Afghanistan: US withdrawal and China’s involvement

IITM CSC Article #28
12 June 2012


Afghanistan: US withdrawal and China’s involvement

As United States starts preparing to pull out of Afghanistan, the People’s Republic of China has initiated diplomatic engagements to occupy the vacuum to be left by Washington. Till recently, China was keeping a low profile in the South Asian region, especially in security affairs. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, held at Beijing in June 2012, focused on the economic and cultural cooperation between China and Afghanistan. China’s expansion into Afghanistan’s security domain will redefine China’s role in South Asia. 

 Afghanistan is in the midst of a region with powerful players like, Pakistan, Iran, India and Russia. These powers eye the possible new avenues opening for them, due to the United States decision to complete its withdrawal by 2014.  Though the US forces have claimed a full withdrawal, both the direct and indirect, influence of the US over Afghanistan is likely to continue.  Their demands for US’ withdrawal do not diminish Kabul’s confidence in US led reconstruction and peace process.  Therefore, while the US military presence in the region might be on the decline, for any other regional power to actually begin the process of replacing the US role in Afghanistan goes beyond addressing only the security aspects of the relationship. More importantly, the US, being geographically distant from Afghanistan, did not have to contend with the complex management of bilateral relations that faces India, Pakistan, China and Iran.

India, US and China have conflicting interests in Afghanistan. China’s quest to play a more active role in Afghanistan depends on the sensitivities of the neighbouring states too. Given China’s “all weather” alliance with Pakistan and Islamabad’s complex involvement in Afghanistan, managing the dynamics of the region itself is a challenge for China.

 According to Afghanistan’s foreign ministry, the existing, solid relationship between Afghanistan and China has been elevated to a strategic level. The “strategic level” partnership has not been defined, and prioritized, though it envisages China’s increased role in the security arena to be one of providing financial aid to training the Afghan security forces.

China has raised concerns about US’s increased interest in Iran. Some Chinese officials have noticed, and been critical of the US shift in military strategy towards Asia and the US has acknowledged the conflict of interest with China, over Afghanistan.  Nevertheless, both Washington and Beijing have accepted that they have to define their space in South and Central Asia without containing each other.

After the US, the biggest concern for China in Afghanistan would be India’s enormous presence in the area and also the confidence that India continues to enjoy not only from the power elites but also from the ordinary people of Afghanistan.  India has major infrastructure investments in Afghanistan. Similarly, China has also invested in Afghanistan’s mineral sector, committing billions of dollars to develop iron ore deposits, as well as building other infrastructural projects.

 As India is expanding its role in the region from economic to military sectors, this can raise tensions between India and Pakistan. India- Pakistan’s conflict of interests are the biggest challenge that China has to tackle in Afghanistan in the days to come. Afghans might perceive it to be more profitable to look towards China rather than India, as Beijing has the capacity to influence Pakistan and thereby lead to reconciliation with the Taliban. In February 2012, China hosted a trilateral dialogue involving officials from Pakistan and Afghanistan to discuss efforts to seek reconciliation with the Taliban. It was the first time Beijing was involved directly and openly in the efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

Today, Afghanistan poses the biggest challenge to China’s efforts in achieving the confidence of its Asian neighbours. The Chinese efforts to engage with the Taliban clique, for a possible peace establishment in Afghanistan, will have its repercussions in Xinjiang, the Muslim borderland of China.

China has adopted a cautious approach in its relations with the Islamic countries, especially since the events of 9/11. China’s engagement with the Islamic world is carefully crafted in order to tackle the domestic tensions and to frame a broad policy, which includes a significant involvement in the economic sector.

Afghanistan will be a test case for China and the Afghan experience will enable the Chinese to launch a new mode of multilateral engagement with the South and Central Asian region.  This could have far reaching implications, for both the form and content, of Chinese involvement in the region in the decades to come. It is a situation that bears close watching in New Delhi, as it has an impact on its relations with two of its more important, as well as adversarial neighbours.


R Veena,
Research Scholar, IITM
Friday, October 16, 2015 - 15:30
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