China in Afghanistan: Valuable Ally or Emerging Threat?

In this article, the author explores the competing US and Chinese discourses on China’s Peaceful rise strategy, using the PRC’s economic involvement in Afghanistan as a case study. It argues that although China’s interest in Afghanistan is perceived and framed as a threat by the US, it also represents a momentous opportunity for Afghanistan and its neighbors.


By Camille Maubert, 17th March, 2012

Karzai’s attempt to build an Afghanistan with American democratic characteristics and Chinese economic dynamism highlights the delicate positioning at play, whereby Afghanistan is subjected to different and sometimes contradictory foreign influences. Indeed, while the US is the biggest player in Afghanistan, China is also preparing to assume a long-term role in the country. In fact, the successful Chinese Metallurgical Corporation’s bid on the Aynak copper mine in Lowgar province, worth US$4 billion, promoted China as the largest single foreign investor in the country’s history. This had the West shudder by reminding it how powerful – and potentially threatening – a neighbor the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is.

“We do the heavy lifting and they pick up the fruits” – the American narrative

Since 2001, China’s involvement in the country shifted from disinterest to ever-growing investments in the country’s infrastructures, mineral wealth and agriculture. However, its expanding commercial interests are deeply controversial because of their political reach. Indeed, China, who has gained control of strategic assets without shooting a single bullet, has been accused of free-riding on the stability provided by the American troops in order to secure access to natural resources. In fact, American troops not only bring general security in the Logar province, but they also trained the 1500 Afghan National Police soldiers who are directly protecting the infrastructures.

This behavior is perceived as unacceptable because of China’s refusal to share the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)’s burden. Indeed, the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Mr Gang, made it clear that it is “out of the question to send Chinese troops (…) in Afghanistan” and discounted NATO’s request to use the Wakhan corridor for logistical supplies. This is interpreted as an indirect confrontation with US interests and goals in the region; and seen with suspicion by the West. Arguably, it is assumed that there is a correlation between increased economic power and amplified political weight; that is to say that because China expands its economic assets in Afghanistan, it will inevitably increase its political influence by the same token. Some indeed fear that China’s business in Afghanistan and Central Asia could alter the balance of power in areas vital to the US’s strategic interests.

By shunning away from any major security role and distancing itself from ISAF, China conveys the image of a profit-focused actor who utilizes its powerful national companies to expand influence in Afghanistan and who doesn’t balk at dealing with rogue actors. Indeed, while China benefits from the US tackling transnational Islamic terrorism, it also adopts a very cautious and balanced diplomacy with both the United States and the Taliban: Being a direct target of terrorist activities because of its policy on Xinjiang’s Muslim minority, and Aynak being located in a potentially Taliban-controlled area, China is in effect willing compromise with all regional actors to maintain stability.

However, the depiction of China’s involvement in Afghanistan and the wider region as a threat to Western interests is biased by the widespread “China Threat theory” which impregnates Western analysis. Because Western interpretations of China’s role in Afghanistan derives from the way the West sees China –as a threat – and the way it sees itself – as liberal and benevolent – it is fair to assume that an examination of the Chinese discourse is needed in order to grasp the other side of the story.

Afghanistan and the Direct Investment Model – The Chinese narrative

What distinguishes China from other actors in the Afghan reconstruction is its outstanding ability to project funds into unstable and high-risk areas. Indeed, its national companies have the capability to deal with risks associated with investing in remote and unsecure regions where Western companies cannot – yet – penetrate. The China Metallurgical Group, by accepting the risks associated with such investment and adding incentives like the building of infrastructures – power plant, hospital, mosque – outbid the West.

The comparative advantage of China over American and European investors is rooted in its Direct Investment model, which offers loans below market rates and have the attractive feature of not associating economic development with political reforms. Indeed, while Western donors and investors condition aid on democratic and human rights improvements, for developing countries like Afghanistan, China’s policy of non-intervention in internal affairs is appealing because it allows them to prioritize economic development. This strategy has been criticized in the West because it is seen as providing support for authoritarian regimes; but, so far, it seems more successful in bringing stability to war-torn countries that Western humanitarian and counter-insurgency missions. Based on successful results in Africa, this macro-level system will have a positive impact on Afghan stability in that it will promote a virtuous circle of economic development in the wider region – Central Asia, Xinjiang, Afghanistan – and will reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on international aid, therefore advancing the wider American goal of stability.

The reason for and implication of such strategy resides in China’s primary security interest in its Western province of Xinjiang. The PRC is indeed most concerned about cross-border terrorism coming from its Western and Southern neighbors. Despite the militarization of its borders and the increased security cooperation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China is very vulnerable to Islamic militancy spillovers from Afghanistan and the Pakistani safe havens. Hence the implementation of a cautious policy of economic development and support to Afghanistan’s reconstruction which enforces stability while at the same time remaining distant from the US initiatives to avoid being associated with the controversial War on Terror.

By providing training to the Afghan police and anti-drug factions, investing in local resources and promoting cooperation between Central Asian governments on the “three evils” – fundamentalism, terrorism and separatism – China aims to maintain dialogue and cooperation and consolidate its long-term presence. This calculation is based on the assumption that by developing a Central Asian economic sphere – in which the opening of the Wakhan corridor would play a crucial role in reviving the Silk Road – China will securely reinforce its economic rise while avoiding becoming the target of Islamic militantism.

One could safely assume from its involvement in Afghanistan that China is pursuing a narrow interpretation of its interests. Although the PRC officially adheres to the shared principles of the War on Terror such as anti-terrorism – from which it profits to legitimize its Xinjiang policy – or anti-narcotics, it also rejects the all-encompassing US strategy and rather prioritizes domestic security and development. Indeed, China claims that far from seeking regional hegemony, it wishes to preserve the international order and pursue its national interest within it.

Afghanistan at the cross-roads of the US-China agendas

What stems from those two conflicting narratives is that the stereotypical distinction between a disinterested West and a voracious China is not relevant in the sense that it stems from ideological perceptions rather than rational observation. Consequently, the idea of China as a threat doesn’t stem from the reality of it as an expanding power but rather from “perceptions, especially those regarding the potential that Beijing will become an example, source or model that contradicts Western liberalism as the reigning paradigm” (Stephen Chan 1999). Indeed, because China, by making profits in Afghanistan, doesn’t fit in the normative expectations of the US on how it should act, it is displayed as a threat to global peace. This means that the idea of China as a threat to the regional status quo is more a self-fulfilling prophecy than an actual reality in the sense that, by framing China as a menace, the US may not only push it towards brinkmanship but also lose its attractiveness to the Afghan government and people, and therefore further get bogged down.

Afghanistan is the place where two narratives and strategic cultures met – the Western fear of losing its hegemony and the Chinese confidence in expanding its economy. Because China’s domestic and economic concerns shape its approach to foreign policy, it is engaging with Afghanistan in its own terms, which is understood as a threat by the West but also as an unmatched opportunity by Afghanistan.

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