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.
The security concerns are valid, and are compounded by differences with the Afghan government. Various militant groups have attacked Aynak 19 times in the
past year, sabotaging the projects in an effort to starve the Kabul government of revenue. The government, for its part, has accused MCC and JCC of
reneging on the promise to build a railroad, rather than simply conduct a feasibility study as the two SOEs have claimed. This, coupled with delays for
both companies on projects outside of Afghanistan, has created uncertainty about China's major economic anchor in the central east of Afghanistan. While it
is unlikely that the Chinese SOEs will pull out of the project altogether -- Chinese diplomats are still lobbying heavily for it in Kabul -- their reticence reveals
Beijing's unease with the security question in that part of Afghanistan.
By comparison, CNPC's investments in Afghanistan's northern area have proceeded smoothly. Two years ago, China's largest energy SOE nabbed three lucrative,
if relatively small, oil blocks; Kashkari, Bazarkhami and Zamarudsa, all part of the oil and gas-rich Amu Darya basin. Geologists working on CNPC's massive
projects in southeastern Turkmenistan, part of the same basin, identified the potential across the border and now the oil produced in northern Afghanistan
is shipped by truck to Turkmen refineries.