On Sept. 23, a top Chinese security official and Politburo member, Zhou Yongkang, made a surprise four-hour visit to Kabul during which time he reportedly met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. This was the first high-level visit by a Chinese official to Afghanistan in half a century — a clear signal of a policy shift on Beijing’s part and probably the harbinger of further engagement to come.
Until now, China’s approach to its Eurasian neighbors, including Afghanistan, has been “soft,” primarily based on investment, infrastructure projects, promoting Chinese language and the multilateral body of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Beijing has stayed away from difficult political issues — so much so that U.S. diplomats have actively courted China to become more involved in ensuring Afghanistan’s stability after the 2014 withdrawal of Western combat forces. The accusation against the Chinese government and Chinese state-owned enterprises has been that by investing in Afghan natural resources such as copper and oil, they are reaping the benefits of American efforts without expending any political capital. As the 2014 deadline approaches, however, this is quickly changing.
Mr. Zhou’s visit was presaged by two important events. In June, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Beijing, Mr. Karzai and Chinese outgoing President Hu Jintao agreed to “upgrade” their countries’ relations to a “strategic partnership.” Much of the summit’s discussions centered around the future of Afghanistan. Chinese officials beseeched the organization’s independently minded Central Asian members, including Russia, to coordinate their disparate policies toward the stability and development of their volatile southern neighbor.
That China’s focus would begin to incorporate security concerns as well as economic investment was made clear by Guo Boxiong, vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission, when he met in July with Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak. Mr. Guo publicly called for enhanced military ties, including regular communication and cooperation between the security forces of both countries.
Through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China organizes military exercises known as “peace missions,” which it undertakes together with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. These are the only security maneuvers that Tashkent endorses in the region, to the detriment of Russia's Collective Security Treaty Organization. The organization also funds the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure center in Tashkent. The center coordinates information-sharing on security threats among the member states. On a recent visit there, we were told that the center maintains a database of undesirables to be extradited to various member states. This is one of the ways that China deals with its perceived threat from Uighur separatists, seeking to destabilize its far western province of Xinjiang. It will also be a useful tool for tracking potential spillover threats from Afghanistan should the situation there become more volatile in the coming years. Afghan security structures may well be asked to contribute to the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure in the future.
On the ground in the country, China is already involved in low-profile training of Afghan diplomats and security officials. So far, this has not amounted to much. The number trained have been in the dozens, but Chinese officials have coordinated their efforts with U.S. diplomats. Together with China’s overall policy of development to achieve stability — Chinese state-owned enterprises purportedly plan for not just resource extraction, but road, rail and power plant projects in Afghanistan — this could be a sign of Beijing taking the responsibility U.S. officials have been asking for.
More likely, however, it is Beijing’s effort to make sure that future instability in Afghanistan does not affect restive Xinjiang. Although it could provide a strategic thoroughfare for Chinese goods, the 46-mile border between China and Afghanistan remains tightly shut by a major military presence on the Chinese side. When we visited the Chinese side of the border earlier this year, we were told that local shepherds and camel herders have been deputized by the government to report suspicious activity.
In a discussion we held at an official Beijing think tank last year, we described Afghanistan as a broken tea pot. The Chinese might claim the United States broke it, but the teapot is nonetheless on China’s table. The response we received from a set of former Chinese diplomats and security personnel was incredulity. After some debate, however, they accepted the analogy. It seems that Beijing has come to realize it may want to put the teapot back together again, but mainly to ensure that the mess does not spread across its table.
Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Alexandros Petersen is author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West.