China eyes ‘reconnecting’ Afghanistan as Pentagon orders up 4,000 more troops

Major security concerns continue to hamper plans for large-scale Chinese investment and reconstruction in the ravaged country

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 June, 2017, 9:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 June, 2017, 11:15pm

While China has stepped up its effort to integrate Afghanistan in its ambitious globalisation strategy, security risks remain a blockade for large-scale Chinese investment and reconstruction in the war-torn country.

That was the key message on Thursday at a Beijing conference in which China’s government researchers met delegates from other countries for a discussion under the theme of “Afghanistan Reconnected”.

The meeting – the first large semi-official parley specifically on Afghanistan and Beijing’s trade plan, dubbed the “Belt and Road Initiative” – was held as China tiptoes around the question of how to carry out trade and investment in the country while the US is still fighting its longest war there.

A Trump administration official on Thursday said the Pentagon would send nearly 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in an effort to improve the situation, in the biggest overseas military force deployment under Donald Trump as the US president.

Afghanistan is located not only strategically on the Silk Road, but also is close to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the US$50 billion flagship plan in Beijing’s massive economic diplomacy play.

At the same time, China is still not ready to deploy a security presence, or even a military one, in Afghanistan, which has gained historical notoriety as a graveyard of great powers. Britain, the former Soviet Union and the US all have suffered from staging military interventions in the country.

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“If the way and connectivity through Afghanistan is not open, it would be like an important vein being blocked on the belt and road, which leads to many diseases to this organ,” said Sun Yuxi, the first Chinese ambassador to Kabul after the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001.

Deteriorating security in the region also has deterred China’s involvement in the local economy.

Only two weeks ago, a suicide truck bomb in the capital of Kabul killed more than 150 people and injured more than 400, in one of the deadliest Afghanistan attacks since 2001. And last week, two Chinese citizens kidnapped in May reportedly were killed by Islamic State in Pakistan near the Afghan border.

Wang Xin, the deputy director of the Beijing-based Centre for China & Globalisation think tank, said there was potential for China to play a big role in Afghanistan’s reconstruction because Central Asia needed infrastructure and help developing its mining industry – fields in which China is known to excel.

It was “utterly inadequate” to develop Afghanistan by just providing humanitarian aid, Wang added.

China has tried to invest in Afghanistan. Notably, a state-owned Chinese company had a 2008 deal to develop a huge copper mine there. However, what would have been the biggest foreign investment project in Afghanistan turned out to be a big disappointment, partly due to inadequate security provisions derailing mining plans.

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China had launched a freight train service directly to a station on the Afghanistan border last year, a 13-day journey via Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. But the trade flow is considered too thin to merit a regular service.

Ramazan Jumazada, a member of the Afghan parliament, said on the sidelines of the conference that the Afghan side had great expectations of attracting Chinese investment to its energy and mining sectors.

“China has recently stepped in, and the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ is an opportunity for us both,” he said.

But even for a country like China that is keen to do business the perils of working in Afghanistan are hard to ignore. In 2004, 11 Chinese workers were killed and five injured in a shooting, and Chinese workers and engineers were kidnapped, although later released, in 2008 and 2010. In the deadly Kabul bombing two weeks ago, the Chinese embassy building was partly damaged.

Beijing also desires stability in Afghanistan because the country neighbours Xinjiang. Members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, an ethnic Uygur separatist group from Xinjiang, are known to flee China and take shelter in Afghanistan.

In 2011, before China unveiled its Silk Road plan, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US would sponsor a New Silk Road to integrate Afghanistan with its neighbours as a way to rebuild the country. Unfortunately, Clinton’s grand plan went nowhere.

China’s trade push is expected to have a bigger impact. The plan could “make an enormous change in the way countries in the region see one another”, said Cameron Munter, a former US ambassador to Pakistan and now the president and CEO of the EastWest Institute think tank.

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Janan Mosazai, Afghanistan’s ambassador to China, promised better cooperation on security to counter terrorism. He said the two countries have taken “concrete steps to strengthen and deepen security and counterterrorism cooperation” at both the bilateral and regional levels.

“Afghanistan and China are fully on the same page in terms of confronting and eliminating terrorism without hesitation,” Mosazai said. “The terrorist enemies of China, either the so-called East Turkistan Islamic Movement, or other terrorist groups, are also the enemies of the Afghan state.”

Sun, the former Chinese ambassador, said China would like to provide all possible help to expedite the peace process and ensure stability, adding he believed economic development could reduce poverty, the breeding ground of terrorism.

“But we would never send a military force to Afghanistan,” he said.