NATO, China, and Afghanistan at the Security-Development Nexus

With NATO set to withdraw from Afghanistan this year, other international actors like China will and must step in, say Benjamin Zyla and Kirsten Van Houten.
By: , /
February 4, 2014
Professor in the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa

Since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban in 2001, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has provided extensive security and development assistance to Afghanistan. While NATO is slated to withdraw from Afghanistan later this year, the international community must stay involved in the development and conflict mitigation processes there following NATO's withdrawal later this year. This is the final test of the success or failure of the work that NATO has done in the country since 2001.

In the coming years, Afghanistan will continue to need external support for economic growth through the development of its infrastructure and natural resources, as well as fighting against sources of insurgency. Fortunately, NATO’s withdrawal will also create new opportunities for international engagements in Afghanistan’s economic and political landscape.

China is likely to play an important role in this transition process. Both security and economic interests motivate its previous and ongoing engagement in Afghanistan.

First, security in Afghanistan is of particular interest to China in part because of the 85 kilometer border that the two countries share. The Chinese province that borders Afghanistan, Xinjiang, has suffered from an insurgency led by the Uighur East Turkestan Islamic Movement. While the Chinese government views the Uighurs as separatists that threaten Chinese national security, it is well-documented that militants from Xinjiang received training from other insurgents and jihadi militants in Afghanistan (i.e. the Taliban) and neighbouring Pakistan. This is particularly upsetting for Beijing because China and Pakistan have been close allies since the 1950s. It is not forgotten in Beijing that Pakistan was the first Muslim country (and third non-Muslim country) that recognized the then weak and largely isolated China. In turn, ever since then China has provided Pakistan with extensive military and economic assistance because both share a strategic rivalry with India. In 2010, for example, China announced that it would supply Pakistan with two new nuclear reactors. This was in direct response to a US-India nuclear deal.

Civil unrest in Xinjiang also provides a breeding ground for militant Islamic extremism, which not only contributes to security threats there but destabilizes the entire region, where China seeks to maintain economic and political dominance. It also makes newly established trade routes for exporting Afghanistan’s natural resources increasingly unreliable. Thus, China’s foremost strategic interest is to maintain security and stability in Afghanistan and to prevent the full return of the Taliban because they consistently supported the Uighur separatist movement when they were in power.

Beijing also has long-held economic interests in Afghanistan. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Defense estimated that Afghanistan is endowed with over $1 trillion in natural resources. However, the country has always lacked the start-up capital to exploit these resources and to sell them on international markets. China, on the other hand, has the financial abilities and a high natural resource demand of its own needed to support its population of over a billion people and its rapidly growing economy. The business relationship between the two states grew into a strategic partnership, which benefitted Afghans in two ways: it allowed them to access their natural resources (e.g. through the Anyak copper mine) and with the royalties generated therefrom to invest in national infrastructure such as phone lines, roads, hospitals, irrigation systems, etc.

Oil and gas exploration serve as primary examples of the economic relationship between China and Afghanistan. In 2011, the Chinese National Petroleum Company (CNPC) entered into a joint-venture with Watan Oil and Gas, an Afghan company with strong ties to the Karzai government, to explore for oil in the Kashkari, Bazarkhami and Zamarudsay basin fields valued roughly at USD $700 million. Currently, CNPC has a 25-year contract to exploit discovered oil fields and has agreed to pay the Afghan government 15 percent exploration tax per barrel, a 20 percent business tax, and a 70 percent share of total revenue. CNPC has also promised to build a US$300 million oil refinery on the site. Taken together, these revenues generated through Chinese investments are expected to create local jobs.

China’s engagement in Afghanistan is also motivated by its regional and global power imperatives. It is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, an emerging country, and shares certain security interests with NATO (maritime security, fight against weapons of mass destruction). Moreover, in 2002 China joined Afghanistan’s five other border countries (Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) in signing a non-interference pact, the Kabul Declaration, and in 2006 the Treaty of Good Neighbourly Friendship and Cooperation that lifted customs duties on 278 commodities.

Moreover, Chinese distrust of American involvement in the region has influenced many of its economic and political activities. Despite the authorization of NATO’s ISAF peace enforcement missions Afghanistan by the U.N. Security Council (especially resolutions 1386 (2001); 1510 (2003)), which Beijing supported, China became increasingly uncomfortable with the U.S. military presence during the ISAF operation.  This is reflected in a poll of the Chinese officer corps in which eighty percent of the personnel viewed NATO as a tool of the U.S. underlining Beijing’s interest to avoid a lasting Western presence or deployment in Afghanistan.

Moreover, China has demonstrated a willingness to collaborate with the Taliban. While it does not want the return of Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and to keep exporting Afghanistan’s natural resources (especially copper), it has acknowledged the Taliban as political actors through the negotiation of resource extraction projects, particularly in the northern areas bordering Pakistan. An example of China’s neutrality in the increasingly acerbic rhetoric between Kabul and the Taliban is its involvement with the Watan Group, a corporation closely tied to President Karzai’s family and linked to the Taliban. Indeed, it is well known that NATO countries (especially the U.S. and Canada) had hired Watan Risk Management, which is a private security company that belongs to the Watan Group, to protect their supply convoys as well as signature development projects (Canada: Dahla Dam project). At the same time, when NATO member states terminated their relationships with Watan Risk because of proven ties with the Taliban, China increased its involvement with the Watan Group while NATO forces, including those working on the Canadian Dahla Dam project increasingly became the target of Taliban attacks.

Yet, while China’s economic and security interests dictate that it must recognize and negotiate with the Taliban, its engagement undermines its ability to serve as an honest broker for peace. Any attempt to encourage the demobilization of the Taliban and other extremist groups would undermine its appearance as a neutral party and jeopardize its investments.

In the short term, China’s economic and security interests and perceived neutrality may be economically and politically beneficial to both China and Afghanistan. However, the absence of sustainable peace is likely to undermine long-term economic growth and development in the region.

While China continues to support resource exploitation and development in Afghanistan, both states as well as international organizations ought to step up their engagement and support for a sustainable peace process in the region and assist with building lasting governance infrastructures. The transition period that started with the withdrawal of NATO forces creates new opportunities for international engagements in Afghanistan. They should be explored.