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China has been a mere spectator during the decades-long conflict in Afghanistan. However, Beijing has been playing a more active role recently; an approach welcomed by the recently elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Ghani's first overseas trip has led him to China. The Afghan president (main picture, right) was greeted by his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing on Tuesday, October 28. The last day of his four-day trip to the neighboring country coincides with the Fourth Ministerial Conference of the Istanbul Process on Afghanistan which is set to bring together Afghanistan's 14 neighbors, including Russia, Turkey and India.
The aim of the initiative in Beijing is to promote a stable development of the South Asian nation. According to China's state-run news agency Xinhua, the meeting has special significance, as it is "the first international meeting on Afghanistan in China and the first since the change of government in Afghanistan."
Beijing has gradually increased its engagement in Afghanistan since 2012. China's former head of internal security, Zhou Yongkang, traveled to Kabul, with both governments agreeing, among other things, to the training of 300 Afghan police officers in China.
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Beijing in 2010 after his controversial re-election
Beijing wants secure borders
As the withdrawal of ISAF combat troops approaches, Beijing now has to consider the possibility that the already precarious political and security situation in Afghanistan might further deteriorate. "For China, geopolitics plays a major role," says Pan Zhiping, Central Asia expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Xinjiang. "Afghanistan's stability is important for China's security," he said.
Beijing wants to prevent that Uighur extremists in Xinjiang receive any assistance from "like-minded people" located in border areas, especially in terms of logistics, propaganda and personnel. Back in the days of the Taliban, Beijing had established contact with the militants seeking a guarantee that no attacks by Uighur separatists would be launched from Afghanistan.
Talks with the Taliban
Beijing has kept this pragmatic approach towards the Taliban to this day, Jochen Hippler, political scientist at the University of Duisburg-Essen, told DW. "Should the Taliban indicate that they are ready to cooperate with China economically, then Chinese condemnation of the militant group will likely be mild or even non-existent. But if Beijing finds the Taliban to be an obstacle to the exploitation of Afghan mineral resources - or even potential supporters of Muslim militants in China - then they will be rejected," said Hippler.
The Chinese mining company MCC is in charge of exploiting the copper mine in Mes Aynak
However, that does not mean that China will get engaged militarily to fill the security vacuum left by the NATO troop drawdown. "Whoever sends soldiers to such a complicated country, will soon find itself in trouble," said Pan Zhiping, referring to Beijing's view of the issue. Instead, China will seek to stabilize the Ghani government through economic development and regional initiatives such as the "Istanbul Process."
From Kabul's perspective, the expansion of economic relations with China and cooperation in the fight against terrorism are just two sides of the same coin. "China can play an important role to achieve peace and security in Afghanistan," Ghani's spokesman Fayeq Wahedi told DW.
"We see China both as a neighbor and regional power which can support Afghanistan in all areas, including the economy, trade and security." Terrorism is now a common threat to both the countries, so it is important that the two cooperate to that end," the spokesman added.
Political scientist Hippler believes that Kabul's rapprochement with China following the withdrawal of NATO forces is only logical. "Ghani wants to reduce Afghanistan's strong dependency on the US and other NATO countries. Moreover, China - unlike the US and the European Union - is politically flexible and will not burden the Afghans with issues of "good governance" as long as economic ties flourish," said Hippler.
Afghanistan needs foreign investment and could use its vast untapped natural resources to this end. An agreement with China on the exploitation of a copper mine in Mes Aynak in Logar Province, south of Kabul, has been in place since 2007. However, due to the precarious security situation and lack of infrastructure, the multibillion-dollar project is currently on hold.
A delegation of the Chinese mining company MCC, responsible for the mine, traveled to Kabul in September. But while both sides expressed their intention to hold on to the project, they acknowledged some difficulties.
But this is not the only Chinese project in Afghanistan. The Chinese Petrochemical Group CNPC has been extracting oil from the Amu Darya basin on the border with Turkmenistan. However, there is an ongoing dispute between the Afghan authorities and Chinese contractors over cost. The mining technology dates back to Soviet times.
Central Asia expert Pan Zhiping says that economic cooperation between the two countries should be regarded as a long-term project, adding that stability will be the prerequisite for economic development. "While Chinese leaders are interested in the mineral resources, they will have to wait until the situation stabilizes and the Afghan government has the situation under control," Zhiping told DW.