China key to US's Afghan endgame

The affairs of Afghanistan and Pakistan are becoming the biggest test of whether the United States and China can cooperate to maintain global peace and stability in the 21st century.

They are an even bigger test of this than the Korean Peninsula, for the security equation there is largely frozen, whereas in Afghanistan and Pakistan it is very volatile indeed, as circumstances surrounding the death of Osama bin Laden have emphasised.

The future of Afghanistan is also a test of other great-power relationships that will largely define the 21st century in Asia: Of whether China and India are doomed to mutual hostility or can find areas of cooperation; and of whether the Chinese-Russian relationship will become a true partnership that will seek common solutions to key problems.

As the US moves toward a withdrawal of its ground forces from Afghanistan, the role of the region is bound to become increasingly important. The question now is whether Washington is prepared to accommodate its wishes to those of other powers in the area, and help broker a regional settlement for Afghanistan in which the US will be only one player among several.

Commercial investment

China, along with Pakistan, India, Russia and Iran, has a critical role to play. It borders Afghanistan, albeit for only a few miles. China’s possession of a huge Muslim territory in Xinjiang makes it acutely conscious of the threat of Islamist extremism both to its own territory and to former Soviet Central Asia. China has committed itself to far the biggest commercial investment in Afghanistan — $3 billion in the Aynak copper mine.

Finally, China has a very great stake in Pakistan, which is indeed China’s only real ally in the world. The importance of this relationship has been emphasised by statements of support for Pakistan from Beijing in the wake of Osama’s death, and the visit of Pakistan’s prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, to China. Reports from Kabul say that Pakistan has been encouraging the Karzai administration to look to Beijing, not Washington, as a future sponsor.

Many Pakistanis are now open in their desire that China replace the US as Pakistan’s main international backer. China’s aid to Pakistan is still considerably exceeded by that of the US, but China has become a key provider of military equipment to Pakistan, and has also invested heavily in Pakistani infrastructure.

China’s stake in Pakistan is threefold. There is the desire dating back to the 1960s to use Pakistan as balance against India, with which China has a major border dispute and that China regards as a potential rival. China has also used Pakistan as a link to Islamist groups in the region. Finally, China is building up energy routes from the Gulf via Pakistan to insure China against any future naval blockade by the US or India.

At the same time, China is by no means unconditionally committed to Pakistan, and this should give Washington room for manoeuver. Beijing has in fact played a rather cautious hand, keeping its aid limited. Both the corruption and incompetence of the Pakistani state and the spread of Islamist insurgency in Pakistan have made Beijing wary of a deeper commitment.

Up to now, China seems to have assumed that it could do separate deals with the Taliban and their allies to exclude Uighur militants, and that it may be able to do the same kind of deal to defend the Aynak mine. This is a mistake.

While American and Indian hopes that the Taliban can be defeated in the Pashtun areas are clearly impossible, so to are Taliban hopes of sweeping to power in the whole of Afghanistan. The US, India and Russia will make sure that, as before 9/11, non-Pashtun armies continue to defend their own areas against the Taliban. This is a recipe for unending civil war.

Another reason why China should help seek an Afghan peace settlement is for the sake of Pakistan’s stability. Continued war in Afghanistan will mean continued radicalisation in Pakistan. This in turn will increase the risk that Pakistan-based terrorists will strike at the US or India. Especially following Osama’s death, a terrorist attack with links to Pakistan would so infuriate Americans that retaliation against Pakistan would be a real possibility, and no concern either for the risks or for US relations with China would prevent this.
If China truly cares about Pakistan’s survival, it should be doing everything possible to get the Pakistanis to prevent international terrorism based on their soil.

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