Zhou Yongkang, China’s domestic security chief and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party visited the Afghan capital late on 22 September 2012 and held talks with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Mr Zhou was enroute to Turkmenistan following a visit to Singapore, but rescheduled to Afghanistan for the meeting. Details of this meeting were disclosed only after Zhou left Kabul. Impromptu visit by the Chinese domestic security chief pointed to a security heavy agenda. Zhou, incidentally, has been associated with the crackdown on unrest in China’s Muslim-populated Xinjiang region, which shares a border with Afghanistan.
Zhou and Karzai agreed on increasing security and economic cooperation, including a deal to help ‘train, fund and equip Afghan police’. The agreement was not specific on the assistance China plans to give the 149,000-strong police force, which is trained by the NATO-led coalition. An official Spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said a Chinese delegation would soon arrive in Kabul to sign a memorandum of cooperation on security and economy.
This visit follows the trip of the Afghan President to Beijing in June this year to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, where he and the Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed to upgrade bilateral relations to the level of a Strategic and Cooperative Partnership. The Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) is a legally binding executive agreement between two sovereign nations. Conclusion of a SPA not only signals a long-term commitment between the signatories, but also codifies commitments and a common vision for the future. China and Afghanistan, within the partnership framework, signed 12 agreements during the summit which included political cooperation, security matters, a military training program, a campaign against cross-border crime, economic and trade cooperation.
Earlier, on May 1, 2012, US President Obama and President Karzai signed an ‘Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement’ between the two countries. U.S. committed to support Afghanistan’s social and economic development, security, institutions and bolster regional cooperation. SPA included mutual commitments in the areas of long-term security and strengthening of Afghan institutions and governance. Three weeks later, Afghan President and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard signed a long-term partnership agreement between Australia and Afghanistan.
It is in this context it would be relevant to highlight that Afghanistan signed its first strategic agreement in October 2011, with India. Afghanistan also intends to sign SPAs with Turkey and Pakistan in the near future. SPA with Pakistan, suggested by President Karzai during the Trilateral Summit held in New York this month has, as per recent media reports, already run into rough weather on some basic issues.
Chinese policy on Afghanistan is best described by its ‘Four point’ approach towards Afghanistan. Yang Jiechi, Chinese Minister for Foreign Affairs spelt out this approach in his remarks at the International Afghanistan Conference in Bonn on December 2011. First, safeguard security and stability; second, develop the economy; third, political reconciliation; and fourth, enhance international cooperation. It is not a coincidence that the first ‘point’ of the approach is security.
The Chinese posture on Afghanistan is characteristically tempered by China’s concern for its Muslim dominant province of Xinjiang or the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). This has translated into Chinese refrain from any activity relating to the military or action against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Chinese are wary of the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda‘s association with the ‘East Turkistan’ organisation, a major insurgent group in XUAR. Their association dates back to 1996. The members of the ‘East Turkistan’ organisation fight alongside the al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Zhou’s visit reflects Beijing’s concern about the deterioration in security and its impact on its own internal security, as the NATO presence in Afghanistan winds down.
On the economic front, China is one of the first countries to have invested in Afghanistan and the Chinese direct investment in the country stood at $200m at the end of 2011.China’s Afghan investments include mineral resources, copper mines and the extraction and exploration of oil.
The timing of the visit (and the agreement to train, fund and equip the Afghan police) is crucial; it comes at a time when the US forces in Afghanistan have returned to pre-surge levels as the 33,000 troops that constituted the ‘surge’ are back in US. Also NATO commanders have suspended joint operations with Afghan troops in response to the rise in so-called ‘Green-on-Blue or ‘insider attacks’ by Afghan forces turning their guns on Western troops. Training for more than 1,000 new recruits of the Afghan Local Police was suspended in the beginning of September 2012 after these ‘insider attacks’. Some coalition partners rattled by these ‘insider attacks’ are expected to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan at a pace much faster than what they had earlier planned. This has raised questions about the effectiveness of the US plan to stabilise the country ahead of is planned transition from combat to a training mission by the end of 2014.
The 2014 withdrawal deadline set by NATO seems to be having a negative effect as it is virtually being interpreted as a countdown to the return of the Taliban. Some observers feel the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan will leave the country worse, in terms of security and economics, than it was before 2001.
The visit by Zhou signals, one that China, notwithstanding its present posture, is assessing and concerned about the internal security situation in Afghanistan. Two, it may not hesitate in occupying any space/role vacated by the US/NATO if it has a bearing on the security situation in XUAR. It is not a coincidence that to ‘train, fund and equip the Afghan police’ is one of the tasks the NATO has set for itself in Afghanistan post 2014.
Three, it intends to take forward the agreements, both security-related and economic, it has signed with Afghanistan at the SCO summit in June this year. China sees for itself a more active role in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan than it has described for itself at present. Four, China will take the necessary steps required to secure its economic interests in Afghanistan, which may only be scaled up in the days ahead.
Lastly, this points to one of the many scenarios generated by security experts for Afghanistan post 2014; which is Afghanistan’s security and development is supported and guided by a regional co-operation platform of Asian countries that identify themselves as Afghanistan’s ‘near and extended neighbours’. This multi-lateral platform might be the China dominated SCO. This scenario sees no military or security role for the NATO post 2014.
These developments hold significant implications for India. Chinese interest in Afghanistan enhances the likelihood of a secure environment post 2014; this in turn would afford India an opportunity to further its economic cooperation with Afghanistan including mining and infrastructure projects. On the flip-side a dominant China may not allow India to build on its initial investments in Afghanistan. Even worse, TAPI may suffer the same fate as the India-Bangladesh-Myanmar pipeline did after the Chinese exerted their influence in Myanmar. On the other hand, Pakistan may benefit in terms of transit trade and revitalization of its transport infrastructure, given its relations with China. Boosted by prospects of trade, Pakistani rail and road connectivity projects with Afghanistan and China may fructify and Gwadar port may realize its potential.
This article appeared at South Asia Monitor and is reprinted with permission.