by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
The deadline for U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan is approaching at the end of 2014. But whether American troops leave completely or keep a smaller force, China is expected to play an increasing role in the Afghan economy. The Pentagon will have to live with it – and this might not be a bad thing.
That’s the conclusion of a recent report by the U.S. National Defense University’s Joint Force Quarterly. The authors – Lt. Cmdr. Cindy Hurst of the U.S. Navy Reserve and Col. Robert Mathers, former chief of NATO’s international engagement cell in Afghanistan – say heavy Chinese involvement in Afghanistan’s affairs is unfortunate, but “probably the most likely outcome and could prove to be the easiest solution.”
The report’s fatalism – but with an optimistic note – is interesting coming from a magazine sponsored by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Articles that appear in the magazine are not policy, but they do carry influence within the upper echelons of Pentagon.
Chinese investments in Afghanistan does not top the billions in annual aid from the West, but Beijing is the largest investor in Afghan minerals and natural resources. In 2011, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) made a deal worth up to $300 million with the Afghan government to develop several oil fields in northern Afghanistan.
Less certain is a $3 billion mining deal with the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) for tapping the vast copper deposits at Aynak, which has stalled in recent months as the Chinese economy has slowed. The China Railway Company has also researched a proposed $4 billion railway to connect the Aynak mines with Uzbekistan. All of these deals are on top of numerous trade and economic agreements between Beijing and Kabul.
So why is China so interested in Afghanistan? There’s not much oil, but Afghanistan has huge reserves of minerals – including coveted rare earth minerals that are used in all manners of modern electronics and advanced military technologies. Some estimates have the total value of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth at $1 trillion.
China is also worried about its security. “[China] has its own Islamic insurgency in the western part of the country,” Joint Force Quarterly states. “Continued instability in Afghanistan can only exacerbate those risks. Accordingly, China is keeping a watchful eye on Afghan National Security Force development.”
On Feb. 14, 11 militants armed with explosives were killed in Xinjiang – a recent example of instability. Rebiya Kadeer, the president of the World Uyghur Congress, called the incident an example of “state-sponsored violence used to quell Uyghur dissent.”
One of the greatest concerns following a U.S. withdrawal – if a deal can’t be reached by the end of 2014 – is the potential growth in violence. A study released on Nov. 20 by the Center for Naval Analyses and ordered by Congress warned of exactly this scenario. “History suggests that the Taliban will use sanctuaries in Pakistan to regenerate their capabilities as military pressure on the movement declines,” the report stated, according to the Associated Press.
Afghanistan’s economy is also artificially inflated – bloated by foreign aid and embezzled by powerful (and corrupt) elites. The disappearance of those funds could lead to a political unraveling. But while it’s not an easy place to do business, it could still be attractive China.
China is less interested in ethical issues, and prefers to ignore “other nations’ political and economic realms without concern for corruption or any such unethical business practices as might exist,” Joint Force Quarterly notes.
Beijing will likely prefer to keep its military role in the country to a minimum. China will likewise be limited in its ability to influence local elites solely through economic deals. So far China has made limited moves to include training Afghan special forces officers and “is suspected of agreeing to fund the training and equipping of Afghan National Security Forces personnel responsible for guarding Chinese mining and infrastructure projects.”
Chinese companies are also more willing to work in countries with lower levels of technology and lower profit margins than comparable western companies, the authors add. But there’s still huge caveat. Developing Afghanistan’s natural resources to provide for the means for most people in the country will take decades – if ever.