China’s Afghan Game Plan

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The game of Weiqi
The game of Weiqi. Photo: fabiocosta0305/flickr.

MADRID – In his latest book, On China, Henry Kissinger uses the traditional intellectual games favored by China and the West – weiqi and chess – as a way to reveal their differing attitudes toward international power politics. Chess is about total victory, a Clausewitzian battle for the “center of gravity” and the eventual elimination of the enemy, whereas weiqi is a quest for relative advantage through a strategy of encirclement that avoids direct conflict.

This cultural contrast is a useful guide to the way that China manages its current competition with the West. China’s Afghan policy is a case in point, but it also is a formidable challenge to the weiqi way. As the United States prepares to withdraw its troops from the country, China must deal with an uncertain post-war scenario.

Afghanistan is of vital strategic interest to China, yet it never crossed its leaders’ minds to defend those interests through war. A vital security zone to China’s west, Afghanistan is also an important corridor through which it can secure its interests in Pakistan (a traditional ally in China’s competition with India), and ensure its access to vital natural resources in the region. Moreover, China’s already restless Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang, which borders on Afghanistan, might be dangerously affected by a Taliban takeover there, or by the country’s dismemberment.

The US fought its longest-ever war in Afghanistan, at a cost (so far) of more than $555 billion, not to mention tens of thousands of Afghan civilian casualties and close to 3,100 US troops killed. But China’s strategy in the country was mostly focused on business development, and on satiating its vast appetite for energy and minerals. The US Defense Department has valued Afghanistan’s untapped mineral deposits at $1 trillion. But it is China that is now poised to exploit much of these resources.

Indeed, China’s development of the Aynak Copper Mine was the largest single foreign direct investment in Afghanistan’s history. China was also engaged in constructing a $500 million electric plant and railway link between Tajikistan and Pakistan. Last December, China’s state-owned National Petroleum Corporation signed a deal with the Afghan authorities that would make it the first foreign company to exploit Afghanistan’s oil and natural-gas reserves.

Once China’s enormous economic and security interests in Afghanistan are left without America’s military shield, the Chinese are bound to play an even larger role there, one that Afghans hope will reach “strategic levels.” China would prefer to accomplish this the Chinese way – that is, essentially through a display of soft power – or, as the Chinese government put it on the occasion of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s official visit to Beijing in early June, through “non-traditional security areas.”

Judging by China’s behavior in other parts of the world, any military cooperation is likely to be extremely modest and cautious. China has already made it clear it will not contribute to the $4.1 billion multilateral fund to sustain Afghan national security forces.

Rather, the two countries’ recently signed bilateral cooperation agreement is about “safeguarding Afghanistan’s national stability” through social and economic development. China is especially keen on combating drug trafficking, as Badakhshan, the Afghan province bordering on Xinjiang, has become the main transit route for Afghan opium. But preventing the spillover into Xinjiang of Taliban-inspired religious extremism remains a high priority as well.

China went to great lengths to present the recent summit in Beijing of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes China, Russia, and major Central Asian countries, as an attempt to create a fair balance of interests among regional stakeholders.  Moreover, the SCO sought a consensus on how, in Chinese President Hu Jintao’s words, to guard the region “against shocks from turbulence outside the region.”

Yet, however focused it is on soft-power projection in Afghanistan, China will likely find it difficult not to be drawn into the role of policeman in an extremely complex and historically conflict-ridden region. China’s regional outreach, moreover, clashes with that of other regional powers, such as Russia and India. Nor is its own ally, Pakistan, particularly eager to confront terrorist groups that threaten the security of its neighbors, China among them.

Pakistan might find it extremely difficult to reconcile the security of its Chinese ally with its de facto proxy war with India. China might then be forced to bolster its military presence in Pakistan and in tribal areas along the Afghan border in order to counter terrorist groups such as the Pakistan-based East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which the Chinese believe is responsible for attacks in Xinjiang.

The preferred Chinese way would be that of cooptation and dialogue. Indeed, Chinese diplomacy has been busy lately in trilateral talks with Pakistan and Afghanistan aimed at achieving reconciliation with the Taliban. Nor is China interested in stirring up the conflict between its Pakistani allies and its Indian rivals. On the contrary, China has argued for years that the main problem affecting Afghanistan’s stability is the India-Pakistan proxy fighting, and that peace in Kashmir is therefore the key to peace in Afghanistan.

The task of defending its interests in Afghanistan after US withdrawal is a truly formidable challenge for Chinese diplomacy. It is inconceivable, though, that the Chinese would enter into the kind of massive US-style military intervention to which the world has grown accustomed in recent years. For China, the Afghan contest will most likely turn out to be a very measured combination of chess and weiqi.

Copyright Project Syndicate

Shlomo Ben Ami is an Israeli former foreign minister who now serves as the vice-president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.

For further information on the topic, please view the following publications from our partners:

China’s Silk Road Strategy in AfPak: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Karzai’s Balancing Act: Bringing China In?

China’s Soft Power in South Asia

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Security Watch and Editorial Plan.

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