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China’s Afghan Game Plan

MADRID – In his latest book, On China, Henry Kissinger uses the traditional intellectual games favored by China and the West – weiqi and chess – as a way to reveal their differing attitudes toward international power politics. Chess is about total victory, a Clausewitzian battle for the “center of gravity” and the eventual elimination of the enemy, whereas weiqi is a quest for relative advantage through a strategy of encirclement that avoids direct conflict.

This cultural contrast is a useful guide to the way that China manages its current competition with the West. China’s Afghan policy is a case in point, but it also is a formidable challenge to the weiqi way. As the United States prepares to withdraw its troops from the country, China must deal with an uncertain post-war scenario.

Afghanistan is of vital strategic interest to China, yet it never crossed its leaders’ minds to defend those interests through war. A vital security zone to China’s west, Afghanistan is also an important corridor through which it can secure its interests in Pakistan (a traditional ally in China’s competition with India), and ensure its access to vital natural resources in the region. Moreover, China’s already restless Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang, which borders on Afghanistan, might be dangerously affected by a Taliban takeover there, or by the country’s dismemberment.

The US fought its longest-ever war in Afghanistan, at a cost (so far) of more than $555 billion, not to mention tens of thousands of Afghan civilian casualties and close to 3,100 US troops killed. But China’s strategy in the country was mostly focused on business development, and on satiating its vast appetite for energy and minerals. The US Defense Department has valued Afghanistan’s untapped mineral deposits at $1 trillion. But it is China that is now poised to exploit much of these resources.