China in the Af-Pak Region
Debasish Chaudhuri

There have been lot of conjectures and apprehensions regarding the role China would play in Afghanistan since Obama in his New Afghan Policy proposed July 2011 as a dateline for commencing the withdrawal of American troops, eventually leading to a complete withdrawal of the US and NATO forces from the country by 2014. As time approaches the proposed dateline, Pakistan, America’s ‘strategic ally’ in its war against terrorism has become enthusiastic in dragging its ‘all weather friend’ China to become its accomplice to determine the future course in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Osama bin-Laden’s death near Islamabad in a US led operation and subsequent criticism of Pakistan followed by China’s overt support in the face of global public opinion against the former appears to have augmented an already cosy relationship between the two countries. Moreover, Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s just conclude visit to Beijing from May 17 to 20 created further speculations that China would gradually penetrate to fill the strategic void in the Af-Pak region following the drawdown of the US troops.

In this regard Gilani’s day-long visit to Kabul on 16 April with an entourage comprising ISI Chief Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha and General Kayani is worth noting. During the visit Pakistan leaders conveyed to Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the time has come for Pakistan and Afghanistan to take ‘ownership’ of their own affairs. This is the first time leaders of the two countries jointly expressed their anti-US sentiments. During his trip to Kabul, Prime Minister Gilani also tried to convey the world that Pakistan and Afghanistan were mature and responsible enough to deal with their problems related to internal politics and terrorism.

Ironically, within a fortnight Pakistan’s intensions in curbing terrorism was being seriously questioned when Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin-Laden was killed at the hands of the US Navy SEALs in a well protected compound in Abbotobad, a city where Pakistan Military Academy is situated. There have been instances of China supporting Pakistan in international platforms, but this is the first time that China made efforts to dispel the global suspicion about Pakistan’s role in sheltering Osama. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson profusely exalted the contribution of Pakistan as a fore-runner in the world-wide struggle against terrorism and expressed concern over anti-terror operations by third country within Pakistan territory.1

What role China would play in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of western forces largely depends on its perception of 9/11 incident and subsequent global war against terrorism. China happily witnessed how a decade long war against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq consumed US energies. And this also created opportunities for China to consolidate its position as a robust economic power which helped establishing its rightful place in the global politics. China, though positively responded to America’s call for participation in the world wide war against terrorism, all along maintained that international terrorism is rooted in unjust international political and economic order largely dominated by hegemonic US unilateralism.2 By keeping distance from US led anti-terror operations, China has been trying to acquire the ‘image of a separate centre of global politics and values’. China’s future role in Afghanistan can be understood with careful observations into the dynamics of Chinese foreign policy that strives to balance between maintaining difference with the West on most of the international issues and cautious deference to allay concerns regarding China threat.3

China has largely kept itself aloof from factional politics in this ethnically divided country since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Many scholars claim that China had provided logistic support, training and other assistance to the Afghan Mujaheedin during the Soviet occupation. Some experts on Xinjiang politics point out that the violent separatist activities in China’s Uyghur dominated Xinjiang region in the early 1990s was a backlash of its Afghanistan policy in the 1980s. Though China denies any involvement in Afghanistan’s internal politics, it is widely believed that in order to dissuade trans-national Muslim terrorist groups to support Uyghur cause, China even developed clandestine cooperation with Taliban regime in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001.

Devastating terrorist attacks in the USA on September 11, 2001 and subsequent US led anti-terror war created favourable international atmosphere for China to crush separatist movement in Xinjiang. China conceded to the former President George W. Bush’s call for participating in the war against terrorism, however, it was never comfortable with the US presence in Afghanistan and considered it to be a threat to its strategic interest. Therefore, the pull-out of American army is an opportunity of China to regain what it perceives as its strategic space in the neighbouring Afghanistan. China is much insulated now than ten years back from trans-national terrorist forces of the Islamic world mainly because it long subdued Muslim separatist groups in Xinjiang. Through bilateral and multilateral diplomatic endeavour China ensured that none of its Muslim neighbours including Pakistan would venture to export terrorism in its territory.

China’s strategic interest in Afghanistan is mainly of economic nature. So far China restricted its activities in the area of Afghanistan’s resource industries, mainly copper mining in the Aynak copper field which contains about 20 million tons of copper with a value estimated to be about $30 billion. In 2007 China was awarded the Aynak copper mine development project in a bid with an offer of $3.5 billion investment. This included other sub-projects like construction of railroad from north Afghanistan to Torkham border, electric power plant from coal to generate up to 400 megawatt of electricity for mining as well as public distribution and exploitation of phosphor resources to produce fertilizer. Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei in collaboration with the Afghan Ministry of Communications are currently engaged in installing digital telephone switches and providing around 200,000 subscriber lines. In addition, China has also taken part in the Parwan irrigation project, restoring water supply in Parwar province, as well as reconstruction of the public hospitals in Kabul and Kandahar. The EU also hires Chinese firms for various construction projects in Afghanistan, including road restoration activities.4

Afghanistan’s unexplored natural resources like oil and natural gas, iron ore and gold reserves will lure more Chinese companies to invest in this country. Since China is not politically engaged in Afghanistan, it is easier for the Chinese companies to carry out economic activities in this country. Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasoul’s visit to Beijing in the second week of May is an indication that Afghanistan is more interested in developing a deeper economic cooperation with China. During Rasoul’s visit, Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi expressed satisfaction over Afghan’s support in issues related to China’s core interest and assured his counterpart that China would continue to assist Afghanistan in safeguarding its national independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. The Chinese Foreign Ministry reaffirmed its support for the Afghan government as it struggles to end instability and crushing poverty.5

Sino-Afghan economic relations, along with investment and trade, also have a foreign aid component to it. These three components are not distinct in case of China and its aid programs are claimed to be mutually beneficial and recipient countries are free from any conditional donor-recipient relationship. Moreover, China usually avoids giving aid in cash and prefers to have quasi-barter system, for example, lending in the form of infrastructure development and receiving in terms commodities and natural resources. The construction projects also do not generate much opportunity for the local population as Chinese companies employ large number of skilled Chinese workers. In addition recipient countries enter into an arrangement of repaying in commodity whose production and marketing is facilitated by infrastructure projects itself.6 In context to Afghanistan, firstly China has not contributed towards developing stable institutions in Afghanistan so far and it does not have any plan for the reconstruction of this war ravaged country either. Secondly, development of mining industry by the Chinese companies will not help elevating poverty in this country.

Intimacy between China and Pakistan has mainly regional ramifications directed against their common rival India, whereas anti-terror war in Afghanistan is a global concern involving many international players. China neither has the intensions nor military and financial resources to substitute the Western powers in the Af-Pak region. As China is very much in a position to safeguard its economic interest in Afghanistan, it does not have any reasons to be a party to Pakistan’s plans in the country even for the sake of eternal friendship.

China’s relations with Pakistan resemble traditional vassal relations. The metaphors Pakistan leaders use frequently these days to describe friendship with the middle kingdom are of Chinese origin. It is as if colonial subjects have learnt to speak the language of the colonizers. Having enjoyed unconditional allegiance from Pakistan leaders, China is not obliged to respond to their every whim. Deep rooted hatred towards India among Pakistan establishment and growing anti-American sentiment of ordinary people are the most valued assets for China. And it also knows the historical role Pakistan is supposed to play.

China was not much concerned so long the US and its Western allies were preoccupied in carrying out combat operations against archrival Osama bin-Laden and his proto-types in awkward fashion in Afghanistan. But it is from 2008 that Beijing began to feel the challenge since war in Afghanistan spilled increasingly into Pakistan. This is why China had to come out openly to support its most valued friend in the Muslim world after Osama’s death. It appears from the reports on Prime Minister Gilani’s visit to China last week that he made this trip especially to extend gratitude to the communist leaders in Beijing.


  1. 中国外交部就本.拉登被击毙等答记者问(全文) http://news.163.com/11/0503/18/735BQQ9D00014JB6.html Also see 巴基斯坦驻华大使感谢中国肯定巴在反恐中的贡献 http://news.xinhuanet.com/mil/2011-05/10/c_121400775.htm
  2. Rex Li, “A rising power with global aspirations – China”, Mary Buckley and Rich Fawn, Eds., Global Responses to Terrorism 9/11, Afghanistan and beyond, London and New York, Routledge, 2003, pp. 210-13.
  3. Gilbert Rozman, Chinese Strategic Thought towards Asia, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p. 109.
  4. Nicklas Norling, “The Emerging China-Afghanistan Relationship”, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Analyst, 14 May 2008, http://www.cacianalyst.org/?q=node/4858
  5. Afghan Foregin Minister Zalmay Rasoul On China Visit http://www.khaama.com/afghan-foregin-minister-zalmay-rasoul-on-china-visit
  6. Amol Agrawal, “China’s international aid policies….” http://mostlyeconomics.wordpress.com/2010/08/23/chinas-international-aid-policies/

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Published Date : 24th May, 2011

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