China ready to play greater role in Afghan geopolitics

Source: Global Times

When China and Afghanistan signed a Friendship and Mutual Non-Aggression Treaty in 1960, they called it “a new Silk Road,” evoking nostalgic memories of a link between the two countries established 2,000 years ago.

After the interim government was formed, Sino-Afghan ties were officially reestablished. This was characterized as friendly relations, but at the same time lacked some important bilateral engagement at the political level.

This continued until the 9/11 attacks on the US, which brought an abrupt severing of links with the Taliban and a quick restoration of its diplomatic links with a Western-backed government. Following then-new Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to Beijing in January 2002, China’s embassy reopened in Kabul and promised $150 million for reconstruction.

However, this is a figure barely commensurate with China’s fast growing geopolitical, geoeconomic and security profile and pales in contrast to that of other regional players including Iran and India. For instance, India’s support for rebuilding and development of Afghanistan actually exceeded $1 billion.

In December 2002, China signed the Kabul Declaration on Good Neighbourly Relations, under which China promised to respect Afghanistan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. China also pledged to support the peace process and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. However, in the next few years, high-level exchanges between Kabul and Beijing have been relatively far and few. The visits appear to have yielded little apart from statements that reiterated the earlier rhetoric of “cooperation, friendliness and resolve to jointly fight terrorism.”

The first signs of a potential re-alignment in Sino-Afghan bilateral relations came from Karzai’s visit to Beijing on March 27, 2010. Karzai’s choice of Beijing for his second overseas visit after his controversial reelection signaled his determination to reduce his dependence on the West.

The Sino-Afghan relationship is arguably an imbalanced one. China has a number of concerns, such as that Afghanistan should not become or provide a safe haven for Uyghur separatists, that drug trafficking from Afghanistan into China is curtailed, that NATO withdraws following the realization of a settlement, that the government in Kabul does not oppose China’s long-time ally Pakistan. China is also unhappy with the presence of US troops in the region.

Yet even if these Chinese interests are precise to Afghanistan, they cannot be separated from the larger and complex Central and South Asian matrix, which to a substantial extent has and will continue to form Beijing’s policies toward Afghanistan.

The Pamir mountain region is home to a number of geopolitically important features. The Wakhan Corridor can be seen on political maps as the eastern “finger” of Afghanistan. The Corridor is often called the Afghan Panhandle and was created by the British in 1895, a progeny of the “Great Game” between Britain and Russia.

The main purpose of the Corridor was to thwart Russian advances toward British India during the “Great Game” and effectively separated British and Russian territory. Named after the Wakhan region of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province, the boundary was marked by the Russian-Afghan Boundary Commission of 1884-86.

Russell Hsaio, in an article published in China Brief 2010 issued by the Jamestown Foundation, discussed China’s increasingly important relationship with Afghanistan through the Wakhan Corridor. The Corridor has huge importance geopolitically and geo-economically, as it allows China to access a treasure trove of mineral deposits, including vast quantities of industrial metals such as lithium, cobalt, copper and iron. With these resources, China has the economic power to control strategic planning in the region.

Geopolitics is the art and practice of using political power over a given territory. Traditionally, the term has applied primarily to the impact of geography on politics, but its usage has evolved over the past century to encompass a wider connotation. In 1904, Halford Mackinder, the father of geopolitics, predicted that “Who rules the heartland commands the World-island; who rules the World-island commands the World.”

Central Asia, the region extending from Iran in the west to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China in the east and from the Russian steppes in the north to Pakistan in the south, is the true heartland of Eurasia in the 21st century.

Afghanistan is the missing link in a unified Eurasian continental trade and transport system. It could be a “New Silk Road” that would enhance prosperity and security for all. Mackinder’s theory was much derided at the time because the heartland of Eurasia was then divided between the imperial powers of the UK and Russia.

A century later, however, Mackinder’s prediction has finally come true in this reborn heartland of Eurasian. It is probably more relevant today than ever, with the gradual decline of US influence and the growing presence of China and India in the region.

The author is advisor to the Ministry of Commerce and Industries of Afghanistan.

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