Shaukat Qadir - Since the US invaded Afghanistan there has been a common thread to the policies of America and China towards Afghanistan. The US has consistently opposed a role for China in Afghanistan’s future and, equally consistently, China has refused to accept any meaningful role in Afghanistan’s future security or security-related aspects.
Not unsurprisingly, China has taken every opportunity to benefit from the vacuum in Afghanistan for economic opportunities. It has secured rights for copper mining and has been seeking opportunities to undertake other mining ventures. It has also invested in rail and road networks in those portions of Afghanistan in which China has an interest.
The US, on the other hand, might have lost virtually all opportunity to exploit the economic opportunities offered by Afghanistan and, through it, by Central Asia. However, it has sought every opportunity to safeguard its “strategic interests” to encircle China and Russia and deny both a role in the future of Afghanistan.
But China has never sought a role in Afghanistan’s future nor was it expected that US would ever acquiesce to giving China such a role.
It is against this backdrop that a most unexpected event occurred in mid-March when US experts on Pakistan and Afghanistan met their Chinese counterparts in Beijing. It was kept very quiet but some Chinese dailies made a small mention of it, which led to a mention in English-language media as well.
Commenting on the meeting for The Guardian, in an article titled “Afghanistan: as China forges new alliances, a new Great Game has begun”, the historian William Dalrymple attributed this development to Chinese concerns about its large Uighur population in the province of Xinjiang; and to the Uighurs’ possible “Pakistan connection”.
Even as he drew this conclusion, Dalrymple pointed out that the US State Department finds little evidence of a Pakistan connection with Uighurs, though it acknowledges the contribution of Uzbeks to Pakistan’s internal insecurity.
China’s long-term concern about its Uighurs is indisputable. Chinese historians attribute their ancestors’ defeat by Genghis Khan to the support ancient Uighurs gave the Mongol emperor.
The Chinese decided many decades ago that they were going to change the demographic contours of Xinjiang – and one way of doing that was through the decision to terminate the Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline at Urumchi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. As a consequence, Uighurs might soon become a minority in the region.
While I agree that the consequence of these developments do indicate the beginning of a “new Great Game” – a reference to historical jockeying for influence in Central Asia – I fear that Dalrymple might have merely scratched the surface of the reasons for this development. He obviously has no explanation for the US’s change in policy, and nor do I have an explanation that I can support with evidence. Therefore, I am forced to draw conclusions.
Not having been able to obtain its desired bilateral security agreement with the Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, the US will no longer be in a position to influence the future of Afghanistan after he leaves office. It would, therefore, be fair to conclude that America’s ambitious strategic plans for containing China and Russia have to be curtailed.
If the US has reached this conclusion, it must also have realised that it is compelled to seek assistance from either Russia or China so as to retain some measure of control over Afghanistan’s future. If this is a fair conclusion, which one of these two would be more acceptable to the US? China, a distant foe based in Asia, or Russia, the traditional foe that opposes the US on the European continent as well as in Asia?
I would choose China any time.
Dalrymple quotes the Sino-US confrontation in the South China Sea over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands as an event that has “disguised” the growing detente between these two great powers. I consider this confrontation as a turning point.
Apart from its concerns with its Uighurs, China, being a direct neighbour, has genuine interests regarding Afghanistan’s future. However, China has followed a policy of avoiding reasons for military confrontation with the US while it is growing economically.
So long as America considered Chinese interference in Afghanistan as a threat to US interests, China was more than willing to stay out of Afghanistan and bide its time. If, however, the US is willing to offer China some sort of role, it would be astonishing if China turned it down.
What is more, even as China is also seeking common ground with Russia, it is aware that the US is a distant foe. Even if Sino-Russian relations improve, China will inevitably have to face the Russian challenge in Asia just as the US and Nato must face Russia in Europe.
What would be more logical than a Sino-US detente on Afghanistan to jointly tame the Russian bear in Europe and Asia in this beginning of a new Great Game?–The National