China-U.S. Cooperation in Central and South AsiaDownload this article in PDF format
This article examines the main cooperation fields between China and the US in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the post-NATO period. In doing so, this study looks at the initiation of various bilateral joint projects as a distinctive turning point in China-US relations. It argues that existence of such bilateral projects and cooperation in this region does not only produce added value for the countries in question but also have the potential to enhance the mutual relations between China and US. This study also reveals the main common priorities and practices between China and the US and concludes that they have a partial convergence in their attitude towards the infrastructure projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The withdrawal of NATO combat forces from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 presented China and the United States with serious challenges but also opportunities for cooperation in common efforts for stability in Afghanistan and its “conjoined twin,” Pakistan.
China and the U.S. have launched bilateral joint projects in Afghanistan, a significant departure from past practice, and made some efforts to coordinate messages to Pakistan. China assumed the 2013-2014 chairmanship of the Istanbul Process, a move welcomed by the U.S., as well as Afghanistan, and hosted the Process’s ministerial in Beijing in October 2014. Cooperation within this regional framework could have significant payoffs, as it requires collaboration among countries that often perceive each other as rivals, if not enemies. This process has engaged not only China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but also India, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan , Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, with a role for the United Nations and with the participation as “supporters” of states outside the region, including the U.S.
These diplomatic efforts have been underpinned by the long-delayed start of regional economic cooperation round Afghanistan, especially China’s Belt and Road Initiative. President Xi Jinping first presented China’s vision for a “Silk Road Economic Belt” that would “forge closer economic ties, deepen cooperation, and expand development in the Euro-Asia region”1 during a 2013 speech in Kazakhstan, but the contours of Beijing’s strategy have truly begun to emerge since 2015. China’s leadership views its “Silk Road Economic Belt” and “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” frameworks (frequently referred to in Chinese policy circles and press as “One Belt, One Road” or the “Belt and Road Initiative”) as an opportunity to reshape the economic and political order in Central Asia and the Asian Pacific region, by promoting a network of trade routes, political cooperation, and cultural exchanges with China as a key hub. China simultaneously intends to place its sometimes-restive western and interior provinces at the heart of its engagement with Central and South Asia in an effort to accelerate development and encourage stability.
U.S.-China cooperation in Afghanistan has the potential to improve the bilateral relationship between the two countries, though tensions between the two in other areas nourish mistrust and undermine cooperation. Opportunities for cooperation are more evident in China’s “back yard,” to the West, than in China’s “front yard,” to the East, where tensions continue to rise over the East and South China Seas. Differences over Taiwan and North Korea, as well as the NATO embargo on arms sales to China dating from 1989, also contribute to an environment that has hindered cooperation over Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia.
The rebalancing of China’s priorities toward the regions West of China, largely through the Central and South Asian portions of the Belt and Road Initiative, constitutes a growing countervailing force. The U.S. and China have agreed to explore a significantly higher level of cooperation on the ground in Afghanistan and some policy coordination on Pakistan. China’s predominantly Uighur Xinjiang province has been the scene of inter-ethnic conflict and some separatist sentiment. According to many U.S. and some Chinese analysts, these tensions largely derive from Chinese domestic policy, particularly the imposition of a model of development based on the resettling of Han Chinese skilled workers and managers in this predominantly Muslim and Turkic region, as the state seeks to accelerate development and integrate this border region more closely with the center. China’s official doctrine views economic development as the main solution to terrorism, separatism, and extremism, but the Chinese model of development prokoves inter-ethnic conflict. These tensions may escalate further and provoke violence, especially if alienated Uighur youth continue to receive terrorist and military training from militant organizations in nearby Pakistan and Afghanistan. Several hundred Uighurs are also fighting alongside the Islamic State in Syria. This threat is one of the principal reasons for China’s heightened interest in the stability and security of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Continuing China’s already slowing economic expansion will also require access to energy supplies from Central Asia, as highlighted early in President Xi Jingping’s September 2013 Central Asian tour, where he announced Chinese support for a number of significant oil and gas projects. If implemented as planned, China’s Silk Road initiatives have the potential to alleviate a number of the most pressing challenges currently facing Beijing. Most frequently discussed is the need to find new markets to absorb China’s significant excess industrial capacity and to improve access to energy supplies as domestic demand continues to grow. Furthermore, Beijing remains concerned that economic indicators in China’s interior and western provinces have persistently lagged far behind China’s more affluent eastern and coastal cities. China has made significant investments as part of its “Go West” strategy, and in recent years many of the targeted provinces have seen significant GDP growth, but Beijing remains concerned that they have yet catch up with the national average.
Both the U.S. and China accord a higher priority to this region than in the past. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, neither China nor the U.S. considered the stability of Afghanistan a strategic priority. Both have learned from that experience, and their definitions of their national interests have changed. The U.S., which experienced the 9/11 attacks from al Qaeda, then based in Afghanistan, now recognizes that terrorist safe havens in South and Central Asia can threaten its security directly. The training of terrorists in Pakistan not only destabilizes the region, but also constitutes the source of much global terrorism. It also poses the risk that Pakistan’s rapidly growing stock of nuclear weapons and materials, including deployed tactical nuclear weapons, might fall into terrorist hands.
China, which in 1989 was an inward-looking developing country undergoing a domestic political crisis, is now the world’s second largest economy and commodity importer and its largest commodity exporter. As a result, China has a growing demand for mineral resources, which are abundant in Afghanistan. Even more important, however, is China’s need for stability in Central and South Asia so that it can link its Western and Central regions to world markets through roads, railroads, pipelines, and fiber optic cables. As a state increasingly reliant on international trade and investment, China has also concluded that it has a broad interest in international stability, beyond narrow concepts of self-defense. Whereas in the past Chinese foreign policy largely aimed to protect the state by countering the influence of rivals and enemies around its borders, China is increasingly both projecting power, as in the East China Sea, and considering cooperation with other states, including the U.S., to promote stability in their mutual interest.
Partial Convergence of Goals and Analysis
China and the U.S. have a common strategic interest in stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The two countries share similar views on the parameters of a desirable political dispensation in Afghanistan. They have many common concerns about Pakistan and are seeking ways to make their different approaches to that country more complementary. Their attitudes toward the future role of India in Afghanistan and the role of regional cooperation are moving in similar directions. China has stated that it favors Indian participation in the Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese officials speak in private about the benefits to linking Afghanistan and India to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which would require Pakistan to open its border with India to trade, something the Pakistan military has opposed. The biggest differences lie in their views of Pakistan’s nuclear program and doctrine, about which China does not share the strong concerns of the United States.
Both countries agree on many points on Afghanistan, though with some differences in emphasis and priority:
- They support the stability and unity of the National Unity Government (NUG) through the end of President Ghani’s term in 2019. They believe that such stability is necessary for any enduring political settlement with the Taliban. The U.S. has placed a higher priority on the success of elections and strengthening Afghanistan’s democratic institutions, while China considers elections secondary to the need for a political settlement and is more skeptical than many U.S. policy makers about the prospects for Afghan stability without a settlement with the Taliban, on which the two have agreed to collaborate.
- The U.S. and China agree that the Taliban should not regain control of Afghanistan’s central government. Both prefer that the Taliban be accommodated through a negotiated settlement that disarms them in return for integrating them into a constitutional setup and the ANDSF. For this purpose in early 2015 the two agreed to participate in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) along with Afghanistan and Pakistan as a forum for the peace process. They have communicated to Pakistan their shared position of support for a political settlement but, equally important, opposition to a return to pre-2001 situation or any form of Taliban predominance imposed by force. Since 2010 Pakistan’s leaders have said that Pakistan is not seeking a Taliban-dominated central government but only a political settlement that includes the movement, but some sectors of the state may still harbor old objectives. Given Pakistan’s often-contentious relationship with the U.S. and steady partnership with China, this common message helps reinforce limits to Pakistan’s ambitions in Afghanistan.
- Both agree that the international community should continue support for economic development and the operations of the basic functions of the state, including the ANDSF, as agreed at international conferences in Bonn and Tokyo; China does not oppose the NATO plans for support to the ANDSF, as agreed at the June 2012 NATO summit in Chicago. Both countries provide assistance to the ANDSF, but while the U.S. has the overall responsibility for these programs, China recently expanded its support for the ANDSF. Fang Fenghui, the chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission of China, visited Kabul in February 2016 to conclude an agreement on military assistance. The military aid arrived at Kabul on July 2016, as reported by Huanqiu, a newspaper closely related to Chinese government. The aid package, with an estimated value of $70 million, consists of logistics equipment, spare parts for military vehicles, ammunition, and weapons with the primary purpose of counter-terrorism…
- In a significant shift, China now supports a post-2014 U.S. and NATO military presence in Afghanistan to train, advise, and assist the ANDSF, engage in counter-terrorism, and prevent strategic gains by the Taliban. In his speech to the November 23, 2013, Consultative Loya Jirga on the U.S.-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), Afghan President HamidKarzai cited support for the BSA from China, Russia, and India. Despite strong nationalist sentiments in China (especially among micro-bloggers), Chinese policy makers no longer view a post-2014 U.S. and NATO presence as a threat or an attempt to contain China; they regard a security vacuum in Afghanistan as a potentially greater threat.
- The U.S. regards Chinese investment in and aid to Afghanistan mainly as part of a cooperative international effort to stabilize the country rather than as freeriding on U.S. security provision or competing for influence. Nonetheless, the U.S. believes that China could do more to contribute to Afghanistan’s security and stability and wants to remain engaged bilaterally to explore how the countries can make complementary efforts. China has initiated several rounds of discussion on expansion of bilateral security cooperation.
- China strongly prefers that the U.N. Security Council mandate any post-2014 international military presence in Afghanistan, whereas the U.S., NATO, and others are providing assistance under the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the Afghan government. Chinese officials and academics say that China would consider participating in military missions that receive a UN Security Council mandate (which appears unlikely, as the Afghan government does not support it). Otherwise China has no plans for a direct security presence.
- Both agree that the growing narcotics trade rooted in Afghanistan, and the criminal networks that benefit from it, pose a significant risk to regional stability. Both agree that an overreliance on crop eradication for conter-narcotics could have unintended negative consequences. The U.S. and China, view counter-narcotics focused in interdiction and development as a possible area of cooperation.
- Both the US and China agree on the importance of developing a more robust regional framework to address Afghanistan and both share a common assessment of the limits of the existing regional architecture. The U.S. has taken the position that China’s Belt and Road Initiative, including the Silk Road Economic Belt and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, complements rather than compete with the U.S.-supported New Silk Road (NSR) Program. The main programs included in NSR are the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline and the Central Asia South Asia (CASA) – 1000 project delivering hydropower from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The U.S., however, has invested very little in these projects, while China has mobilized hundreds of billions of dollars of capital including through newly established international development banks.
On Pakistan there has been a significant though as yet incomplete convergence of views:
- Both the U.S. and China have shifted from viewing Afghanistan primarily through a Pakistani lens, a bigger shift for China than for the U.S. Both recognize that Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan diverge from theirs at least to some extent. China no longer believes that it can defend its interests in Afghanistan solely or primarily through cooperation with Pakistan. The U.S. and China agree that they should engage with Pakistan separately but in parallel to encourage it to use its influence and leverage with the Afghan Taliban in favor of a political settlement with the Afghan government. The formation of the QCG provided a venue in which such U.S.-China policy coordination could take place.
- The two countries share the concern that the government of Pakistan is either unable or unwilling to eliminate or even control terrorist groups in Pakistan. China emphasizes that Pakistan needs help and is responsive to specific Chinese concerns about groups targeting China, while the U.S. argues that selective responsiveness does not address the systemic problem. All terrorist groups in Pakistan benefit from the terrorist infrastructure there, some of which receives state support. China does not deny the legitimacy of U.S. concerns or their factual basis. In response to requests that it use its sway over Pakistan and its ability to reassure Pakistan to persuade it to curtail its support for the Afghan Taliban, including the Haqqanis. China emphasizes the limits of its influence over Pakistan’s decision-making process. China is reluctant to damage its relations with Pakistan, as the latter continues to play an outsize role in Chinese strategy. Pakistan’s very existence weakens China’s rival India by forcing India to confront a large nuclear-armed rival. Especially with the start of the Belt and Road Initiative, China also need Pakistan to connect its Western and Central regions to the global markets. China therefore places a very high priority on stable, long-term cooperation with Pakistan and, unlike the U.S., is not willing to press Pakistan on difficult issues that risk disruption of the bilateral relationship.
- Despite differences of emphasis, the U.S. and China agree in principle on the benefit of at least informal and partial coordination of policy toward Pakistan. Rather than trying to exploit intervals of U.S.-Pakistan tension to its own advantage, China has advised Pakistan to repair relations with the U.S. It has rejected both public and private Pakistani attempts to portray the Pakistan-China relationship as competitive with or a substitute for the Pakistan-U.S. relationship and kept the U.S. informed of how it has done so. In early 2011 Pakistan’s attempt to enlist Afghanistan in a joint strategic space with China and Pakistan, excluding the U.S., failed when it turned out that China did not support the effort and preferred that the U.S. remain engaged. The QCG does bring those three actors together, but with rather than without the United States, and the Afghan government has been telling India, Russia, and Iran, among others, that the QCG is not an exclusive club but a means to an end that may be expanded.
- The China-Pakistan and US-Pakistan military and intelligence relationships are quite different, but such security cooperation is central to both bilateral relationships. For the U.S., many of even the most sensitive intelligence operations have been exposed and are the subject of public disputes. In 2015 the U.S. announced that it was suspending payment of Coalition Support Funds to Pakistan because it could not certify, as Congress had required, that Pakistan was trying to defeat the Haqqani network of the Taliban. The U.S. has been providing Pakistan with CSF since 2002, as reimbursement for the cost of Pakistan military operations against al Qaeda and associated organizations. As one would expect from a tightly controlled authoritarian regime, China carefully shields its military and intelligence cooperation with Pakistan from the view of not only the public but also other parts of its own government. Differences in emphasis and priorities toward Pakistan among different parts of the Chinese state are becoming more evident, but the military-military elements of the relationship remain insulated from the political.
- The U.S. regards India’s role in Afghanistan as positive, focused on development and capacity building. U.S. concerns that high-profile Indian support to the ANDSF might provoke a disruptive reaction from Pakistan were partially shared by Indian decision makers until recently. The U.S. and Afghanistan have now put those concerns aside, however, since in their view Pakistan has failed to respond to the generous offers made by President Ghani since October 2014 with any meaningful action to curb the Afghan Taliban’s violence. The U.S. has favored an Indo-Pakistan bilateral dialogue about Afghanistan. Pakistan has been unwilling to engage until very recently. Pakistani diplomats now claim that Pakistan is open to such a dialogue (defined by one of them as “we tell you our red lines, and you tell us yours”), but India has suspended bilateral dialogue with Pakistan in retaliation for Pakistan’s meeting with Kashmiri opposition groups in India. Chinese views on the role of India in Afghanistan are in flux, with visible differences among individuals and institutions. While some continue to support Pakistan’s long-standing opposition to an Indian presence or role in Afghanistan, growing concerns about the instability and weakness of Pakistan have led some Chinese policy makers and analysts to take a more positive view of India’s role. While it remains controversial, some have begun discreetly to explore the prospect of cooperation with India over the stabilization of Afghanistan through bilateral and trilateral discussions. Chinese officials say they are making efforts to relax tensions with India on several fronts, though Indians remain skeptical. Bilateral trade and investment between India and China has grown from less than $3 billion is 2000 to $ 70.25 billion in 2014. Through 2014 India and China had concluded contracts valued at $ 63.703 billion, with $ 41.06 billion spent toward implementation. These figures are still less than for Pakistan (total trade of $100 billion in 2015, total contracts signed 2000-2015 $150.8 billion). Both India and China are promoting projects of regional cooperation to link Afghanistan to world markets.
- The starkest difference between U.S. and Chinese views of Pakistan is in attitudes toward Pakistan’s nuclear programs. The U.S. considers the rapid expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and especially the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, as one of the greatest potential security threats in the region if not the world. Forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons are the most likely to fall into terrorist hands. China, which is somewhat better placed than the U.S. to influence Pakistan’s nuclear efforts, does not fully share these concerns and views this issue as too sensitive for cooperation with the US. China also claims to have limited influence over Pakistan’s nuclear policy. China has continued and increased its support to Pakistan’s nuclear programs, including breaking ground for a new reactor in Karachi in December 2013.
- China, like Pakistan, viewed the 2005 U.S.-India civil nuclear deal as a signal that the U.S. recognized India as a legitimate nuclear power and hence as naturally dominant in South Asia. They oppose India’s attempt to join the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) despite not being a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Pakistan, also a non-signatory, has also sought a civilian nuclear deal with the U.S. as it has with China. China supports the proposal, presumably to reinforce the security conception, opposed by India, that stability in South Asia results from a balance between Pakistan and India. Pakistan has even proposed applying for membership in the NSG. The U.S considers a civilian nuclear deal with Pakistan impossible, given Pakistan’s record of nuclear proliferation and its continued resistance to transparent investigation of that proliferation. China has proceeded with aid to Pakistan’s nuclear energy program and has supported Pakistan’s aspiration to parity of treatment with India. China claims that its support to the unclear program of a non-NPT nation is “grandfathered” out, since such cooperation began before the NPT came into effect.
Means of Cooperation
Most cooperative behavior between the U.S. and China with respect to Afghanistan and Pakistan consists of indirect coordination and common engagement in multilateral efforts based on emerging common goals and analysis. The two states have no history of direct cooperation with each other in assistance to any third country, though they have coordinated policy on, for instance, North Korea. It is all the more significant, therefore, that China proposed in 2012 and the U.S. accepted the joint planning and implementation of three projects in Afghanistan dealing with agriculture, training of health workers, and training of diplomats. In each of these programs the trainees receive instruction in both China and the U.S. Cooperation in the QCG took this cooperation a step further. Involvement in such a peace process would normally contradict China’s strict rules in non-interference, and doing so together with the United States in such a risky effort is unprecedented, showing the importance that China attaches to the effort.
Chinese officials and analysts have emphasized what a big step such cooperation is for China, which has a limited history of operational coordination with other states in third countries. While these small projects will make at best only a minimal direct contribution to the future stabilization of Afghanistan, they have functioned as significant confidence-building measures between U.S. and Chinese officials working on Afghanistan and Pakistan, who meet and exchange views much more frequently as a result.
In the lead up to the Chinese leadership transition in November 2012, China’s policy toward Afghanistan started to become far more pro-active. The most visible results have been: the visit to Kabul by China’s top security official in September 2012, the first high-level trip to Afghanistan by a senior Chinese leader in nearly half a century, though the leader in question is currently in prison on serious charges of corruption; the Central Asia visit by President Xi Jinping in September 2013 to discuss access to energy resource and the Afghanistan transition; and China’s decision to chair the Istanbul Process in 2014, announced at the April 2013 Istanbul Process Ministerial in Almaty, Kazakhstan. China’s hosting of the 2014 ministerial meeting of the Istanbul Process and its role in the QCG all resulted from this relatively rapid transformation of Chinese policy.
Leadership of the Istanbul/Heart of Asia Process signified a major shift, as China, along with Russia, Iran, and Pakistan, had been reluctant to agree to the Process at preparatory meetings and at the founding conference in Istanbul in November 2011. In addition to reflecting Pakistan’s hesitations about formally recognizing a role for India as part of Afghanistan’s region, China also shared concerns with Russia and Iran that the process was a U.S.-backed attempt to provide regional consent to a long-term U.S. and military presence in Afghanistan and marginalize the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in which Russia and China play central roles.
The start of 2013, however, saw an acceleration of Chinese diplomacy on Afghanistan and a new openness to cooperation with the U.S. and Afghan governments. In addition to deciding to chair the Istanbul Process, China hosted or participated in numerous bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral meetings focused on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and related transnational issues such as terrorism. These included repeated consultations with Russia and India, as well as the U.S. The U.S. views these Chinese activities as complementary to rather than competitive with its own efforts. China’s 2014 decision to involve itself actively in the search for a political settlement in Afghanistan led to both a U.S.-Afghanistan-China trilateral and the formation of the QCG. Unilateral efforts by China to reach out to the Taliban through the Political Office in Qatar have not yet had concrete results. None are likely before the November 2006 naming of a new Pakistan army chief and the January 2017 inauguration of a new U.S. President.
Efforts at including Afghanistan in regional integration, however, have begun to take off. As far of the Silk Road Economic belt, a weekly train has started to connect Nantong, Jiangsu province, home of numerous textile factories, to the northern Afghan port of Hairatan, running across the entire breadth of China and through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Thus China has begun to include Afghanistan in the Belt and Road Initiative without going through Pakistan.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Afghanistan, India, and Iran have signed a transit agreement to use the Iranian port of Chabahar for trade between India and Afghanistan or Central Asia. Iran has built a railway to Afghanistan called Khawaf-Herat. When completed at an estimated cost of $75 million, it will be 130 kilometers long, 70 km inside Iran and 60 km in Afghanistan, originating from Khawaf County, in Razavi Khorasan Province. The Khawaf-Herat railway passes through the Sham’taygh border post. The construction of the railway inside Iran (Khawaf-Sangan) is complete. The Sham’taygh-Herat section is yet to be completed. Afghanistan hopes to increase its trade volume from $2 billion to $6 billion with the realization of the project with Iran, and connect with Central Asia and Europe by land, partly by connecting to the Chinese projects in Central Asia. Iran hopes to achieve an alternative route to Central Asia through Afghanistan. The plan to construct 2,100 kilometers of railway within the scope of Silk Road Economic Belt through 5 countries (Afghanistan, China, Iran, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan) has thus started to look more realistic. 1,100km of the railway will be situated in Afghanistan.
U.S. cooperation with this project has been delayed by sanctions against Iran. As sanctions are lifted through implementation of the Joint Common Program of Action (JCPoA, the nuclear deal), the U.S. may be able to cooperate with both China and Iran to provide Afghanistan with multiple connections to the international market, diminishing its one-sided dependence on Pakistan and enabling its economy to grow without being held hostage to terrorism.