking Gwadar with China’s western line in Xinjiang province.

Having another player in the contemporary Afghan “great game” is a cause for both hope and concern. Beijing has an interest in a stable and secure Afghanistan as it provides a safe environment in which to exploit resources. In the short term, it seems China will free ride on the provision of security by NATO and Kabul. For instance, security for the Aynak mine is provided by the American and Afghan militaries.

This may develop into more direct intervention if China feels its interests cannot be secured; it might also apply pressure on Pakistan to rein in extremist elements in the Afghan-Pakistan border area. This could improve the overall security situation while providing an opportunity for co-operation between Chinese and Western forces. In any case, the security dimension will undoubtedly become more important for China should it invest further in Afghanistan.

There are also potentially negative implications. China’s involvements abroad are based on letting countries develop socially, political and economically at their own pace and in their own way. Greater Chinese involvement could further hold back Afghanistan’s social and political development. It could also make its rival India nervous about being buffeted from the west.

But whatever turn China’s involvement in Afghanistan ultimately takes, we must pay attention as this is a part of the world where we have invested much blood and treasure.

Thomas Adams is strategic studies staff officer with the Canadian International Council in Toronto. Arnav Manchanda is defence policy analyst with the Conference of Defence Associations in Ottawa.