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China's long game in Afghanistan

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COMMENTS

8 February 2012 13:46

With the headlines out of Afghanistan dominated by America's revised exit strategy, it has been easy to miss the news of China's enhanced engagement, both commercially and diplomatically.

On 27 December, a date in the calendar when Western journalists are hardly at their most vigilant, the China National Petroleum Corporation signed a deal with the Afghan Government giving it potential access to millions of barrels of oil in the Amu Darya Basin. In doing so, CNPC became the first foreign company to exploit what could be vast oil and natural gas reserves. The state-owned minerals giant also plans to build Afghanistan's first oil refinery, once the scale of the oil reserves is better known.

Needless to say, it is not a landmark to Afghan reconstruction the Americans will be especially pleased to see, and there have already been complaints that China is freeloading off the US and its allies, which have paid a heavy blood price in their efforts to defeat the Taliban.

China's commercial encroachment has particularly dismayed Jon Huntsman, the former US ambassador to Beijing and more recently a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, who complained repeatedly during the GOP debates that America had fought the war but that China was poised to enjoy the spoils. A headline in the Huffington Post put it more starkly: 'Coffins for US & NATO; Huge Contracts for China.'

Even more galling for NATO and its allies, special units from the Afghan army will be dispatched to the Amu Darya Basin, a region well away from the worst fighting. Soldiers trained by the coalition to combat the Taliban will thus be deployed to protect China's investment.

There has been a good deal of conjecture about the true scale of Afghanistan's resource riches ever since a report in the New York Times in June 2010 made the eye-catching claim that the US had discovered 'nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral resources', among them lithium, copper, cobalt.

Suspicions were raised about the timing of the story. Writing in Foreign Policy, Harvard professor Stephen Walt claimed it was an attempt 'to provide a convincing strategic rationale for an effort that isn't going well.' He also spoke of the 'El Dorado myth', where the lure of abundant resources has been used a justification for imperialism. Others noted that the discovery was old news, and based on a 2007 report from US geologists – although the Pentagon held a press briefing after the New York Times report appeared saying the latest $908 billion assessment was the product on new, additional survey work.

Whatever the US estimates, and whatever their reliability, China is determined to find out for itself. Indeed, the CNPC deal is not the first time Chinese companies have looked to do business in Afghanistan. In 2007, the state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corp. signed a $2.9 billion deal with the Karzai Government to extract copper. Added together, the deals make China the biggest foreign investor in Afghanistan even though America continues to be by far the biggest foreign spender.

The latest deal comes at a time when Beijing is also becoming more diplomatically active. At a 14-nation conference in Istanbul in November, Western diplomats were surprised that their Chinese counterparts showed such interest and energy. Often the silent spectators at such gatherings, this time their fingerprints were all over the final communiqué. Indeed, work on its wording was apparently not allowed to commence until the Chinese were present at the table. 'The Chinese for the first time were very comprehensive and constructive,' a Western diplomat told Reuters. 'You could really see an elevated role of China in the region and more outspoken than ever before.'

In analysing strategic rivalries in Afghanistan it is almost obligatory to look at them through the prism of history's 'Great Game'. But China appears to be operating on a different playing field – away from the country's danger zones in the mineralised provinces seemingly abundant in resources.

 

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