China's Strategy in Afghanistan

Beijing is keen to increase its involvement in the country following the planned U.S. withdrawal in 2014. But security problems may interfere.
chinaafghanistan.jpgAn Afghan man rides his bike past a China Merchandise Trade Center in Kabul, Afghanistan.(Musadeq Sadeq/AP)

For a relatively small drilling operation, China National Petroleum Corporation's (CNPC) project in Afghanistan's Sar-e-Pul province has a large footprint. Several layers of fences and containers serving as blast walls surround the extraction site, which includes dormitories, an office complex and various security structures. Throughout the day, trucks ferry in equipment and more containers. On the outside, the faces are all Afghan, but CNPC's logo and bright red Chinese slogans are impossible to miss.

This remote outpost, not far from Afghanistan's northern border with Turkmenistan, may symbolize the country's future after the planned U.S. withdrawal of combat troops next year. As Washington prepares its exit following 13 years in the country, signs that Beijing has steadily stepped up its official and corporate presence across Afghanistan have begun to arise. In September, then Politburo member Zhou Yongkang met with President Hamid Karzai, while lower level diplomats have discussed greater engagement with the Afghan government. China even plans to re-open a branch of the Confucius Institute, an organization devoted to teaching Chinese culture and language, in Kabul.

These efforts are part of a rapid change in Chinese strategy. Until two years ago, Chinese strategists regarded Afghanistan as solely an American concern: Washington broke it, and Washington should have to put it back together. Now, Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are the largest investors in Afghanistan's extractive sector and Afghan officials speak of Chinese investment as central to ensuring that the national government in Kabul will remain in power after 2014. American analysts, for their part, have undergone a similar transition, going from criticizing Chinese companies for riding on the coattails of U.S. security to openly advocating that Beijing take a leadership role in post-withdrawal Afghanistan.

The process has already begun. China's investment in Afghanistan ranges from burgeoning trade associations to the increasing dominance of wireless sector infrastructure by telecom giants Huawei and ZTE to cooperation on heavy industry, with a China-financed steel smelter planned for Kabul.

China's experiences in two strategic projects underscore both the challenges and opportunities Beijing faces in navigating Afghanistan's treacherous security environment. In Aynak, a site located 20 miles south of Kabul, two Chinese SOEs the Metallurgical Company of China (MCC) and the Jiangxi Copper Corporation (JCC) won a contract in 2007 to develop the world's second-largest copper mine and construct a coal-fired power plant and a railroad. Before long, the project's plans to destroy priceless Buddhist relics in the extraction area garnered significant negative press, forcing the SOEs to delay the start date to at least 2014. Ostensibly, the delay gives archaeologists an opportunity to salvage the ruins, but a more likely explanation is that Beijing wants to see how security in the area plays out post-U.S. withdrawal. "We're just useful idiots for the MCC," a French archaeologist working on the project said.

Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West. He co-runs chinaincentralasia.com.

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