BEIJING —With President Barack Obama's recent announcement that the United States will remove all military forces in Afghanistan by the end of 2016, American foreign policy is preparing to turn a page full of blood and tears.
But this also may mark the beginning of another era: when China will play a prominent role in Afghanistan and the surrounding region.
Raffaelo Pantucci, a senior researcher on counter-terrorism and Chinese diplomacy at Britain's Royal United Services Institute, says that China has serious concerns about the risk that Afghanistan could become a source of instability exported throughout Central and South Asia after the U.S. withdrawal.
The worries have a distinctly economic angle, as instability could affect several key projects, including the New Silk Road Economic Zone and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Another potential risk is whether Afghanistan will become the new stronghold for the Uighur extremist organization from Xinjian, right next door in northwestern China. Pantucci says Uighur separatists don't currently have close ties from global jihad groups, though there is a presence in Pakistan. "I don't think that it's beneficial for them to transfer to Afghanistan, neither do I believe that they'd be welcomed by the Afghan authorities," he cautions.
More generally, analysts are watching to see how China will behave in its new role as a global power. Can it manage a neighboring country that is riddled with problems? Will China hesitate in assuming its great power role and ending up having too many irons in the fire?
Meanwhile, China has quietly become post-Taliban Afghanistan's most important investment source over the last few years.
In 2008, a consortium made of the China Metallurgical Group and the Jiangxi Copper Company signed an agreement with the Afghan government to develop the Aynak copper mine 35 kilometers from Kabul. This is believed to be Afghanistan's largest single foreign investment ever at $4.2 billion, as China obtained a 30-year lease of the entire site of this the world's second largest copper deposit.
In 2011, the China National Petroleum Corporation obtained three petrol field blocks in the country to become the first foreign oil and gas exploration enterprise after the fall of the Taliban. This has provoked a certain criticism of China in the United States, which has paid a huge price for its war in the country; and China is seen to be acting in Afghanistan as "free riders."
What vexes some U.S. observers is that China did not provide any support for the human, material and financial resources to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF). Even China's investment in the Aynak copper mine has to rely on the local American soldiers providing security patrols.
Meanwhile, in China's view, Afghanistan is an "awful mess" left by the U.S. and NATO, also in light of of the already significant Chinese investment in Afghanistan" post-war reconstruction.
The continued lack of security has limited China's economic "soft power." Since its groundbreaking ceremony in July 2009, the Chinese company's mining has made no real progress. Pantucci notes that Afghans have begun to complain that "the Chinese have come to sit on our copper without doing anything..."
There is also a remarkably small commitment from Beijing to improve the security situation, with Chinese authorities having trained a mere 300 Afghan police officers.
A turning point?
Andrew Small, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, pointed out in a recent report that 2014 will be a crucial year in defining Sino-Afghan relations. Not only has the United States set the date for retreating from Afghanistan, and Afghanistan is to complete its presidential election, China will also begin to show more diplomatic efforts on the Afghan front.
So as not to garner unwanted attention from international terrorist networks, Small believes China will continue to avoid getting involved with security issues, and focus on economics and diplomacy.
Yan Xuetong, the Dean of the Institute of Contemporary International Relations at Tsinghua University, told Caixin that China fears the situation in Afghanistanis will likely worsen. Still, China will take a different approach to the country from that of the United States.
China has also begun to step up a series of trilateral meetings with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and with Russia and India. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional security mechanism led by China and Russia, accepted Afghanistan in 2012 as an observer country. In August, China will also host in Tianjin city the "Istanbul Process," also called the Heart of Asia, a ministerial conference to discuss this very issue.
Among the various meetings, Pantucci reckons the discussion between China and India is the most meaningful. "The two regional powers have very similar interests in Afghanistan," he said.
What remains to be seen is how Narendra Modi’s new government in India will develop the "rules of the road" with China for investing in Afghanistan.
"I think China’s Afghanistan strategy can be roughly summed up as a kind of hedging against risks in all aspects in the country," concludes Pantucci. "However, China has yet come to a concrete conclusion on just exactly how to do that."