China and the Afghan Endgame

BEIJING – Ever since US President Barack Obama decided to begin withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, global interest in what role (if any) China will play in determining that war-ravaged country’s future has grown dramatically. After all, China is not merely a neighbor of Afghanistan, but the world’s most important rising power – indeed, a “world power,” as Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff proclaimed in Beijing this past June.

If China proves itself willing to help shore up Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration, it will not seek to gain any immediate advantage from the withdrawal of US forces. But, despite the billions of dollars China has invested in developing Afghanistan’s natural resources, it is hard to see it undertaking a policy of broader and proactive engagement there.

One reason why China is wary of assuming a bigger role in Afghanistan, despite the country’s undoubted importance for regional stability, is that America’s war there has been controversial in China from the outset. Chinese nationalists believe that the war was undertaken by the US partly in order to place its military near one of China’s most sensitive borders. Moreover, to supply its Afghan forces, the US deepened its military footprint in Central Asia by renting the Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, which also shares a border with China.

In the eyes of Chinese nationalists, these efforts were all the part of an American conspiracy to encircle China. Thus, Chinese nationalists can’t wait to see the back of America’s Afghan military presence.