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Afghanistan Imbroglio and the Chinese Windfall Dream


China’s print media has been typically agog with opinions on imperatives for China once the US troops withdrew from Afghanistan. It included both agency reports and scholarly papers. Notwithstanding, the Chinese bloggers have literally had field day. It got into motion soon after the US President Barack Obama unveiled troop withdrawal plan on June 22, 2011.The pace and quantum of the outpour suggest the stoked up glee of the Chinese nation.

Chinese attitudes toward the troop withdrawal will be examined on two levels of analysis. The first is a conventional, international political view. It draws upon the work of international relations theorists such as Hans Morgenthau, who argued that power, prestige, and national might are the currency of international relations and that national security is a principal concern of governments.[i] This analysis treats China as a risen global power that has but to behave much like any other global power. The Chinese political elites thus, try to manipulate the international environment through the judicious use of political, economic, and military resources to best serve China’s national interests at minimum risks and costs in tune with a dream of their kind. By assuming that the nature of interests and concerns is fairly uniform among nations, the paper draws conclusion about China’s likely attitudes in general terms. The second perspective comes from an examination of the Chinese press. It will attempt to look inside the PRC and see what attitudes are actually held. Comments which support or deny the conclusions of the first analysis will be specifically sought. In this way, the theoretical framework of the more traditional international political perspective will be enhanced by checking its validity against the reality of press and other official statements. Conversely, the international analysis will give a view of the world situation which will be useful in interpreting the information found in Chinese sources. The two levels should complement, rather than contrast with, each other.

The First Perspective: An International Political View

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has assiduously been working its way through a world power status. It has been got to with the twin soft and hard power initiatives.[ii] Bruce Gilley is rather privy to this studied hard fact. He says China exercises its soft power alongside hard power, including its military threat and its ability to impact other countries’ political or economic security.[iii] Joshua Kurlantzick (2007) has gone to set the limits of China’s soft power initiatives to a point where it tends to run up against the hard power ambitions of the PRC.[iv] China’s hard power can again just be true gold in theory. On ground, it has far more to attain. China’s strengths and weaknesses in comparative perspective stand to determine its role in the world order.

In a highly calibrated strategic move, the PRC tends to cloak its soft and hard power projections around the world with an array of ‘pacifist policy instruments’.[v] It stemmed perhaps from China’s strategic culture, where the adage taoguangyanghui, yousuozuowei (“Hide one’s capacities and bide one’s time; seek concrete achievements”) rule the roost in critical decisions. While not supported by deeds, the policies of the kind in words included “good neighbour policy” (“mulin youhao zhengce“) in broad cohesion to the concepts of ‘peaceful rise’ (hépíng juéqǐ) and ‘harmonious world’ (hexie Shijie).[vi]

China’s soft power projections, as Joshua Kurlantzick testifies, stem from both state and non-state actors, and can be ‘high’ when targeted against elites, and ‘low’ when targeted at the broader public. The policy tools, brought to bear upon to project its soft power included ‘assistance to discrete policy goals, setting up educational and cultural centres such as Confucius Institutes for slow but steady nurturing of pro-China intelligentsias, and extending subservient ‘make-belief’ electronic media programmes. Nonetheless, China promotes multi layer contacts, aimed at creating win-win image in bilateral relations.

China’s soft power penetration in Afghanistan while yet low, it is worth reckoning. China offered all time high US$ 75 million aid in 2011 as against US$ 175 million in the preceding years since 2002. Nevertheless, China has pledged scholarship for the Afghan academics across a range of critical fields: commerce, communications, education, health, economics, and counter narcotics. There is besides one Confucius Institute with intake potentials and capability of 20 students per annum.[vii] It did have small but discernible presence in the security management, though by default when it provided training to Afghan soldiers and police personnel in mine-clearance and policing techniques.

Both in terms of absolute and relative perspectives, China’s soft power resource projections in Afghanistan so far remain little better to be rated as tangible. This is irrespective of the reference points of either of the existing powers in the power play including India. Notwithstanding, China’s inroad in rather soft power trilateral relations in Afghanistan along with the existing powers is yet not insignificant. While it can not pull Afghanistan from existing powers, the ginger effects of China looks imminent. From Afghanistan perspective, in particular impacts of prospective change in power relationship, there is fear of identity warfare between the pro-China and pro-existing power groups. As for the existing powers, especially India, the shift in soft power balance in favour of China will impact adversely the fabric of age old socio-economic and cultural interests. However, the ultimate victim of shifting balance of soft power between the existing powers and China will be Afghanistan’s domestic politics. There is saving grace that China’s can not afford to increase its leverage over Afghanistan’s domestic politics beyond a certain limit for the obvious reasons of the bearings in trouble torn Xinjiang.

Conversely, the invasive potentials of China’s hard power resource projection have been high.[viii] China’s geographic, demographic and economic size ensures it a place as a predominant power under the sun, both in regional and global perspectives. The same is true about its military power. The weaklings of these components of China’s hard power are equally pronounced. Nevertheless, the raison de etre for the plausible hostility on the grounds of territorial sovereignty and integrity is limited to a stretch of 78 km long Afghanistan-Xinjiang border. Even as hamstrung, at least in the short run to translate thus acquired over hard power potentials, in particular military might into effective agents of power beyond its national frontiers, the hard power of PRC does hold weight in power play in Afghanistan in times to come. The summation qualifies linear cause-effect relationship to lateral factors including catalytic neutralizing developments of different order to China’s hard power projections in the micro and macro environments of strategic life of Afghanistan.

The Chinese military exposures to Afghanistan have been quite modest. All the small and heavy arms, tanks, armoured and other vehicles, radio and communication equipments, EOD gear, counter IED technology and personal protective equipment that the 140000 Afghan soldiers needed to shoot, move and communicate are either Russian or NATO origins. Afghanistan National Army (ANA), raised in December 2002, notably inherited just 850 Hong Ying-5 portable surface-to-air missiles and 350 Type-63 107 mm MRL in vintage conditions. The story is not materially different in the case of economic exposures as well. Since 2002, China has pledged US$ 1 billion in aid, much of which is yet to be disbursed. It did show boldness where it related to hard business interest. In 2008, China’s state owned firm invested US$3.5 billion to develop Aynak copper field in Logar Province of Afghanistan. China is besides engaged in Parawan irrigation project. Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei have joined hands with the Afghan Ministry of Communication to implement digital telephone switches. In a way, China’s limited military and economic exposures to Afghanistan could go well to limit China’s future coercive leverage potentials over Afghanistan.

The Second Perspective: The Home Truth of Media Meandering

The preceding analysis drew on the broad assumptions of China responding rationally to the developments in Afghanistan in tandem to its soft and hard power prowess. It has thus, gone into addressing what China ought to have been thinking and doing to further its strategic interests. The question of what attitudes China does hold remains to be discussed. The study methodologically relies upon indicators and hints, dropped by the Chinese Fourth Estate to gauge China’s mind on the event.

A cursory examination of the Chinese press, especially the write up of leading think tanks and columnists leads to the conclusion that the PRC is apprehensive of the consequences of the US led troop pull out from Afghanistan. The fear is borne of financial ordeal to sustain peace and security in war ravaged country in China’s neighbourhood. It started soon after the US President Barrack Obama announced pull out schedule of the 33000 US forces from Afghan war zone on June 23, 2011, and France followed the suit.[ix] The Xinhua correspondents in the US took the lead. Most of the Chinese vernacular and foreign language dailies carried the stories with cosmetic changes in the headlines. Notwithstanding, the Chinese print media have had picks from the foreign press, especially American that projected war-weary stakeholders voicing concerns over the US spending trillions of US dollars in the treacherous war at the cost socio-economic wellbeing of its own people. The stories did as well carry the Chinese official statements. In over all, there is a measure of unstated glee over China getting a chance as a reckonable power by default.

A day after the decision on June 24, 2011, China Daily signed article quoted Hong Lei, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman say:

It has been China’s consistent stance that the independence and sovereignty of Afghanistan should be respected. We have noted President Obama’s withdrawal plan and hope the US safeguards a peaceful and stable transition.[x]

On the same day, People’s Daily story noted the responses of the Afghan President Hamid Karzai quoted him say:

Today we welcome the decision of U.S. president over the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan; this decision benefits the United States and Afghanistan.[xi]

People’s Daily followed it up with a hunt out of scores opinion makers, dismissive of the pull out decision of the US President. It included Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michel Mullen, and a host of analysts in the field including Scott Worden, Senior Rule of Law Adviser on Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), Andrew Wilder, Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan programs at USIP, Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow for South Asia at the Heritage Foundation, and Christopher A. Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. The story surmised that the US withdrawal plan rather sacrificed the long-term set goal of stabilizing Afghanistan.[xii]

China Daily did as well come out with studied views of analysts in the US and United Kingdom (UK).[xiii] They included both the Chinese and the Westerners. The notable Western thin tanks were: Charles Kupchan, Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University in Washington; Ahmad Majidyar, a Senior Research Associate at the American Enterprise Institute; Daniel Goure, vice-president of the Lexington Institute, a think tank based in Arlington, Virginia; and, Anatol Lieven, a professor of terrorism at King’s College London. The Chinese analysts inter alia included Ye Hailin, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). The story broadly sought to convey the disability of US to sustain the war cost of over US$ 10 billion a month in face of unusual economic hardship at home front. Some of the analyst questioned the practicability of the decision including the fear of civil war and the insurgents both the Taliban and Al-Qaida gaining upper hands in South and East Afghanistan.

The Chinese media derides of the US President’s decision to pull out the surge force of 33000 from the war zone in Afghanistan has come out in rather organized manner. The New China News Agency (Xīnhuá tōngxùnshè), an open source intelligence gathering arm of the Chinese intelligence network, had called the shot in getting to the antagonists of the decision in the US and elsewhere.[xiv] The reportage in the Chinese vernacular and foreign language press were thus premeditated and reflected the stand of the Chinese political elites. The elements of ambivalence in the story line are essentially symptomatic of China’s quandary. As some of the Chinese bloggers testify, the hawks among the ideologues in Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, referred as China’s hardliner Maoist left, perhaps got to see larger than life view of China filling the ensuing power vacuums in Afghanistan. There were then others who sought to caution at the prohibitive cost of the adventure.

China yet continues to debate. Hu Shisheng, Director, China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) said:

The US troops’ pullout cannot solve the deep-rooted problems in Afghanistan and the region. Instead, it may give rise to very difficult political and strategic problems.[xv]

Spelling out his main concern short of China’s nightmare, Hu Shisheng wrote:

Major regional powers will use the US troops’ withdrawal to fill the vacuum in geographically and strategically important Afghanistan, which will further complicate the Afghan political landscape.[xvi]

Zhu Feng’s story brings out the inside out of the Chinese dream and the dilemma of China’s nationalists, strategic realists and liberals alike.[xvii] Zhu Feng hypothesizes China’s big power role in the region and yet, sees no “immediate advantage” in proactive engagements in Afghanistan vice US pull out. This was while the US-led war against terror in Afghanistan had improved China’s domestic security conditions for the obvious reasons. Delineated the limits of China’s role, Zhu Feng wrote:

The extent to which China will engage Afghanistan positively will depend in large part on whether China rids itself of the prevailing zero-sum mindset and facilitates America’s military withdrawal by doing what it can to stabilize the country.

Zhu Feng pinpointed a number of benefits to the US in co-opting China in its stride to stabilize Hamid Karzai’s regime. It included help stiffen Pakistan’s resolve to move more aggressively to contain Taliban. Zhu Feng did not have misgiving about China’s ability to turn the tide and yet, found it advisable for China and the US alike to cooperate for their own benefits.

The Perspectives in Perspective

China’s soft and hard power projection assessment in the first section of this article and the analysis of media meanderings in the second are in general agreement. The Chinese state and/ or non-state think tanks are discernibly conscious of China’s rise as regional and global power, and cherish insatiable desire for the Chinese nation to have foot prints all over the world, in particular strategic neighbourhood such as Afghanistan. Exhilarations in the Chinese media over US decision to pull out surge forces from Afghanistan can be explained as a testimony to China’s this power aspiration.

The level of glee yet stands modified by an array of apprehensions, which stems squarely from the prohibitive costs of the war as well as rehabilitations. The US has been burning up US$ 10 billion a day, which the PRC would think ten times before committing in an economy with a gross domestic product of barely US$ 18.332 billion (2010 estimate).[xviii] China has been cautious even in investments. China Metallurgical Group Corporation could screw courage and ride the tide to invest the said US$3.4 billion in the Aynak Copper Mine project partly since the US-led NATO military presence have had provided relative security.[xix] The Chinese company allegedly secured the contract at the strength of bribes. China is eyeing Hajigak project which has reserves of 60 billion tons of iron ore with the same commercial interests. The prospect of cobalt in Kandahar is no less tempting.[xx] However, China’s dilemma over Afghanistan remains big power access to its resource base with least risk and liability.

Wakhan corridor to the west of 78 Km Afghanistan-Xinjiang borders since draws heightened attention in the academic discourse in the Chinese vernacular press. There is talk of China better undertaking rail-road links to the region.[xxi] The map below shows how the locale held strategic importance for the regional powers including India in retrospect as much as prospect.

Xinjiang-Afghan Border

In the 1970s and 1980s, China cooperated with the U.S. in arming Afghan Mujahedeen fighters against the Russian troops. Now, like the US, China has interest in the Wakhan corridor in handling East Turkestan Independence Movement in Xinjiang. The PRC is in wait and watch mode for a variety of reasons, including counterproductive outcomes.

(The writers, Dr Sheo Nandan Pandey and Prof.Hem Kusum, are knowledgable China analysts based in

End Notes

[i] Morgenthau, Hans J. Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, Fifth Edition, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.

[ii] The term soft power was coined by Harvard Political Scientist Joseph Nye, who defined it narrowly as the passive attractive force of a nation’s culture, values, and norms. Chinese literature on the issue count for ‘appeal to’, cohesion and charm of civilization and culture, especially image, concept of value, political stability and “correct” policies of a nation. It has thus, come to imply all non-military efforts at accumulating power. At the end day, the efficacy of soft power as strategic tool stems from the ability to ‘co-opt and share’ values.

[iii] Bruce Gilley, “Middle Powers During Great Power Transitions: China’s Rise and the Future of Canada-US Relations”,

[iv] Kurlantzic, Joshua. Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World’, Yale University Press, 2007

[v] Chinese pacifism is most debated issue. Most Chinese scholars tend to associate China with pacifism. For Andrew Nathan and Ross, the Chinese were capable of both peace and war, and showed no preference for either option. Warren Cohen says that strong China has been aggressive, and a weak China defensive.

[vi] China’s mulin youhao zhengce (good neighbour policy) rather mimics the hépíng gongchu wuxiang yuanzi (the five principles of peaceful coexistence), which was first, enunciated by the Indian Premier Pt Jawaharlal Nehru, called Panchsheel and then accepted by all participants including the Chinese Premier Zhao En-lai at the Asia-Africa Conference, Bandung, Indonesia in April 1955.

[vii] Confucius Institute in Afghanistan has been set up in Kabul under an agreement of 2008. As part of a major soft power initiative, China has since set up 282 Confucius Institutes and 272 Confucius Class Rooms in 88 countries. It included 70 Confucius Institutes and 27 Confucius Class Rooms in Asia.

[viii] Hard power refers to coercive tactics: the threat or use of armed forces, economic pressures including sanctions, assassination or subterfuge, or other forms of intimidation. Hard power is generally associated to the stronger of nations, as the ability to change the domestic affairs of other nations through coercive means.

[ix] The French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced withdrawal of 4000 French forces soon after the US President went on air. The US troop withdrawal schedule covers pull out of 10000 officers and men by 2011 end and the 23000 by the summer 2012. The pull out relate to the surge brought to bear upon the escalation of insurgency in 2009. The US force level in Afghanistan will thus come down to over 70000 officers and men. The UK is scheduled to withdraw 500 officers and men by then. There are presently over 140000 NATO and US troops stationed in Afghanistan to Taliban insugents.

[x] Chen Weihua and Qin Jize, Hopes are High for Responsible US Troop Withdrawal, China Daily, June 24, 2011.

[xi] People’s Daily, June 24, 2011.

[xii] People’s Daily, June 25, 2011.

[xiii] China Daily, June 24, 2011.

[xiv] Xinhua tongxunshe provides cover for China’s premier intelligence outfit Ministry of State Security (guojia anquanbu). Individually, it is entrusted with the task of collecting, translating, condensing, and providing analysis of news. It publishes three sets of reports: Reference Information (Cankao Ziliao), Internal Reference (Neibu Cankao), and Redhead References (Hongtou Cankao).

[xv] Hu Shisheng, What Troops             Pull Out Means for Kabul, China Daily, July 21, 2011.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Zhu Feng, China and the Afghan Endgame, Global Economist, August 2, 2011.

[xviii] The Afghan GDP growth rate has been brisk due to substantial increase in donor grants and comparatively better harvest. It grew at the rate of 20.4% during FY 2009-10. It is estimated to slide down to 8.2% this FY 2010-11.

[xix] The Chinese investment in Aymak Copper Mine project follows the much discussed Angola model. It speaks of power plant catering both the energy requirements of the Mines area and the Kabul city; the rail lines linking the mine, the smelter, and China; and, China undertaking infrastructure constructions including building Mosques and Madarsas (traditional Islamic schools).

[xx] Afghanistan has so far over 200 identified rich mineral fields, 89 of which are easy to extract and utilize. The best known deposits included barite, chromites, coal, copper, gold, iron ore, lead, natural gas, petroleum, precious and semiprecious stones, salt, sulfur, talc, and zinc. Precious and semiprecious stones include high-quality emerald, lapis lazuli, red garnet and ruby.

[xxi] Wakhan corridor was a buffer zone between undivided India under the British reign and Russian Turkestan. It constituted part of the famous Silk Road.

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