Afghanistan A Dilemma for China and the US

As NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan continues, China finds itself in a conundrum. With tensions flaring throughout the Asia-Pacific, the last thing Beijing wants is to face a security threat along its western border. China needs to become more involved in efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. The United States and its international partners thus have an opportunity to provide incentive for China to become a more reliable international security participant.

The Afghan Element within US-China Relations

The US-China relationship is certain to define 21st century international relations to a great degree. As such, the two countries, as well as the world, are scrambling to better understand the relationship. China’s complaints about bilateral ties stem from a view that the US is unfair to rising powers and, in particular, disregards Chinese traditions and history. The US position is framed as one where China is an irresponsible stakeholder within the international system.

These portrayals aren’t completely inaccurate in either case, but they do not sufficiently define this bilateral relationship. It is indubitable that trust between both the countries is low and that many segments within both countries see each other as opponents. Yet, much of the tension in the US-China relationship is linked to territory, commerce, and relationships throughout the Asia-Pacific region. If we move beyond the Asia-Pacific, then greater opportunity for cooperation exists.

The future of Afghanistan offers an opportunity to these two major powers to work together in furthering Afghan national as well as South and Central Asian regional security. With the majority of NATO forces to leave Afghanistan in 2014, China is realizing that its investments in Afghanistan will be at risk, its Central Asian trade threatened, and its relations with Pakistan strained. In short, China needs to take steps to protect its interests.


The US population has exhausted from war and its politics is focused on domestic problems, and it is consumed with withdrawing its security forces from Afghanistan. However, Washington does not wish to watch Afghanistan fall into absolute chaos. Not only would it be negatively affected by the further loss of life, but it would also make the country’s years of investment meaningless and create a security vacuum that may once again require a major US presence.

Thus, China wants to protect its Western border and the US wishes to find a means to enhance Afghan security. This issue can be a basis for building cooperation between the two nations. Unfortunately, neither country is focused on the Afghan issue in respect to the other. That must change.

Bilateral Strategic Cooperation

Too many in the United States view China as an inevitable strategic opponent, ignoring counterevidence in favour of a quasi-Cold War worldview. Likewise, many analysts in China argue that the United States is a diminishing power, intent on inhibiting China’s growth. Neither country should be so easily caricatured as such. Both countries’ foreign policy establishments constantly debate how to augment bilateral relations. What both countries need to do is recognize mutual interests. Mutual interests, particularly outside the Asia-Pacific region, should be the source of US-China international cooperation.

The future of Afghanistan offers an opportunity to these two major powers to work together in furthering Afghan national as well as South and Central Asian regional security.

 First, each country needs to figure out what costs it is willing to pay for Afghan security. Both countries publicly declare their desire for a prosperous and safe Afghanistan, but neither has made headway in exploring what international institutions it will need in order to reach the desired end. China, given its policies of peaceful development and respect to sovereignty, will resist pressure to step up its involvement in security matters. The US, for its part, will be intensely hesitant about China taking on a more robust role in Afghanistan. Yet the past ten years have proven that when it comes to Afghanistan, what works best is often not what any party favours.

Second, the US and China should immediately initiate both formal and informal dialogues regarding post-2014 Afghanistan. Experts can meet in a Track II setting to formulate policy options, while Track I meetings can follow. These meetings need to be candid and based on past arrangements that proved successful, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in Southeast Asia and anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

Third, both countries should utilize international institutions in which they have influence. For the US, this means working with its strategic allies to provide continued training for Afghan security forces, foreign aid and private investment. In China’s case, it means engaging the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to mobilize resources throughout Central Asia.

Fourth, both countries need to cooperate in their engagements with both Afghanistan’s and South Asian leaders. The US can leverage its relationship with Afghanistan’s government to further interaction between China’s leaders and their Afghan counterparts. Both countries can engage Pakistan’s new government to show a united will that encourages Pakistan to do more to inhibit destabilizing groups operating in FATA.

 The US and China should immediately initiate both formal and informal dialogues regarding post-2014 Afghanistan. Experts can meet in a Track II setting to formulate policy options, while Track I meetings can follow.
 Finally, India should be brought into talks with respect to its diplomatic operations in Afghanistan and its own investment in the country.

Difficult, But Not Impossible

It will be immensely difficult for the US and China to cooperate on Afghanistan. Over the long term, however, these two countries have parallel national interests when it comes to Afghanistan and that must be the basis of all forward movement. Added to the complexities of the bilateral relationship are the intricacies that will be required when working with the Afghan, Central Asian, Pakistani, and Indian governments.

This effort will be more difficult for China, for it will require them to revise their stance on international security engagement. There is no chance that China will send security forces to Afghanistan, but it is equally unlikely that another international force will replace NATO. Thus, China must engage the security situation directly. As such, the US, given its experience in Afghanistan, will have an opportunity to encourage China to take on a more responsible international security role.

Courtesy: The Diplomat

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