Hongkong press reports in the first week of December 2009 have disclosed that Washington has made a request to Beijing for permission to use Xinjiang’s narrow 76-kilometer Wakhan corridor bordering Afghanistan as an additional route for transporting US and NATO military supplies to Northern Afghanistan. The request has been said to be on the basis of US perceptions that the existing channels for the purpose through Pakistan are prone to terrorist threats. Subsequently, evidences towards the beginning of a public debate on the subject through some of the media and blogs are surfacing in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the spotlight now seems to have shifted to a wider issue: what should be the country’s future Afghanistan strategy?
Beijing’s official response to the US request has so far been cautious, with the PRC Foreign Ministry Spokesperson stating (Dongfang Zao Bao, 6 December 2009 as reported in http://watchingamerica.com/News/39908) in a reply to a question that China will continue to ‘maintain a dialogue with the US on the matter’.
The Chinese media on the other hand have been more forthright. An authoritative analysis (by Director of Centre for China and Globalisation, Beijing, http://opinion.globaltimes.cn/coomentary/2009-12/490132_2.html dated 7 December 2009) does not see any chance of China giving ‘substantial support’ to the US in Afghanistan, unless Washington stops treating Beijing as potential adversary and shows sufficient sensitivity to the latter’s core interests like return to China of Uighur prisoners held in Guantanamo bay and Taiwan. At the same time, it supports an Afghanistan policy for China as a part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation initiative and advises a China-Pakistan joint approach towards Afghanistan in conformity with their strategic partnership.
A subsequent blog in the authoritative website, ‘Huan Qiu’, the Chinese language version of the Global Times (blog.huanqiu.com/? uid-160107-action-viewspace-itemid-399427 dated 22 December 2009), raises a question: where will China’s territorial sovereignty be if an US military base comes up in Xinjiang? According to it, analysts in the mainland-controlled press in Hongkong as well as researchers in the PRC foreign ministry-affiliated China Institute of International Studies, have already come out in support of the US military entering China and both the nations joining in the attack against Afghanistan extremists. They have also viewed that a US military presence in Xinjiang can facilitate troops of both nations coming together to fight against ‘Xinjiang independence and splittist forces.’ The blog then mocks at such writers by asking whether or not they know the fact that it is the US which nurtures ‘Xinjiang splittists’ and hits them by saying that they are similar to those who had believed that the entry of Japanese troops into China could lead to realization of ‘East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere’.
Another contribution (bbs.huanqiu.com dated 24 December 2009) also takes a firm position against Beijing’s acceptance of the US request, by emphasizing that China’s principled stand on non-violation of the country’s territorial sovereignty should not be sacrificed. Raising the wider issue of China’s Afghanistan strategy, it points out that neighboring nations of Afghanistan particularly Iran and Pakistan, in their self interests, may welcome China’s military involvement as the same can contribute to prevention of chaos in Afghanistan. On the part of Russia, it is concerned with China’s expanding influence in Central Asia and to create a balance, would like China to fall into the trap of Afghanistan quagmire and get weakened in the process. India’s attitude would be similar.
Another write-up on the same day (Global Times, 24 December 2009) asks China to realize the consequences of siding with the US in Afghanistan and warns against getting “dragged into the US messy airs in Central Asia and becoming a US scapegoat”. It, in addition, cautions China against the possible adverse reaction likely from the Muslim world. The analysis at the same time justifies any dispatch of Chinese police forces, not troops, to Afghanistan, to safeguard the PRC’s ongoing Chinese projects.
No doubt the above are some of the public opinions carried in the Chinese media. They may have no direct relation to the formulation of government’s policies, but their potential to influence the decision-making cannot be doubted. Looking from this perspective, a firm inference can be drawn that the PRC may refrain from sending its troops to Afghanistan as part of US and NATO alliance forces; possible on the other hand is dispatch of its police to Afghanistan to safeguard the China’s ongoing economic ventures, like the US$3 billion dollar Aynak copper mining project. China would like to promote building of infrastructure in Afghanistan such as a railway to transport copper, besides strengthening trade and investment relations.
Secondly, China may find it difficult to provide any facility to the US in Wakhan corridor. This subject involves the sensitive factor of territorial sovereignty, which the Chinese leadership cannot afford to ignore. Accepting US request may even become an element in China’s factional domestic politics.
The appeals from the Afghan leaders to China for opening Wakhan corridor, fall under different category. Both the sides seem to eye on mutual benefits, mainly economic, if the corridor is open. As per a BBC report (‘ China Mulls Afghanistan Border Request’, Sheldon Filger, 6 December 2009), Beijing has promised to be ‘earnest and positive’ to Kabul’s pleas (made by President Karzai at Beijing in August 2008 and later by Vice-President Mohammad Karim Khalili at Beijing in October 2009) for developing Wakhan, especially building road links between Badakhshan province and Xinjiang.
The US-China Joint Statement issued at the conclusion of President Obama’s visit to China, mentioned ‘support’ of the two sides to the “efforts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight terrorism, maintain domestic stability and achieve sustainable economic and social development”. The question is in what specific forms the Chinese support will be; that would depend on Beijing’s Afghanistan strategy in the coming years. The strategy would definitely revolve around China’s quest for energy and resources in Afghanistan, the latter’s importance for it in countering Uighur separatism and terrorism in Xinjiang and its evolving relations with Central Asian nations as well as Iran, Pakistan and India, which will be both cooperative and competitive. The strategy will also be tempered by the necessity for China to keep the Muslim world on its side while extending any support to the anti-Taliban actions underway in Afghanistan. It may also be not surprising if Beijing chooses to tolerate a Taliban-led regime assuming power in Afghanistan; it appears to be still unsure of the outcome of the current offensive against Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Opinions in the state-controlled media (e.g. Li Hongmei, People’s Daily, 23 December 2009) have of late rather been pessimistic about the US success in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Beijing’s future moves towards Afghanistan will have implications for India. It is no secret that Pakistan aims at restricting Indian influence in Afghanistan. Besides historical and cultural links, India’s commercial initiatives in Afghanistan like power and road projects are contributing to the better standard of living for the Afghan people and making bilateral relations stronger. In strategic sense, the importance of Afghanistan for India needs no emphasis. In such a scenario, any increase in China’s profile in Afghanistan, may complicate the already existing regional power rivalry. In this regard, the following remarks (20 September 2009) of the US General Stanley McChrystal appear relevant – “Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant development efforts and financial investment. In addition, the current Afghan government is perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian. While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani counter-measures in Afghanistan or India.”
(The writer, Mr. D.S.Rajan, is the Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, India.Email:firstname.lastname@example.org)