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China: Checkmating India in Afghanistan

China has shown interest in the construction of two railway lines—-one in Pakistan via the Gilgit-Baltistan region and the other in Afghanistan. While the railway line through Gilgit-Baltistan, ultimately extending up to Gwadar on the Mekran coast, will meet the external trade requirements of Chinese-controlled Xinjiang and other regions of Western China, the proposed line in Afghanistan will meet the requirements of a copper mine which  China is developing in the Aynak area in Afghanistan. A pre-feasibility study by a Chinese company  has already been done in respect of the railway line through Gilgit-Baltistan and an agreement was reached during the visit of President Asif Ali Zardari to China in July to undertake a joint feasibility study by the  railways of the two countries. In Afghanistan a  joint feasibility study is to be  undertaken by the Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC), which is developing the copper mine, and the Ministry of Mines of the Government of Afghanistan.

2. On September 22,2010, representatives of the Afghan  Ministry of Mines and the MCC signed at Kabul an agreement to undertake the feasibility study. The MCC has, however, cautioned that a final decision on the construction of the railway line would depend on the security situation in Afghanistan. If the security situation deteriorated, the MCC may not go ahead with the proposal. While the Chinese do not anticipate any security problem in the Gilgit-Baltistan area, they do anticipate problems in Afghanistan.

3.Till now, the Taliban has not come in the way of the development of the copper mine. But, in January last, the Taliban kidnapped two Chinese road construction workers. One does not know what happened to them. Probably, the Chinese got them back after secretly paying a ransom.

4. The Chinese Communist Party-controlled  “ Global Times” wrote on January 19 last as follows: “The situation in war-torn Afghanistan is deteriorating as Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers attacked buildings across the heart of Kabul , killing at least five people and claiming  that they had kidnapped two Chinese engineers working in the country. The kidnappings indicate that China must prepare to cope with crimes targeting overseas Chinese citizens as the country’s presence expands worldwide, especially in some trouble spots, experts say. The engineers, who had been helping to build a road, were seized  in the northern province of Faryab with four Afghans. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the abductions. A spokesman of the militia said that a Taliban Islamic court would decide their fate. ….The Taliban’s demands for the latest kidnapping are not clear. Reuters reported that the Taliban often kidnap foreigners as part of their campaign against coalition forces, but abductions have also become a lucrative business for criminal gangs and rival tribes. A Chinese observer with years of experience working in Afghanistan told the Global Times that Chinese nationals had not been specifically targeted by the Taliban and the kidnapping may be in response to growing Chinese economic interests in the neighboring country. “Chinese enterprises have hired many armed security guards and tightened security measures to ensure safety for Chinese employees there,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous. “However, potential threats cannot be eliminated amid such a chaotic situation in the country.” As China builds up its interests in Afghanistan, it faces a dilemma, the observer suggested. “Western nations raised their voice to call on China to offer military assistance. Afghanistan is a thorny issue for the US. It might be one for China in the future,” he warned. Afghan Minister for Mines Muhammad Ibrahim Adel told the Daily Telegraph in November that China has a growing role in the country. He said Chinese projects are likely to triple the Afghan government’s revenues within five years. China Metallurgical Group and China’s top integrated copper producer, Jiangxi Copper Corporation, in July started work in Logar, a province southeast of Kabul, to explore and develop the vast Aynak copper mines. The $4 billion investment was the biggest in Afghanistan’s history and provided thousands of Afghans with jobs.”

5.A question worrying the Chinese is whether the Taliban, which has close relations with the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan (IMET), will honour the agreements signed by the Hamid Karzai Government with China if it comes to power after the withdrawal of the US-led NATO troops. The Chinese are hoping that the Pakistan Government would persuade the Taliban to honour the agreements.

6. It has been stated that the railway line proposal is to connect China with Uzbekistan through Kabul and Aynak, which is to the south of Kabul. It is not clear wherefrom the proposed line will enter Afghanistan from China. The construction of the line, which is unlikely to start for another three years, might require the stationing of troops of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Afghanistan to protect the Chinese construction personnel. It is not clear how this could affect the functioning of Indian-aided projects in Afghanistan.

7. Speaking on the occasion of the signing of the agreement on the feasibility study, Mr.Zou Jianhui, President of the MCC, is reported to have stated as follows: . “We are still at an early stage. This feasibility study will take two, or two-and-a-half years. If over this period the Afghan security situation gets more stable, and the feasibility study results are good, then we can move ahead with the investment immediately. If the security situation gets worse, then at that time the investors will have to assess how to go forward. The MCC has to ensure the security of investors’ assets, but felt the project would help Afghanistan’s stability and economic development, and is keen to push ahead.”

8.According to the Reuter’s news agency, a commitment to building the railway was included in a contract that the MCC won in 2008 to develop the Aynak copper deposit. China’s top integrated copper producer Jiangxi Copper has a 25 per cent share holding in  the project and the MCC the remaining 75 per cent. The two firms started construction of the project in July last year and expect it to produce 320,000 tonnes of copper concentrate annually, with production to begin in 2013 or 2014.

6. In his address to the London Conference on Afghanistan held in the last week of January,2010, Mr.Yang Jiechi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, said that  since 2002, China has provided  more than 900 million RMB yuan (132 million U.S. dollars) in grants  to the Afghan Government and canceled all its mature debts. China announced in 2009 that an additional  75 million U.S.dollars  in concessional loans which it  had previously committed would also be converted into grants, to be provided over a five-year period. The first instalment of  15 million dollars was given in 2009.The remaining 60 million U.S. dollars will be made available in the coming four years. By the end of 2009, China  had  trained  over 500 Afghan government officials in areas such as diplomacy, economy and trade, medical and health care, finance, tourism, agriculture and counternarcotics. On August 16,2009, Mr.Karzai inaugurated at Kabul a 350-bed hospital called the Republic Hospital  costing US Dollars 25 million constructed by the Chinese.

7.Since 2002, President Hamid Karzai has visited China four times. He paid his fourth visit in March last, accompanied by 20 businessmen. Premier Wen Jiabao reportedly  told Mr. Karzai in their meeting that China would continuously provide aid to Afghanistan and pledged to enhance security and economic cooperation. In a joint statement issued at the end of the visit, China reiterated its support for  peaceful reconstruction in Afghanistan. The two countries also agreed to expand economic cooperation and trade, increase mutual investment and technology transfer, and deepen cooperation in areas of transportation, agriculture and irrigation, energy, mining and infrastructure.  During the visit, Mr.Karzai and President Hu Jintao witnessed  the signing of three documents on economic and technological cooperation, favorable tariffs for Afghan exports to China and bilateral training programs. The two way trade between the two countries  reached 155 million US dollars in 2008.

8. The total value of the Chinese investment in the copper mine alone will be almost three times the total value of the Indian investments in all projects in Afghanistan. Pakistan, which has been repeatedly expressing concern over the Indian role in helping the Karzai Government, welcomes the Chinese  role and would like it to increase further. It even wants the Chinese to join in training the Afghan National Army. The US, which has strongly opposed any Indian role in training the ANA, has no such objection to a Chinese role. But, Beijing itself, despite prodding from the US, is reluctant. It wants to see how the ground situation develops. It does not want to incur the wrath of the Taliban by any major role in training the ANA despite Pakistani assurances that there would be no retaliation from the Taliban.

9. Addressing a meeting at  the Woodrow Wilson International Center  in Washington DC on September 20, Mr.James Steinberg, the US Deputy Secretary of State, reportedly said that China could play a role in bringing stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

10. Indian role in Afghanistan—-yes, but. Chinese role in Afghanistan—yes, absolutely. That is the policy of the Obama Administration. The Chinese policy in Afghanistan has two objectives—-to enhance its strategic presence and influence and to checkmate the Indian strategic presence and influence. The US support for the Chinese policy will be to the detriment of India. ( 27-9-10)

( The writer B Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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