By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He is the author or volume editor of fifteen books and monographs, most recently China’s Post-2014 Role in Afghanistan.
The decision by freshly minted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to make his first overseas trip to China is symbolic. Ghani arrived in Beijing on Tuesday, in a visit that underscores both the extent to which Beijing has the resources to be one of Afghanistan’s critical post-2014 players, and also China’s desire to bring stability to its neighbor. But it’s a relationship that the United States should keep a close eye on moving forward.
Afghanistan’s geopolitical landscape is, of course, being shaped by the U.S. drawdown of combat troops, a move that will place a heavy burden on Afghanistan’s already stretched national security forces. After all, these forces have already faced numerous operational difficulties, and the withdrawal of most U.S. troops is widely seen as opening a door to a resurgent Taliban.
Pakistan, whose meddling has done more to damage Afghanistan than any other single factor, is well positioned to remain the most influential player in Afghanistan. But with China likely to end up as Afghanistan’s second most consequential neighbor, it is worth pausing to think about what is shaping Beijing’s calculations.
First, a fast-growing China undoubtedly wants to exploit the country’s vast and largely untapped supply of raw minerals and natural resources – Afghanistan holds around $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits, including significant quantities of copper, iron, and lithium.
To help make this happen, Beijing has acquired concessions for two major projects, the Aynak copper mine and Amu Darya oil field.
The Aynak project is a somewhat questionable investment. Not only does Afghanistan present a poor environment for mining operations, suffering as it does from a dearth of water, electricity, and roads, but the project has met with opposition over an ancient Buddhist archeological site in the mining area. China’s foray into developing Afghanistan’s oil and gas reserves, in contrast, has been more promising, and Beijing appears to expect that the investment will be a point of entry that will give it access to other nearby natural gas deposits.
But additional resources only tell part of the story of China’s interest in Afghanistan. Another key consideration is Beijing’s desire to prevent Uighur militant groups from finding a safe haven in eastern Afghanistan. After all, Uighur militants carved out a noteworthy presence in Afghanistan during the 1990s, when the Taliban was the dominant force in the country. And while several Uighur groups now operate in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Islamabad is currently applying pressure to them and their sponsors. Beijing is therefore concerned that these groups could relocate to Afghanistan if Pakistani pressure is successful, and indeed is concerned that they may have a heavy presence in Afghanistan even now.
On the surface, the desire by both Washington and Beijing to crack down on militants might appear to bring their interests into alignment. The trouble is that the two countries have taken quite different approaches to tackling militants in the past, and it would therefore be a mistake for the U.S. to believe that China can simply be left to step in and stabilize the country.
For example, while the United States has fought Afghan militants for over a decade, China has preferred to protect its interests through negotiation, expending far less blood and treasure in the process.
And sometimes this approach has worked: After militias affiliated with General Abdul Rashid Dostum disrupted surveyors and engineers at Amu Darya in June 2012, Beijing reportedly struck a deal with Dostum to ensure his men didn’t interfere with the project again. But negotiating with armed groups doesn’t always succeed, and Beijing’s past efforts to convince the Taliban to distance itself from Uighur militants have been largely unsuccessful.
Of course, Beijing’s divergent interests and approach does not mean that China’s growing presence in Afghanistan is necessarily a bad thing for the United States. But Washington must be careful to safeguard its own interests even as new actors move to the fore.
The best way of the United States protecting its interests would be for Washington to cooperate more closely with other neighboring states, such as India, who share similar concerns. And the United States must also ensure that it is in a position to monitor the situation on the ground, and be prepared to act quickly to secure its interests in Afghanistan should the need arise, including through support for proxies and, if necessary, through military force.
After all, one need not look very far away – to the unfolding crisis in Iraq – to see what happens when the U.S. abandons its influence too quickly.