A longer piece in Survival exploring the question of China’s interests and desires in Afghanistan. It was initially longer, so some detail has been lost, but at the same time I hope it captures the debate that I have encountered in some detail. This is a subject that I am thinking of exploring more and is going to be the first in a number of substantial pieces I have been working on about China while I am in the Middle Kingdom.
Unfortunately, it is behind a firewall, so if you want a copy drop me a note through the contact form and I can help out. In the meantime, here are the first 500 words.
by Raffaello Pantucci
Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, vol. 52, no. 4, August–September 2010, pp. 21–27
The announcement that American forces in Afghanistan would start to draw down by July 2011 highlighted, for China, the need for a conversation about what exactly its interests in its neighbour are, and what it is willing to do about them. Beijing’s primary security concern with Afghanistan is the potential that instability and terrorism might be exported to China’s far-western Xinjiang province, where the ethno-separatist tendencies of the large Uighur Muslim minority have in the past been linked to al-Qaeda militancy. Currently, China is reliant on the United States and NATO to deal with Uighur separatists within Afghanistan, which occurs as a by-product of operations against the Afghan Taliban and related groups. Many Chinese analysts remain unconvinced that NATO will succeed. Most see Afghanistan as the ‘graveyard of Empires’, an assessment they gleefully share with foreign analysts, and which captures a residual sense amongst some Chinese planners who see the United States as an enemy whose losses are advantages to Beijing. Operating from this strategic calculus means that China must be prepared for the eventuality that NATO forces will leave Afghanistan in the control of Taliban or affiliated groups. Beijing has no interest, therefore, in appearing to take sides against the Taliban and finding itself in an awkward bargaining position after an American withdrawal. And beyond Afghanistan, there is the risk that China might be perceived as taking sides in the global conflict between Islam and the West.
China’s interests in Afghanistan extend beyond security considerations. In 2007 China Metallurgical Group won a contract for a 30-year lease on the Aynak copper mine in Logar province, south of Kabul. The site is believed to hold one of the biggest copper deposits in the world; the initial call for tenders cited Afghan and British Geological Survey estimates of some 240 million tonnes. The initial expectation in the press was that the sale would raise some $1.8 billion, but the Chinese offered almost $3bn, as well as to build a 400MW coal-fired power plant and other infrastructure which would supply both the mine and nearby villages. The total cost of the project to the Chinese firm has since been estimated to be as high as $4.4bn.
Aynak is likely to be the first in a number of large mining concessions offered in Afghanistan. Next is a 2bn-tonne iron mine in Bamiyan province northwest of Kabul, for which a Chinese firm, a Saudi firm and five Indian firms had bid (the call was extended for unspecified reasons). In an attempt to map Afghanistan’s natural wealth, the government commissioned the US Geological Survey to conduct a $17m survey of the nation. According to reports ahead of publication, the country is sitting on some $1 trillion in mineral and petroleum reserves.
However, it is through Xinjiang (literally ‘New Frontier’) that China’s interests in Afghanistan must be primarily understood. The province holds many of China’s natural resources and provides a gateway to access further resources from Central Asia and Russia. Some two-fifths of China’s coal is …
Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS), where he is currently based as part of the EU STF China Programme, and a former Consulting Research Associate at the IISS.