China and the Afghan endgame
An Afghan farmer harvests wheat, near the ruins of the ancient budha statues that once stood on July 30, 2010 in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan. (Getty Images)
August 1st, 2011
09:00 AM ET

China and the Afghan endgame

Editor's Note: Zhu Feng is Deputy Director of the Center for International & Strategic Studies, Peking University.  For more from Zhu Feng, visit Project Syndicate or follow it on Facebook and Twitter.

By Zhu Feng, Project Syndicate

BEIJING – Ever since U.S. President Barack Obama decided to begin withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, global interest in what role (if any) China will play in determining that war-ravaged country’s future has grown dramatically. After all, China is not merely a neighbor of Afghanistan, but the world’s most important rising power – indeed, a “world power,” as Mike Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff proclaimed in Beijing this past June.

If China proves itself willing to help shore up Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration, it will not seek to gain any immediate advantage from the withdrawal of U.S. forces. But, despite the billions of dollars China has invested in developing Afghanistan’s natural resources, it is hard to see it undertaking a policy of broader and proactive engagement there.

One reason why China is wary of assuming a bigger role in Afghanistan, despite the country’s undoubted importance for regional stability, is that America’s war there has been controversial in China from the outset. Chinese nationalists believe that the war was undertaken by the U.S. partly in order to place its military near one of China’s most sensitive borders. Moreover, to supply its Afghan forces, the U.S. deepened its military footprint in Central Asia by renting the Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, which also shares a border with China.

In the eyes of Chinese nationalists, these efforts were all the part of an American conspiracy to encircle China. Thus, Chinese nationalists can’t wait to see the back of America’s Afghan military presence.

For Chinese strategic realists, any support for America’s efforts to help end the Afghan insurgency should be part of a broader China-U.S. bargain. China might agree not to undermine America as it withdraws only if the U.S. agrees to rethink its arms sales to Taiwan, or to pull back from its commitment to support Japan’s claims to the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, the ownership of which China disputes. Obviously, such deals will be unwelcome in the U.S.

Given that neither Chinese foreign-policy camp believes that it will get what it wants out of cooperating with the U.S., both simply want America’s withdrawal to happen as soon as possible, without concern for what Afghanistan will look like afterwards. For both camps, only great-power politics matters for China’s national security, and if diplomacy cannot influence the balance of power, there is little reason to engage with an issue.

For Chinese liberals, Afghanistan is fraught with ethnic threats. By recklessly denying China’s request to extradite Uighur extremists to China for trial, the U.S. showed scant regard for an issue of paramount importance – the threat posed to China’s hard-won unity by separatists. Muslim Uighurs from Xinjiang province were captured in Taliban training campus and jailed at Guantánamo Bay with other international terrorists from 2002 through 2009. China thought their extradition necessary to undercutting international sympathy for Uighur independence seekers. But the U.S. worried about the potential for human-rights abuses in China and rejected the Uighurs’ extradition.

Indeed, former President George W. Bush welcomed Rebiya Kadeer, a leader of the exiled Uighur independence movement, to the White House, embittering many Chinese. And given that the Uighur bastion of Xinjiang is close to China’s borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. was unwise to raise Chinese hackles in this way.

Of course, a stable, orderly, and secular Afghanistan serves China’s interests as much as it benefits the rest of the world. Yet few Chinese are willing to confess that the U.S.-led Afghanistan war, which removed the Taliban and Al Qaeda from their dominant roles in the country, improved China’s domestic security. That refusal is clearly the result of the “structural” ambivalence that now exists between the U.S. and China.

The extent to which China will engage Afghanistan positively will depend in large part on whether China rids itself of the prevailing zero-sum mindset and facilitates America’s military withdrawal by doing what it can to stabilize the country.

China can help by stiffening the resolve of Pakistan’s military to move more aggressively to contain Taliban extremists on its territory; open border regions to help resupply NATO forces in Afghanistan; and invest in the country’s infrastructure. Indeed, China’s relations with Pakistan have assumed greater importance recently, owing to the tensions that now exist between Pakistan and the U.S.

The Obama administration’s challenge nowadays is to calibrate its recent suspension of some military aid to Pakistan in order to maximize its leverage without pushing the government even closer to the extremists. By working with the U.S. on Pakistan, China can help secure its own interest in a strong Pakistani campaign against the militants on its territory. Regardless of the Bush-era disputes with the U.S. over the Uighur prisoners at Guantánamo, China is in a better position to tell its “all-weather” friends in Islamabad that stabilizing Afghanistan is not only an American objective, but a significant Chinese goal as well.

China’s cooperation may not be essential to defeating Al Qaeda and other militants in Afghanistan, but it will be if lasting peace and stability is to be realized. Chinese and U.S. interests in Afghanistan are unlikely ever to be perfectly aligned, but the two sides can and must learn to cooperate for their own benefit, and that of the region. The challenge for China is to exert its power and influence in a way that harmonizes with the U.S., despite widespread displeasure among Chinese at America’s position on a variety of issues, from Taiwan to the East and South China seas.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Zhu Feng. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.


soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Brilliant idea! As the military budget in Afghanistan is under scrutiny, the U.S. should get China on board, before it leaves Afghanistan. Indeed China will benefit from a stable Afghanistan and as it is on good terms with Pakistan, the two will be good police in the region.

    August 1, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Reply
  2. so be it

    Of cause China can help U.S. in many many ways, but for the cooperation to take place, what will U.S. do in return of the favor? After all, one must receive benefits for one's hard work.

    August 1, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Reply
  3. Simon

    Rebiya Kadeer spoke to Reuters that she does not blame the terrorist attacks in Xinjiang over the weekend which left 20 people dead. Innocent people have died. The terrorists were Al Qaeda trained terrorists. Most of the dead were Uighurs. Kadeer actually came out and supported these terrorists so what does that tells you about her? Kadeer is seen as a leader of Uighur seperatism by both Beijing and Washington and she put herself as a seperatist speaker and by supporting the attacks against innocent people and its own people she is effectly a leader of a terrorist group and lose all legitimacy. Anyone in Washington and elsewhere who support Kadeer and her terror campaign is a supporter of terrorism and effectively putting US and Nato soldiers and civilian lives at risk.

    August 2, 2011 at 1:22 am | Reply
  4. Amrullah Yousafzai in Mingora,Swat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (NWFP)

    The Chinese are no match to the superior black dravidian hanuman-faced bhaRATi ramrams!

    As they have the greatest drinking the world, GAU JAL, which the Chinese will never have in a million years.

    Look here at the bhaRATis working at the state of the art gau jal collection facility.....

    JAI HIND!

    August 2, 2011 at 6:14 am | Reply
  5. Amrullah Yousafzai in Mingora,Swat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (NWFP)

    YOU YANKS ARE STUPID thinking you will win the war by invading occupying and killing civilians as you are creating more and more enemies everyday which will come back to bite you sooner or later.

    I HAVE THE SOLUTION TO THE AFGHAN WAR!

    ALL AFGHAN GIRLS SHOULD BE LIKE THIS PAKI SWATI GIRL....

    THE WAR WOULD BE OVER TOMORROW IF THEY COULD ALL BE LIKE HER!

    August 2, 2011 at 6:25 am | Reply

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