Kuwait plans a future megalopolis – a $100 billion project known as Silk City. The new development is set to transform the oil-rich country but also to hardwire Kuwait into the regional architecture of a rising global power: China (asiatimes.com/).
Since January of 2018, Madinat Al Hareer (translated to Silk City), Kuwait’s future city has been under construction. Conceptualized as a solution to Kuwait’s growing overpopulation and overloaded infrastructure issues, Madinat Al Hareer is also expected to boost Kuwait’s already strong economy.
The city will be connected to Kuwait City via the Jaber Causeway which is still under construction and is highly anticipated due to the numerous attractions it is going encompass upon its completion. With the capability of housing up to 700,000 people, Madinat Al Hareer is going to incorporate multiple other attractions like an Olympic Stadium, nature reservation area over a 2 square kilometers area, and a new airport. A duty-free area in addition to multiple amenities will include business, leisure, athletic and environmental areas, and conventions (weetas.com/madinat-al-hareer-next-big-thing/).
The city also aims to cement Kuwait into a larger, global picture. The selection of the northern area aims at transforming Kuwait into an international hub for huge foreign investments (asiatimes.com/article/a-bridge-to-china-kuwaits-silk-city/).
According to 2008 estimates, Kuwait’s exports, totaling $95.46 billion, consisted of oil, oil products, and fertilizer. Their destinations included: Japan 19.9%, South Korea 17%, Taiwan 11.2%, Singapore 9.9%, the US 8.4%, Netherlands 4.8%, and China 4.4% (2007). Kuwait, with only 130 square km of irrigated land (2003 estimate), less than 1% of arable land, and with an almost non-existent industrial base, depends entirely on imports for almost every necessity and luxury of life. According to 2008 estimates, it imported food, construction materials, vehicles and spare parts, and clothing worth $26.54 billion (f.o.b.). Which came from: US 12.7%, Japan 8.5%, Germany 7.3%, China 6.8%, South Korea 6.6%, Saudi Arabia 6.2%, Italy 5.8%, and the UK 4.6% (2007) (mei.edu/publications/kuwait-looks-towards-east-relations-china).
China is already the largest investor in the Gulf and the Gulf’s number two trading partner. The new transport, logistics and financial hub in the northern Gulf are set to join the People’s Republic’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Kuwait has already become one of the most active partners in the BRI, too, with it looking east for economic development, while China looks west (asiatimes.com/article/a-bridge-to-china-kuwaits-silk-city/).
Kuwait and China have long enjoyed cordial and friendly bilateral relations. Both sides have been working steadily to broaden and deepen cooperation in the political, economic, and social fields.
The Chinese fondly recall that Kuwait was the first Gulf state to establish diplomatic relations with them 38 years ago, on March 22, 1971. Beijing also appreciate[s] Kuwait’s valuable support on such issues as Taiwan, human rights, and others. Kuwait continues to firmly adhere” to the one-China policy, opposes any attempt to forge two Chinas or one China, one Taiwan” and supports China’s any efforts in safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
High-level contacts and bilateral visits reflect the state of relations between countries. The members of the Kuwaiti ruling family holding important positions in the government visited China even before the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1971. The late Amir Shaykh Jabir al-Ahmad Al Sabah visited Beijing in February 1965 when he was Minister of Finance, Industry, and Commerce. Again, in his capacity as Amir of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait, he visited China for three days, beginning on December 26, 1990, to canvass support for ending the Iraqi occupation of his shaykhdom. Following the liberation of Kuwait in February 1991, the late Amir again paid a three-day visit to China to convey his country’s gratitude to the government and people of China for their invaluable support during the darkest days of Kuwait’s history (mei.edu/kuwait-looks-towards-east-relations-china).
The selection of the northern area aims at transforming Kuwait into an international hub for huge foreign investments and will enable us to reach out to far places like the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, Turkey, and Eastern Europe.
In this wider strategy, China plays a key role. Soon after meeting a major delegation from the People’s Republic and signing several key Memorandums of Understanding – including one to begin the first phase of Silk City’s construction. China is involved in Khalifa port in Abu Dhabi, Duqm port in Oman, Jizan in Saudi Arabia, Djibouti and Port Said in Egypt. Kuwait can be part of this, while also connecting to the overland routes of the New Silk Road through Asia and down into Iran and Iraq.
China’s participation in the project – and particularly in the port – is also likely to prove an astute move by Kuwait, as the People’s Republic is often seen as a neutral party in this part of the Gulf. China has good relations with everyone. Countries in the region may have conflicts with each other, but not with China.
For Kuwait, it’s in their interest that both of its neighbors, Iraq and Iran, see the port as a friendly facility. The potential for Kuwait to play a much bigger role in the region lies in its being a conduit to these other markets.
Far from just economic gain, developing the region presents Kuwait with a needed security measure. Silk City’s planners see a future in which this region and the adjacent Al Bubiyan island – opposite Iraq’s Al Faw peninsula and a short distance from the Iraqi port of Um Qasr – will be transformed. A major population right on the border with Iraq will also help assert Kuwaiti rule over this largely empty region.
After Iraq invaded through this area in in the first Gulf War, Kuwait realized that population is a good stabilizer of territory – a first line of defense. Silk City is a way of consolidating sovereignty over this area.
Iraq and Kuwait have several contentious issues between them – such as still-missing Kuwaiti POWs from the 1990-1991 war and Iraqi war reparations, which Baghdad still pays (asiatimes.com/article/a-bridge-to-china-kuwaits-silk-city/).
China’s developing partnership is not solely relegated to Kuwait. Last February, Qatar-China Business Forum was organized by China’s Ministry of Commerce in Beijing. The conference aimed to strengthen joint cooperation, promote bilateral trade, investment and industrial relations. Also discussed were prospects for new partnerships between the two countries. The forum, which was attended by Qatari and Chinese officials and businessmen, decision-makers, investors, and executives from major companies, resulted in the agreement between the two countries to boost their ties.
Another crucial institution is the China-GCC Strategic Dialogue, which was founded in 2010 to upgrade Sino-Gulf ties by upgrading the relationship to the level of strategic. To date, the China-GCC Strategic Dialogue has established strategic partnerships with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, and the UAE, and has engaged in negotiations with Bahrain.
A number of other institutions have also been established to support China-Gulf interactions, such as the China-GCC Cooperation Forum, China-GCC Trade and Economic Joint Committee, China-Arab States Economic and Trade Forum, and China-GCC Countries Forum on Economic Trade Cooperation (mei.edu/kuwait-looks-towards-east-relations-china).
Former President Hu Jintao twice made that point during his visits to Saudi Arabia to express his support and interest in the organization. I noticed in my meetings with Hu during his official visits to Saudi Arabia in April 2006 and February 2009, how much he knew about the GCC and how keen he was to cement that relationship. His knowledge of the minute details of GCC-China relations was unusual and duly impressive. China has for some time made it clear that it considered the GCC, as an organization, one of its top priorities, in addition to its interest in GCC member states individually. With its keen advocacy of Third World capabilities, it considers the GCC an effective regional organization composed and run by developing nations, like China itself. (arabnews.com/news/511401).
These institutions have served as an important platform for China’s soft-power efforts. For example, various meetings, summits, and agreements organized by these institutions have been utilized to raise awareness about each other and to universalize each other’s interests. In addition, these institutions have also served as platforms to propagate Chinese political views on regional issues and to present China as an alternative to Western powers.
China’s dependence on Gulf oil has been increasing gradually since 1993 when it became a net importer of oil. Last year, it overtook Japan as the second largest importer of oil after the US. Today, it imports 32% of its energy needs. It is estimated that by 2030, China will need to import more than ten million barrels per day (b/d; i.e., more than three-quarters of its domestic consumption). In 2008, China’s oil imports of about 3.6 million b/d were estimated to have cost it around $130 billion. Presently, more than half of China’s oil imports come from the Gulf, with Iran and Saudi Arabia claiming the lion’s share. Within a decade, the Gulf’s overall share is expected to rise to over 70%. Obviously, China’s ever-growing reliance on imported oil will increase its dependency on the Gulf.
Trade between the Gulf states and China is not a one-way affair. During the years 2003-2007, Gulf imports from China more than quadrupled, from around $7 billion in 2003 to $30 billion in 2007. Likewise, total two-way trade also grew almost four times over the same period, from $15 billion to $58 billion. Bilateral trade during 2008 is estimated to have topped the $80 billion mark.
The Gulf states are also increasingly sending significant sums of portfolio investments into China. Bitten by American protectionism, such as the Dubai Ports debacle in 2006, and impressed by a higher growth rate and attracted by better returns in Asia, Gulf investors are gradually turning from West to East — mainly China. All the major sovereign wealth funds of the Gulf have already made significant investments in China; the Kuwait Investment Authority has doubled its investments in Asia over the past two years. The GCC’s “look towards the East” policy and China’s “Go Outward” policy are converging on a win-win position for both sides, with far-reaching consequences for the future of the global economy (mei.edu/kuwait-looks-towards-east-relations-china).
China is the second largest consumer of oil in the world, and this consumption is only likely to grow as is continues building the industrial sector of its economy. It is imperative that it has steady access to a large abundance of oil and that means having strong ties to oil-rich nations to ensure a steady supply. At the same time having a strong influence in the Middle East with the same countries that supply the United States would give China tremendous influence in the world.
China is seeking to accomplish two goals: ensure a large amount of oil on a steady basis to reliably power its economy and secure relations with wealthy trading partners that Chinese businesses can export goods and services to. By investing in many projects such as Silk City, China seeks to avoid the complications the U.S has had with the Arab world’s difficult political culture. Controlling several businesses and having partial ownership of essential projects would give China a great deal of entrenched power in the region that would make it more influential in regional politics.
At the same time, many of the Gulf counties have been steadily growing their economies, diversifying their economic interests outside of petroleum, and becoming some of the richest nations in the world. China wants to tap into this economy and ensure their businesses have an open window to sell into this market.
Another facet that needs to be recognized is the security issue. The US relies heavily on the oil supply from the Middle East to support its economy. Eventually, China hopes to supersede the US not only as the Arab world’s trading partner but as a security ally.
Having an entrenched position within these countries assumes that eventually, China may actually arrive at a place where it could influence the balance of power between it and the US by being able to influence the direction of oil supplies and Arab-US relations in general.
Inevitably, China will become a significant power in the Middle East. From this, one of two scenarios is likely. The first scenario is through massive investments in infrastructure and business development in many of the sheikdoms. China will gain enough soft power to force the Arab world away from dealings with the US. The second consideration is that the Arab nations will use the situation to their advantage by leveraging the power balance between the US and China to gain more beneficial terms in future dealings with either.
During the cold war, the Soviet Union and the United States used arms transfers and military assistance as one element in foreign and security policies that was primarily intended to further a political and ideological competition. But with the end of the cold war, the international arms trade no longer has the same politico-military underpinning.
In the late 1980s, the changes in foreign policy initiated by President Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze transformed the pattern of Soviet arms exports. After 1992, decisions by Russia about foreign, domestic and economic policy altered the size and pattern of arms exports even further. According to the Office of the President, in 1996 military-technical cooperation generated $2.5 billion in revenue of which $2.1 billion was in convertible currency and the rest in currencies that could not be freely converted. Russia also delivered arms and military equipment against debts owed to several foreign countries (www.sipri.org/publications/1998/russia-and-arms-trade).
The exports of black and gray arms represent between 5-15% of total weapons exports from Russia. For example, when the official exports of weapons and military equipment from Russia amounted to $3.8 billion in the early 2000s, the black and gray export was closer to $380 million. Russian merchants of death also have a large scale operation in the Middle East. Russia was accused of supplying arms to terrorist organizations such as Hamas, IG, and Hezbollah with the ruling Assad regime in Syria acting as an intermediary.
Syria has been in a state of civil war for many years with rebels trying to overthrow the pro-Kremlin regime. Since the beginning of the war, Russian arms supplies to Syria have grown exponentially. Moscow officially claims that deliveries are made on previous contracts, but it cannot explain why the number of these contracts suddenly increased many times over. In this case, there is real doubt that the weapons contracts are paid for, since it is no secret that the Assad regime is bankrupt and unable to buy the mountains of weapons supplied over these years from Russia, including small arms, anti-aircraft, and anti-ship missiles, C-SAM (ZRK S-300), tanks T-72 and T-80, and MiG-29 and Su-25 aircraft. And that doesn’t even include the cost of ammunition.
Israeli intelligence agencies have repeatedly implicated the Kremlin in the supply of weapons to Hezbollah, including rockets, ammunition, and small firearms. In fact, the IDF has actively prevented completion of several Kremlin plans for the armament of Hezbollah brokered by Assad. Israeli aircraft have repeatedly destroyed the anti-aircraft missiles S-300, anti-ship missiles Yakhont, and ground-to-ground missiles on Syrian territory that were intended for Hezbollah. Israeli forces seized Russian-made weapons, the ATGM Cornet, from Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Russian smuggling in the Middle East is not limited to the supply of weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah. There are reasons to believe the Kremlin is also supplying weapons to the terrorist group ISIS. Russians could not transfer weapons to militants openly, because it officially recognized ISIS as a terrorist organization. Then there was a scam—a series of staged assaults by militants on the bases of Syrian government troops. Assad’s army retreated without a fight, leaving the entire base along with loads of weapons. Hence, this was a way to deliver arms under the guise of trophies. It is noteworthy that when the relationship between ISIS and the Assad regime went sour, attacks on government troops became violent and the weapons were destroyed (informnapalm.org/).
By 2015, the US was first in value of all arms deliveries made around the world, at a value of $16.9 billion or 36.62% of the total. The US and Russia made up just over half of all arms transfer agreements to developing world countries. Each year, between 2008 and 2015, two or three major suppliers made most of the arms transfers to that market. It was the eighth year in a row that the US was first in this category, and Russia was second in each of those eight years.
Russia is able to offer a variety of munitions, from low-tech gear to advanced weapons systems. It has sold combat aircraft and main battle tanks to China and India and made arms deals with the likes of Malaysia, Burma, and Algeria. Moscow has focused its recent arms-sales efforts on Latin America, where Venezuela has been a principal buyer. Russia has also worked to make it's weapons deal terms more flexible and to improve its follow-on services to clients (www.businessinsider.com/us-russia-global-arms-sales-2016-12).
Recently the issue that has come between the US and Russia is the sale of the S-400 air defense system. The S-400 Triumph (NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler) is an air defence missile system developed by Almaz Central Design Bureau of Russia. The S-400 Triumph air defence system integrates a multifunction radar, autonomous detection and targeting systems, anti-aircraft missile systems, launchers, and command and control centre. It is capable of firing three types of missiles to create a layered defence. The system can engage all types of aerial targets including aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and ballistic and cruise missiles within the range of 400km, at an altitude of up to 30km. The system can simultaneously engage 36 targets. The S-400 is two-times more effective than previous Russian air defence systems and can be deployed within five minutes. It can also be integrated into the existing and future air defence units of the Air Force, Army, and the Navy. Russia intends to supply export versions of the S-400 Triumph system to the armed forces of China. Turkey also expressed interest in purchasing S-400 air defence systems (www.army-technology.com/projects/s-400-triumph-air-defence-missile-system/).
Russia’s ability to sell its S-400 air defense system to several different countries in different theaters illustrates the geopolitics of this particular system. Despite US sanctions on the Russian defense company Almaz-Antey, Moscow is offering or has sold the S-400 to a number of countries, including NATO member Turkey. The US is also watching closely for other S-400 sales to countries such as Algeria, Belarus, Iran, and Vietnam, thus reducing the American sphere of influence and boosting Russia’s ability to arm, equip, and train other countries’ air defense capabilities regardless of the theater. The key issue here is what the US will do given the defense requirements of other countries who want to continue to do defense business with Moscow. Both Turkey and, in particular, India now stand out (www.arabnews.com/node/1390056). The U.S. aggressive stance has also set it at further odds with China.
The Trump administration imposed sanctions on the Chinese military on Thursday for buying fighter jets and missile systems from Russia in breach of a sweeping US sanctions law punishing Moscow for meddling in the 2016 US election. The US State Department said it would immediately impose sanctions on China’s Equipment Development Department (EDD), the military branch responsible for weapons and equipment, and its director, Li Shangfu, for engaging in “significant transactions” with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s main arms exporter. The sanctions are related to China’s purchase of 10 SU-35 combat aircraft in 2017 and S-400 surface-to-air missile system-related equipment in 2018, according to the State Department. In Beijing, the Chinese government expressed anger and demanded the sanctions be withdrawn (www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-sanctions/u-s-sanctions-china-for-buying-russian-fighter-jets-missiles-idUSKCN1M02TP).
This intelligence site has previously reported that Russia is building its economic base and influence in the world by availing itself to countries under US or UN sanctions as a viable trading partner. Based on this strategy it is using its arms business to further undermine the effectiveness of US sanctions and bolster its own position as a sphere of influence in the world.
It is also a source of revenue for the Russian economy they will continue to foster through both legitimate sales and black-market deals. In the long run, Russia’s arms sales will constitute a serious threat for the United States. In addition to eroding the effectiveness of US sanctions, technology such as the S-400 changes the battlefield dynamics by enhancing the defenses of hostile countries. The fact that Russia has been willing to turn a blind eye or actively encourage an illicit market to further their customer base explains how important the arms market has become for them.
The US needs to recognize that Russia’s arms business is only going to expand and proliferate, especially to countries and groups that are sanctioned by the US. Russia has grown to become the second largest arms merchant in the world just behind the United States. In time it is capable of becoming the largest, thus Russia will remain a significant threat to US authority. In response, the US needs to start developing more diverse measures and threats to deal with foreign adversaries; measures that do not rely solely on sanctions. It will also have to deal with adversaries that will be able to obtain more sophisticated weapons because of this.
In the last few years, China has showed a serious signs of expanding its interest into central and southern Asia. This is a large part of their modern security strategy. Their concern is that Afghanistan will become a stronghold for Islamic separatists threatening their western regions (Eden, 2018). China’s greatest fears and motivation all center on unrest and a perceived threat to overall national security arising out of Xinjiang. The traditionally Muslim-majority province has been a source of pronounced concern for Beijing for decades (thediplomat.com/).
For Beijing, instability in Central Asia in general and Afghanistan in particular is a matter of concern. It is seen to have a “direct influence” on the security of China’s western provinces, particularly Xinjiang. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is known to have bases in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and Beijing has been apprehensive over ETIM fighters and other jihadists entering Xinjiang through Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor to radicalize Uyghurs or carry out attacks in China (thediplomat.com/).
Badakhshan, an Afghan province in the far eastern part of the country is of particular interest. The government is worried this region will become a safe haven for Uyghur terrorists who are the primary threat in the western region (Eden, 2018). Along the 76-kilometre border between Afghanistan and China, a massive gorge is located on the Chinese side, where Chinese Muslims live, who are closely watched by the Chinese authorities. During the rule of the Taliban, large groups of Chinese Uyghurs were seen among foreign militants under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. They had obviously received good military training in the Al-Qaeda camps. Today many are still active now, and not only in the ranks of the Taliban. Many have blended among different groups of foreign mercenaries, which could create great problems for the Chinese authorities. China, with the help of the army and law enforcement agencies in Afghanistan, has been trying to prevent the penetration of Uyghur militants into its territory, most of which have so far joined the IS. Law enforcers assume that that the largest group of Uyghur militants already reside in the Afghan province of Badakhshan and can make a rapid shift to China (enews.fergananews.com/).
The Chinese government has for decades tried to push back against a separatist movement by Uighurs to establish an independent state called East Turkestan. Uighurs accuse the government of forcing demographic changes by settling millions of Han Chinese in the region. The government crackdown increased in recent years because of the rise of the Islamic State and fears of expansion by the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) or Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which China accuses of being behind several terrorist attacks in the country (www.aopnews.com/human-rights/).
The Afghan delegation, led by Defence Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami, visited China during which the parties agreed to build the base. Tariq Shah, with his Chinese colleague General Chang Wanquan and other military officials, discussed security issues and agreed to cooperate on fighting terrorism in the Afghan province of Badakhshan and the entire northern region. The agreement has specified that the Chinese side covers all material and technical expenses for this base: weaponry, uniforms for soldiers, military equipment and everything else necessary for its functioning (enews.fergananews.com/).
China has promised to provide $85 million for the Afghan army to create a mountainous brigade for the protection of the Badakhshan border (ariananews.af/).
The Afghan Defence Ministry said that preparations for the start of construction of a military base in Badakhshan by Afghan military experts has already begun. A special commission established will determine the location of the base, construction costs, and other technical issues (enews.fergananews.com/).
In a formal briefing by the Chinese Ministry of Defense, a brief explanation was given:
"According to the information provided by relevant departments, the law-enforcement departments of China and Afghanistan, in accordance with the agreement of strengthening border law enforcement cooperation between the two sides, have been conducting joint law enforcement operations in areas bordering both countries in recent years, in order to jointly prevent and fight against terrorism activities and organized transnational crimes. I’d like to point out that the report of some foreign media that the Chinese military vehicles entered Afghanistan for patrol is untrue."
Chinese Foreign Ministry has denied media reports stating that Beijing was constructing a military base in Afghanistan to combat terrorism. Though newspapers have reported citing sources that China had started building a training camp for Afghan servicemen to support Afghanistan’s counterterrorism efforts (www.aopnews.com/china-afghanistan-relations/).
Afghans consider China to be their traditional friends and trustworthy neighbors; ones which have increasingly proven to share their wisdom and wealth with others, who need them the most. The trilateral dialogue was a manifestation of China’s ongoing efforts to build confidence, friendship, and consensus among its neighbors for the pursuit of win-win goals against an entrenched zero-sum mentality, moving toward a shared future of sustainable peace, security, and stability throughout the region (thediplomat.com/). China has had a long history with Afghanistan going back to the cold war.
The 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union prompted an international response to support the indigenous Mujahideen groups that formed to fight the Soviets. Chief among the nations supplying money and arms by 1980 were the United States, Pakistan, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and, secretly, the U.K. In 1980, China would, incredibly, receive military support from the United States to combat the threat from both the Soviet Union and Afghan Communists. Over the next several years, China would train anti-Soviet Afghan Mujahideen forces, and provide millions of dollars of weaponry to them (thediplomat.com/). And, it has continued to play a significant role.
It was in early 2015 that China began facilitating talks between the Ghani government and the Taliban. However, the efforts made little progress, partly because of deteriorating relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan on account of continuing Taliban attacks in Kabul. Recognizing that its efforts to get the Taliban to the negotiating table would make no progress so long as Pakistan and Afghanistan remained at loggerheads, China set out to bring Pakistan into its peace efforts. Beijing engaged in several rounds of shuttle diplomacy between Islamabad and Kabul to put in place a trilateral crisis management mechanism. In December 2017, Beijing hosted trilateral talks where the three countries called on the Taliban to join the process. (thediplomat.com/).
From the Afghan perspective, the security threats that contribute to increased instability in the region also extend to the rest of the world, because they emanate from a dangerous nexus of violent extremism by transnational terrorist networks (TTNs), organized crime by transnational criminal networks (TCNs), as well as state sponsorship of terrorism. Indeed, the symbiotic relationships among these lethal networks of terror and crime involve mutual benefits in the form of facilities and capabilities like protection, logistics, financing, training, arms, intelligence, and safe havens.
In the Afghan case, these enable the Taliban and the Haqqani Network to destabilize Afghanistan. And the ensuing regional instability has provided an enabling, operational environment for such terrorist networks as al-Qaeda, Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and others to launch targeted terrorist attacks in the region and beyond (thediplomat.com/). Security is not Chinas only interest in the country.
China signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighborly Relations with Kabul in 2006. Two years later, Chinese companies won a $3 billion contract to extract copper from the Mes Aynak mines in Logar province. An unstable Afghanistan could derail China’s economic ambitions. Success of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as its flagship China-Pakistan Economic Corridor hinges on a stable neighborhood, which in turn depends on a stable Afghanistan. China is Afghanistan’s biggest foreign investor today. It is interested mainly in resource extraction and infrastructure building. It has started extracting oil from the Amu Darya basin in northern Afghanistan. In the telecommunications sector, China’s role has grown from supplying Afghanistan with telecom equipment in 2007 to the construction of fiber-optic links in 2017. Under the BRI, Afghanistan’s road and rail infrastructure would increase, providing this landlocked country with links to more markets (thediplomat.com/). Though China’s activities have been towards the goal of stability it has also created complications.
Because China shares no direct border with Afghanistan it has had to work through intermediate countries to develop it supply network. Doing so they have had to cultivate relations with countries like Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic that separates Afghanistan and China. It has spent that last several years cultivating relations with the country to include building a series of military posts along the border, helping train Tajik troops and taking part in joint training exercises. This has created strife with the Russians, who still consider all their old Central Asian republics their territory. It is assumed that this is steadily leading to an escalation competition for influence in the region. To this effect it is presumed that the Russians may be trying to undermine China’s efforts at expansion in the region by supplying weapons to the Taliban (Eden, 2018). China’s economic development strategy has also met with poor results.
China’s economic ambitions in Afghanistan have not gone well. The Mes Aynak project, for example, has failed to take off largely because of the poor security situation in the country. A railway line linking China’s Jiangsu province and the Afghan rail port of Hairatan, which would have reduced travel time and costs substantially, runs empty from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan on its return route, as Afghanistan’s production of goods for export remains low. Under the BRI, Afghanistan’s road and rail infrastructure would increase, providing this landlocked country with links to more markets. But road and rail lines built under the BRI could suffer the same fate as the Jiangsu-Hairatan railway line: crippled by Afghanistan’s low export capacity (thediplomat.com/).
Conclusion: The future of China’s role in Afghanistan will be continuous but limited. It will seek to maintain influence with the national government in Kabul through its connections with Pakistan and sizeable economic investments there. However, having witnessed the decade long campaign that left the U.S bogged down in the country, China will limit any military involvement solely to the regions they feel most threatened by. The level of military involvement has yet to be fully understood. It is likely that it will change over time based on the circumstances in the western regions of their own country.
China should not be looked at as a potential partner for stabilizing the region. The investments and development projects have been more towards creating a viable trading partner than being a stabilizing force. They have no interest in doing any more than what is either economically advantageous or tied directly to their immediate security. While China is seeking to build itself into a dominate force in the region and develop viable security it also fears becoming bogged down in a costly military excursion such as what the U.S recently endured. They also step lightly dealing with the Russians who see themselves as the reigning power in Central Asia. That said, they will, while treading lightly, pick their battles not just in Afghanistan but in Central Asia. They will also work heavily, through soft power, to influence governments and trying to develop proxies they can use to enhance their position.
Eden, Steve, Badakhstan Converging Tensions, Modern War Magazine, issue 37 September-October 2018.