China in South Asia: The Case of Afghanistan

13 February 2018 Lindsay Hughes, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • In Afghanistan, China recognises several economic and strategic opportunities to advance its goals in the region and beyond.
  • It sees the opportunity to acquire access to much of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.
  • There is also an opportunity for China to ensure the security of its own restive Xinjiang Province.
  • Beijing also discerns a possibility to diminish US and Indian influence in Afghanistan.
  • Afghanistan, thus, almost demands China’s foreign policy attention.

Summary

It is almost trite to observe in 2018 that China’s economic growth over the last twenty-five or so years has been spectacular. The Chinese Communist Party, which has managed most aspects of the economy, can justifiably take credit for that growth. It has lifted an estimated six hundred million people out of poverty and enabled many others to become millionaires and even billionaires. If the sheer enormousness of that figure is difficult to comprehend, consider this: China used more cement between 2011 and 2013 than the United States used in the entire twentieth century. In other words, in the space of those three years, China constructed more housing and infrastructure than the United States did from the 1900s through to the 1990s, including its period of greatest expansion during which it built its Interstate road networks, the Hoover Dam and most of its skyscrapers. In those three years, China used an estimated 6.6 gigatons of cement compared to the United States, which used 4.5 between 1901 and 2000.

US-China Cement Usage (web)

China’s economic growth has had a major effect on its foreign policy. In order for the Chinese Communist Party to be seen by the Chinese populace as not resting on its economic laurels, in being perceived to be pursuing the Chinese dream of returning the country to its historically pre-eminent position in the international order and in keeping with the one hundred-year marathon that Pillsbury describes, China now seeks to increase its influence in the region. While its efforts in that regard in the South China Sea and among the countries of South-East Asia have been recognised and analysed in considerable depth, its efforts to do likewise to its west have not received the same degree of attention.

China is actively at work in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, attempting to stabilise those countries, and is now extending its reach into Afghanistan in order to achieve its regional goals. This paper will study some of those.

Analysis

Writing in 1975, Etzioni noted that ‘power differs according to the means employed to make [a] subject comply. These means may be physical, material or symbolic’, or what he terms coercive, remunerative and normative power. China employs these forms of power in different situations; for example, whereas in the South and East China Seas it uses coercive power more than it does the other forms, it relies more on remunerative power in Afghanistan. In other words, it buys its influence in that country.

The question that immediately flows from that observation is this: why does China seek to increase its influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan? What does it seek to achieve by doing so? The answer would appear to be economic gain. That is certainly true; China does seek economic reward by increasing its presence in these two countries. To limit that answer to mere economics would be short-sighted, however. The two countries need to be examined individually in order to better understand China’s motives.

China’s external relations policies are, like those of many other countries, an extension or outcome of its domestic situation. The Chinese Communist Party, in order to remain in power, has entered into an implicit agreement with the Chinese people that runs, more or less, along the lines of, “We will ensure that your economic circumstances are enhanced; in return, you will not question the legitimacy of our control over the country.” For economic benefits to flow, however, a country needs political stability. That is not assured in far-flung Xinjiang Province.

An estimated forty per cent of the people of Xinjiang belong to the Uyghur community; they are ethnically Turkic and mainly Muslim. They are different from the majority Han population in the rest of China (excluding Tibet) in their social structures, traditions and language, besides their religious ideology. As a consequence, the Chinese Communist Party, which does not countenance social differences it cannot fully comprehend, has sought to diminish the Islamic influence in the province. Apart from resettling Han Chinese in large numbers in Xinjiang, the Communist Party has imposed severe restrictions on the Uyghurs’ practice of their religion and their freedoms; mosques are barred from broadcasting the call to prayer; there are restrictions on the names that may be given to babies; the Muslim veil for women and beards for men are banned; the city of Karamay promulgated an ordinance that banned bearded men and women wearing burqas or hijabs from travelling on public buses; Uyghur drivers are often stopped and their identification papers and those of their passengers examined; their mobile phones are searched for content and applications that are deemed, arbitrarily in many instances, to be a threat to national security; Uyghur civil servants, students and teachers are prevented from fasting during the Ramadhan period and restaurants are forced to remain open. Schools are forced to conduct lessons in Mandarin and not Uyghur. These restrictions and often blatant violations of the rights accorded to other Chinese citizens have rankled in the Uyghur community. Arguably worst of all, the Communist authorities offer the Uyghur people cash and other incentives to intermarry with Han people, leading to a commonly-held perception in the Uyghur community that it is a blatant attempt to breed it out of existence.

The repressive measures have led to fatal attacks by Uyghur groups on Han Chinese, leading to a vicious circle of further repression and violence. Beijing is acutely aware, however, of the need to pre-empt any attacks by the Uyghurs’ co-religionists in Afghanistan or Pakistan, whether those be members of the Taliban or ordinary Muslim citizens who object to the repression of the Uyghurs, on its energy pipelines that originate in Gwadar and flow through to Xinjiang. To that end, it has sought to mitigate any perceptions of it being a repressive, authoritarian regime by seeking to develop, in the first instance, a strong economic relationship with Kabul.

It is no coincidence that China has sought to acquire mining rights in Afghanistan. As a previous FDI paper observed:

It was reported (and elsewhere, including here) in 2010, that the Pentagon believed that Afghanistan’s untapped mineral wealth could be worth around US$1 trillion. According to another report, the Afghan Government declared that figure to be around US$3 trillion but that figure is likely an exaggeration. According to the news report, a task force studying the country’s resources found that Afghanistan has significant deposits of copper, iron ore, niobium, cobalt, gold, molybdenum, silver and aluminium, as well as sources of fluorspar, beryllium and lithium, among others. While even the one trillion dollar figure may be exaggerated, the fact remains that the country does have enormous unexploited mineral wealth. Even if another country did not avail of the minerals itself (an unlikely possibility or outcome), there could be much profit to be had in partnering with still-to-be-established Afghan mining companies, by providing the technology and expertise required, for example, in the extraction of those minerals.

More specifically, it is the discovery of major lithium deposits in Afghanistan (one source provides an idea of the amounts of lithium available by referring to Afghanistan as “the Saudi Arabia of lithium”) that is of consequence. The original Pentagon report, while stating that the main minerals found were iron ore (estimated value US$421 billion) and copper (US$273 billion), was careful to note that the trillion dollar figure did not include known oil and gas reserves or the value of minerals like lithium that have not been verified to an extent that would permit a dollar figure estimation. While two Chinese firms have committed themselves to a US$4 billion investment in the vast Aynak copper mine, south of Kabul, it is the lithium deposits that are of strategic interest.

In the past few years, the demand for lithium has exploded along with the growth of lithium-ion battery technology in mobile phones, personal digital assistants, laptop computers and, more recently, electric vehicles and batteries that can be attached to solar-powered systems. China, which seeks to position itself as a major electric-powered automobile and solar panel manufacturer, could see its plans disrupted and, more importantly, at the mercy of, for instance, American firms that might come to control lithium production in Afghanistan.

The issue is especially acute for China, given the American presence in the form of its troops and “advisers” in Afghanistan.

In order to vitiate any advantage that the Americans may have in Afghanistan, China is talking not only to the Afghan Government but also to some Taliban groups. The approach appears to have been successful. While the government has cracked down on illegal mining, thus enabling Chinese mining companies to expand their operations, the Taliban has assured the Chinese firms that they need have no fear of attacks by its members and also offered to protect at least one mine and several gas projects with its members. While this has caused some discomfort in the government, which says that it has the sole right to grant mining leases and protect the ensuing operations, the Chinese companies remain secure in the knowledge that their operations can continue with minimal fear of being attacked. China appears to be reaping further dividends with its approach; an uncorroborated report has it, furthermore, that Afghanistan has recently announced that American mining companies would not be given licences to conduct operations there. This announcement comes despite reports of another major find in Afghanistan: huge deposits of potash.

Establishing a good relationship with Afghanistan also helps China to reduce American influence there. In fact, the visit by the Afghan Foreign Minister, Zalmay Rasoul, to Beijing in May 2011 saw a growing relationship between the two countries formalised just as then President Obama was preparing to reduce the number of American troops there. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu spoke of Chinese support for the Afghan Government as it struggles to end instability and crushing poverty and noted China’s appreciation of Afghanistan’s ‘assistance on major issues bearing on China’s core interests’, a reference to Chinese territorial claims, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet that border the volatile Central Asia.

That meeting was among the first of many that followed. In December 2017, China hosted a trilateral meeting with the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Salahuddin Rabbani and Khawaja Asif, his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts respectively. Going against its stated policy of not interfering in the internal politics of other nations and demonstrating the country’s new-found confidence in its ability to play a much larger role in international politics, Mr Wang sought to bring the two governments together to resolve their differences. While he was only partially successful, Mr Wang did elicit promises from both to continue with their dialogue. That meeting was followed only days later by a meeting between the Defence Ministers of Afghanistan and China, which ended with a statement that the two sides had worked to ‘deepen pragmatic co-operation in various fields including anti-terrorism operations, and push forward the state and military relations between the two countries’. It is interesting to note that both meetings ended with statements regarding co-operation in anti-terrorism initiatives, an indication of how nervous Beijing is about terrorism in Central Asia spilling over into Xinjiang.

China is acting to mitigate those fears. In keeping with its policy of bringing bordering countries under its influence economically and militarily in progressive stages, China is now in discussions with Afghanistan to establish a military base there. It has been reported by many sources that Beijing is in talks with Kabul to construct a military base in Afghanistan’s remote and mountainous Wakhan Corridor, where witnesses have reported seeing Chinese and Afghan troops on joint patrols. Beijing allegedly fears that exiled Uyghur members of the insurgent East Turkestan Islamic Movement use the Wakhan Corridor to cross into Xinjiang to carry out attacks there. Beijing also worries that Uyghurs who were trained by and fought for Islamic State are now fleeing Iraq and Syria and could, similarly, use the Wakhan Corridor to enter China. Beijing is correct in fearing that these various groups and factions could amalgamate, based on their ethnicity and dislike of Chinese repression, and foment further unrest in Xinjiang.

A few other Chinese objectives in Afghanistan are worth noting. First, just as it hopes to reduce American influence there, Beijing also wants to reduce Indian influence in the country. New Delhi, which has a strong relationship with Kabul, is detested by Islamabad, which works to reduce Indian influence in the region in which it seeks “strategic depth” in the event of an Indian attack. China, for its part, seeks to isolate India in South Asia in a zero-sum game for influence in that region.

Second, China would want to create an alternative route for its Belt and Road Initiative through Afghanistan, a country that it could better influence than, say, Kazakhstan, which a resurgent Russia, for all its messages of friendship with China, would not readily permit, since Moscow sees Astana as being in its own zone of influence. China recognises the risks associated with a BRI route running through Kazakhstan and would wish to avoid that. Afghanistan offers an option. An Afghanistan route also enables China direct overland access to the gas fields of Iran. That could eliminate even the comparatively minor risks associated with piping oil and gas through Pakistan, such as attacks upon the infrastructure and personnel by Balochi insurgents and even by India in a conflict with Pakistan. Islamabad undoubtedly recognises, in turn, the risks that Afghanistan poses to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Chinese investment in it.

Finally, by bringing Afghanistan into its zone of influence, China could create another market for its manufactured goods. At a time when it sees its exports dwindling, and in light of the Trump legislation on reduced company taxes in the United States, which has resulted in increased investment in that country’s manufacturing sector, China would want to avail itself of every market it possibly can.

To conclude, Afghanistan offers China several major economic and strategic opportunities. It requires no great deal of thought to recognise the viability of those. China would, almost unreservedly, seek to use those opportunities to further its agenda in the region and beyond.

 

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