How China is seen in Afghanistan

Posted: July 5, 2013 in Oriental Morning Post
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Am finally catching up on some late posting, this is a piece from a few weeks ago when I was in Kabul about how China is perceived there. It was initially published in  东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post) and I have put the English at the top and the Chinese it was published in below.

Kabul – China’s optics in Afghanistan are not good. After a week of travelling around talking to Afghans and others in Kabul, the general consensus is that China is doing little to contribute on the ground. In fact, the perception remains that China is doing little than trying to draw profit from Afghanistan’s abundant natural resources while giving little in return.

Central to Afghan concerns are the activities of MCC and Jiangxi Copper at Mes Aynak. One of the world’s largest copper mines, back in 2007 the Chinese state owned companies paid somewhere in the region of $3 to $4 billion (depending on whose figures you believe) to acquire the mine. Since then, very little has actually happened. Security on the site, an archeological dig of great historical importance on top of the site, company problems back home and elsewhere and difficulties with the Afghan authorities have all meant that the project has not started in any meaningful way.

In fact, currently the discussion seems focused around the fact that the Chinese firm is trying to renegotiate its contract for the site. The perception from officials, media and the public spoken to is that this is something that the Chinese side is doing specifically to drive a harder bargain and alter the parameters of an already agreed deal. Something that infuriates Afghans as it means that a project they are eager to get started as it might provide some economic benefit to the country is not moving forwards. The possible jobs that the project would provide are believed to be one way of helping develop the province and maybe quell some of the tensions underlying the insurgency. The longer it does not start, the longer it will take for these benefits to be felt.

On the other side of the equation, there is acknowledgement that MCC and Jiangxi Copper’s concerns are valid. The area is dangerous and the historical site above the mine requires some care. Additionally, Afghanistan is still working on resolving and passing its new mining legislation, something that understandably makes foreign companies hesitant to invest in the country.

But whatever the reality of these concerns, the truth is that this is not the message that has gotten down to most Afghans. All they see is a large foreign company sitting on one of their prime assets without any sense that it is going to develop it any time soon. This angers people and is only one of a number of negative images China has in the country. Aside from having a low visible public diplomacy presence, China’s contribution to Afghanistan’s security (300 police trained after Zhou Yongkang’s visit last year) is low and there is a strong sense that China prefers perennial enemy Pakistan to Afghanistan. China’s soft power in Afghanistan is in a very low state.

China has a difficult hand to play in Afghanistan. On the one hand, as a wealthy neighbor with influence over Pakistan and positive links to the Taliban it is perceived as being the one holding one of the best hands in the region. But at the same time, the realities on the ground mean China is wary of getting too involved in a situation that has historically proved very difficult to mend. But the current approach of waiting and seeing is having a deeply counter-productive result. Not only is it engendering anger amongst the Afghan population, but it is furthermore helping render a situation in Pakistan that is dangerously escalating out of control even worse. More instability in Afghanistan is only going to make Pakistan more dangerous.

A quick fix solution to this is difficult to see. But some ideas exist that could help raise China’s profile. The initial security contribution offered by Zhou Yongkang should be developed further – more police should be trained and China should offer to help foot the costs of maintaining the Afghan security forces post-2014. Focusing this money towards specific areas where China’s companies have made investments would be a way to link this money to specific Chinese interests. Secondly, China should undertake a soft power push into Afghanistan. Other rising Asian giant India provides somewhere in the region of 2,000 scholarships a year to Afghan students to come to India – China provides far fewer. Increasing this number is an easy way to start to develop a new cadre of young Afghans with a stronger feeling towards China. And finally, China’s companies that are invested in Afghanistan should do more to help develop the nations infrastructure. Chinese companies are amongst the best in the world at doing such work in difficult environments – they should deploy this ability into the Afghan context.

China has long played the waiting game with Afghanistan. The time has come to step forwards and develop a more coherent, sustainable and holistic approach to find some resolution in Afghanistan. Helping solve the country’s problems will not only be of benefit to the region and world, but it will directly help China’s development of its own western provinces. A win-win if ever there was one.

中国需要一个更清晰的阿富汗政策

潘睿凡

特约撰稿人

经过长达一周的旅行和交流,接受我们访谈的阿富汗人和在喀布尔的外国人一致认为中国在阿富汗问题上可以做得更多。

阿富汗人最关心的是中冶集团(MCC)和江西铜业共同投资的艾娜克(Mes Aynak)铜矿项目。作为世界上已探明的最大铜矿之一,艾娜克铜矿早在2007年就得到了中标的上述两家中国国有企业30亿到40亿美元的投入。不过,阿富汗糟糕的安全形势、艾娜克矿区重大的考古发现、投资者自身的举棋不定以及与阿富汗当局的微妙关系都表明短期内项目仍不可能建成投产。

事实上,当前阿富汗人议论的焦点是中国企业正在试图就合同问题与阿方重新谈判。来自喀布尔官方、媒体和公众的印象是,中国企业正在争取更有利的谈判地位,并试图改变业已达成的合同内容。让一些阿富汗人感到不爽的是,这意味着这个他们热切希望推进的能给阿富汗带来经济收益的项目正处于停滞状态。这个项目本来可以为当地人提供就业岗位,从而有助于发展当地的经济,并缓和那些可能诱发冲突的紧张关系。项目拖延的时间越长,当地等待收益的时间就越久。

但另一方面,中冶集团和江西铜业的关切也有其合理性。艾娜克铜矿所在的地区动荡不安,矿区的考古发掘也需要时间。此外,阿富汗至今没有完成新的矿业立法,这不能不让外国企业在阿富汗投资时有所顾虑。

然而,无论中国投资者有怎样的苦衷,真相是大部分阿富汗人并不了解这些信息。他们所看到的是一个大型外国企业占据着他们最重要的资产之一,却迟迟不见开发的迹象。其他原因包括中国在阿富汗的公共外交较少、中国对阿富汗安全的援助仍可以更多,以及中国更青睐巴基斯坦等。总而言之,中国在阿富汗的软实力仍有待提高。

在阿富汗问题上,中国有自己的困境。一方面,作为一个有影响力的富有的邻国,中国被认为是对地区影响力最大的国家之一。但与此同时,中国又不太愿意深度介入这个在历史上就被证明是个难以收拾的烂摊子的地区。

要马上一揽子解决这些问题是不现实的。但有一些理念可能有助于改善中国在阿富汗的形象。中国对阿富汗的安全援助应该得到继续和深化——中国不妨帮助阿富汗培训更多的警察,并且为2014年北约撤军后的阿富汗安全部队提供资金支持。将资金投向中国企业投资的地区将会更好地服务中国的利益。其次,中国不妨在阿富汗施展自己的软实力。另一个崛起中的亚洲大国印度提供了每年2000个奖学金名额以资助阿富汗学生来印度学习,在这方面目前中国还有差距。增加给阿富汗的奖学金名额是培养对中国有好感的阿富汗年轻精英的最便捷的方法。最后,在阿富汗投资的中国企业应该为发展当地的基础设施作出更大的贡献。中国企业最擅长在恶劣条件下建设基础设施,阿富汗也应当成为他们的用武之地。

长期以来,中国在阿富汗问题上奉行的是观望政策。然而,现在已经到了有所作为的时刻。中国需要一个更清晰、更可持续和更全面的阿富汗政策。帮助阿富汗解决它的问题不仅有益于地区和世界,也对中国西部地区的发展有直接的帮助。这是一个双赢的选项。

胡勇 译

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