Last week, Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, traveled to China for his first state visit abroad. Mr. Ghani’s calculation — that Beijing could offset the decline in American and Western support — creates a long-term strategic conundrum: Can Afghanistan attract Chinese investment and security assistance while avoiding the perils of excessive dependency on Beijing?
Mr. Ghani’s outreach to China is driven by a combination of short-term realities and long-term goals. The Western drawdown comes at a time when the Afghan government is neither fiscally self-sufficient nor capable of defeating the Pakistan-backed Taliban insurgency. In the short term, there is little alternative to international assistance to keep the Afghan state afloat.
In the longer term, however, Afghanistan hopes to leverage two of the country’s assets to achieve genuine stability and self-reliance: its natural resources and its strategic location, wedged as it is between Iran, Pakistan, China and the Central Asian states. The development of Afghan infrastructure could turn the country into a regional land bridge. Afghanistan would enjoy unimpeded access to regional and global markets while collecting transit fees from the region’s commercial activity.
Washington’s long-standing support hasn’t been enough to bring the land bridge concept to fruition. Although the United States has spent $4 billion constructing roads, the project requires far more money and political stability. The Asian Development Bank estimates that an additional $2 billion of investments in roads and transmission lines is required — and even more for pipelines, railways and upgrading regional infrastructure. Yet continuing security challenges are diverting attention and resources from the initiative.
China is perhaps the only power with the incentives, resources and national will to make Afghanistan’s ambitious vision a reality. Beijing has already made sizable investments in Afghan copper and oil — including a $3 billion agreement to develop the Aynak copper mine. China is eyeing Afghan natural gas. Western companies, lacking sufficient state backing from their governments, have proven unwilling or unable to make comparable investments. If Beijing were to invest in the country’s infrastructure, new transit corridors would facilitate Chinese trade westward to Iran and the Middle East, and south to the Gwadar port in Pakistan.
Despite the fact that an Afghan land bridge would give Pakistan access to Central Asian markets and products, American pressure alone has not persuaded Islamabad to abandon its support for militants. Pakistan’s civilian leaders are increasingly open to a settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But the overall lack of progress on reconciliation is saddling the United States with the disproportionately large cost of supporting Afghanistan’s security forces.
Pakistani intransigence has strengthened Afghanistan’s case for engagement with China. Since 2001, China has largely stayed on the sidelines as the United States has assumed the heavy lifting on the counterterrorism front. China has pursued its economic interests in Afghanistan while benefiting from the security provided by the American military presence. At the same time, China has maintained friendly relations with Pakistan and has refused to lean on the Pakistani military to change its ways.
Recently, however, there have been signs that Chinese policy is changing. Beijing has indicated that it opposes the Taliban’s return to power and believes that the Taliban’s participation in the political system should be contingent on its renunciation of violence. China has even offered to mediate discussions between Kabul and the Taliban, a sign that it no longer sees its relations with Afghanistan simply as an extension of its ties to Pakistan. Beijing is also promoting the idea of a regional forum for Afghan reconciliation and favors establishing trilateral meetings between China, Afghanistan and the United States.
The Afghan government has so far welcomed Chinese efforts to promote reconciliation. The Taliban’s reaction, which will be influenced by the outcome of talks between Beijing and Islamabad, remains uncertain. Given that China, unlike America, has earned the Pakistani military’s trust over many decades, Beijing is better positioned to bring about a shift in Pakistani policy.
Security interests have been the most important factor in China’s reassessment. Beijing is belatedly coming to terms with the threat Islamic extremists pose to China’s territorial integrity. Terrorists in China’s restive Xinjiang province are training in Pakistani camps and honing military skills through their experience in Afghanistan. China fears that with the American withdrawal, Afghanistan will become a bigger sanctuary for anti-Chinese extremists. The fact that Chinese separatism is becoming a global Islamist cause has not escaped Beijing’s notice; the Islamic State has already vowed to “liberate” Xinjiang.
Economic and security aid from China is not without risks. Afghan institutions may not be strong enough to ensure that Chinese investors meet their contractual obligation to put Afghans to work, meet international environmental and health standards, and protect heritage sites.
And if America’s relations with China deteriorate, Afghanistan might be forced to make a choice. The threat of becoming dependent on China would be particularly acute if the United States were to disengage from Afghanistan. Indeed, during the early years of the Cold War, Afghanistan benefited from the simultaneous infusion of American and Soviet foreign assistance until Washington made a fateful decision to cede the country to Soviet influence.
These concerns are not an argument against expanding ties with China. But they underscore the geopolitical factors at play. Afghanistan must ensure that closer ties to China don’t come at the expense of its partnership with the West.
Washington will have to play its part by participating in the proposed trilateral forum. But it must avoid the temptation to abandon Afghanistan once again and thereby cede wider regional influence to China.
Zalmay Khalilzad was the United States ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations.