China Becomes A Player In Afghanistan's Future

In search of a solution to Afghanistan's problems, the United States is seeking help from several of Afghanistan's neighbors, including China, which has become a major commercial investor in Afghanistan.

China's border with Afghanistan is only 46 miles long. West of the border is Afghanistan's narrow Wakhan Corridor. It's a sliver of mountainous land that was once part of the ancient trade route known as the Silk Road. The British and Russians drew the Wakhan Corridor on a map at the end of the 19th century to be a buffer zone between British India to the south and Russian Turkestan to the north.

Now, some see its potential once again as a pathway of commerce from China to Central Asia and beyond.

Afghanistan's ambassador to China, Sultan Ahmad Baheen, says his government has asked Beijing to open the narrow Afghan-China border. He says China has pledged to conduct a feasibility study, but nothing has come of it yet.

"If we have this link, for sure the Afghan people benefit from this way. So this is why we propose to the Chinese to build a road, even a railroad from this Wakhan Corridor to Afghanistan," he said in an interview in his office.

China has not yet responded to U.S. requests to use the Wakhan Corridor as an alternate logistics route for troops and supplies moving into Afghanistan. In Beijing last week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said President Obama will raise the issue on his first visit to Beijing next month.

China-Afghan Border

Locator map pointing out the Wakhan Corridor, on the Afghanistan-China border.

"We did extend an invitation for a working group to come and talk about some specifics associated with President Obama's trip, in the hope that we can find areas where China and the United States and other countries involved in Afghanistan can work together," Campbell told reporters.

In the 1970s and 1980s, China cooperated with the U.S. in arming Afghan mujahedeen fighters against occupying Soviet troops.

Now, like the U.S., China would like to rid Afghanistan of al-Qaida, which it accuses of supporting Islamic extremists across the border in China's Xinjiang region.

Some U.S. and Afghan officials have accused Pakistan's intelligence services of aiding Afghan insurgents. China is Pakistan's chief ally and major arms supplier. Baheen said he hopes China can also lean on Pakistan to improve cooperation with Afghanistan.

However, Jin Canrong, an international affairs expert at People's University in Beijing, noted that China is far more ambivalent about the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"China perceives that the Taliban have coalesced with the ethnic Pashtun majority, and therefore hesitates to act against it," he said.

Jin pointed out that while China has helped train Afghan security personnel, it won't send troops to Afghanistan or anywhere without a United Nations mandate. China has sent thousands of peacekeepers to overseas hot spots, but only as logistics and support personnel — never as combat troops.

"As I understand it, China is willing to participate in international cooperation on Afghanistan's reconstruction. But this is limited to cooperation on economic and civil affairs, so at least China can make some investments there," he said.

In 2007, the state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corp. won a bid to develop the Aynak copper mine in Afghanistan's Logar province. It is one of the world's largest copper deposits.

At $3.5 billion, it is the biggest foreign investment in Afghanistan ever. And China has offered to build a power plant and a railroad from China to service the mine, which could nearly triple the investment.

James Yeager, a Colorado-based geologist who has advised the Afghan Ministry of Mining, said private corporations can hardly compete against a bid backed by Beijing.

"Essentially what they're doing is they're providing aid in the form of part and parcel of the bid," he said. "And this is where it becomes uncompetitive for anyone else to bid against them."

Yeager said in a recently released report that the bidding process for Aynak was opaque, and that the Chinese companies are bringing in their own subcontractors, which leaves few jobs for local Afghan firms. He said the U.S. needs to help Afghanistan develop effective policies to make the most of its rich mineral resources.

"What really needs to happen in Afghanistan is jobs," he insisted, "and that's where we're lacking. We've got a lot of military intervention, but we don't have a strong focus on jobs. And in the mining sector, our government is really just clueless."

A common criticism is that while U.S. troops risk their lives in Afghanistan, it is Chinese companies that reap the economic benefits.

The Obama administration has suggested an American "civilian surge" to boost reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, but getting U.S. officials and volunteers to go there has been an uphill battle.

Ultimately, it is up to Afghanistan's government to decide whose help they want. Baheen, the Afghan ambassador in Beijing, said both the U.S. and China have roles to play in his country.

"We believe that Afghanistan should be the ground for cooperation of civilizations, not the competition between the countries," he said. "I think there is room for everyone in Afghanistan."

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