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Monika Chansoria

Dr. Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.

China is expanding its footprint in Afghanistan

Afghan National Army soldiers take part in a training exercise at the Kabul Military Training Centre in Kabul on Friday.

China's policy in Afghanistan could be described as one wherein it has sought to, and to a large extent, managed to, secure substantial gains primarily at the expense of the security cover provided by the ISAF/NATO allies. As opposed to the ISAF and NATO forces, China has chosen to assume a minimalistic role in the security sector, refusing to get involved in direct military operations. Given China's refusal to contribute troops or monetarily assist military operations in Afghanistan, there is considerable umbrage in the West with Beijing getting hold of lucrative investment deals whose continued development rests with the security cover provided by the ISAF.

Chinese involvement in Afghanistan was negligible through the 20th century. However, with Beijing's growing appetite for energy and natural resources, and consequent opening up of Afghanistan's energy, mineral and raw materials to foreign investors, an escalatory pattern in the graph of Sino-Afghan ties has been established in the past decade. From being among the first few nations to establish official ties with the Karzai administration and the Afghan Transitional Authority post 2001, China has emerged as Afghanistan's single-largest foreign investor garnering practical advantages. Although Chinese investments in Afghanistan have ignited considerable debate, it needs to be underlined that in the span of the past eight years, the total foreign aid granted by Beijing to Afghanistan is rather petite at $200 million. This constitutes a minuscule fraction of its global foreign aid that amounts to approximately $25 billion.

The Chinese are likely to harvest maximum benefits by concentrating in the economic investment sector. China is fast seizing a substantial share of Afghanistan's natural resources with the China Metallurgical Group Corp., Jiangxi Copper Corporation, and Zijin Mining Group Company winning a joint bid worth $3.5 billion meant to develop what's touted to be the largest undeveloped copper field in the world.

The Aynak copper field situated in the Logar province in central-east Afghanistan became the largest foreign direct investment in the history of Afghanistan, although marred by reports of corruption and bribery. According to estimates, the 28-square-kilometre Aynak copper field could contain up to $88 billion worth of ore in addition to other vital copper fields situated in Jawkhar and Darband in the relatively stable northern and northwestern regions.

Moreover, Afghanistan is home to large iron ore deposits stretching across Herat and the Panjsher Valley, and gold reserves in the northern provinces of Badakshan, Takhar and Ghazni. Employment opportunities for the Afghans has received a boost with the Chinese investment projects by virtue of electricity-generation projects for mining and extractions and a freight railroad passing from western China through Tajikistan and Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Afghanistan's Minister for Mines, Wahidullah Shahrani, recently declared that following the upcoming Hajigak project, a two billion-tonne deposit of high-grade iron ore in the central province of Bamiyan, Afghanistan will likely put three copper, two gold deposits and a massive oil basin in Mazar-e-Sharif up for tender. Envisioning Afghanistan as a secure channel for roads and energy pipelines, China would likely be eyeing the unexplored Afghan oil reserves now standing at 1,596 million barrels, and natural gas reserves placed at 15,687 trillion cubic feet.

Based on these facts, Beijing's placement in Kabul's strategic calculus and vice-versa comes across lucidly. The present Chinese leadership has placed greater emphasis on the Western Development Strategy and the ongoing and upcoming projects in Afghanistan supplement Beijing's plans for the development of western China and its regional trade links.

With America putting to plan its decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, China would be weighing its options vis-à-vis its consequent role/strategy in Afghanistan, given its discomfort with long-term American presence in the region. However, post the US' withdrawal, a plausible scenario of the Taliban capturing areas such as Kandahar cannot be negated altogether, resultantly hampering Chinese plans for an energy and commodities passage through South Asia. In order to secure its western front by providing limited training to the Afghan police forces and mine-clearing teams, Beijing eventually seeks a safer border along its restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. China has circumspectly aimed at projecting itself as a responsible player on the international stage to bolster its global ambitions. Going by this argument, the Afghan case provides a test for Beijing to play a far more crucial and balanced role as a regional player which simply does not limit/concentrate upon economic benefits, but also contributes towards the overall socio-political stability in the war-torn nation.

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