Am finally catching up on some late posting, this is a piece from a few weeks ago when I was in Kabul about how China is perceived there. It was initially published in 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post) and I have put the English at the top and the Chinese it was published in below.
Kabul – China’s optics in Afghanistan are not good. After a week of travelling around talking to Afghans and others in Kabul, the general consensus is that China is doing little to contribute on the ground. In fact, the perception remains that China is doing little than trying to draw profit from Afghanistan’s abundant natural resources while giving little in return.
Central to Afghan concerns are the activities of MCC and Jiangxi Copper at Mes Aynak. One of the world’s largest copper mines, back in 2007 the Chinese state owned companies paid somewhere in the region of $3 to $4 billion (depending on whose figures you believe) to acquire the mine. Since then, very little has actually happened. Security on the site, an archeological dig of great historical importance on top of the site, company problems back home and elsewhere and difficulties with the Afghan authorities have all meant that the project has not started in any meaningful way.
In fact, currently the discussion seems focused around the fact that the Chinese firm is trying to renegotiate its contract for the site. The perception from officials, media and the public spoken to is that this is something that the Chinese side is doing specifically to drive a harder bargain and alter the parameters of an already agreed deal. Something that infuriates Afghans as it means that a project they are eager to get started as it might provide some economic benefit to the country is not moving forwards. The possible jobs that the project would provide are believed to be one way of helping develop the province and maybe quell some of the tensions underlying the insurgency. The longer it does not start, the longer it will take for these benefits to be felt.
On the other side of the equation, there is acknowledgement that MCC and Jiangxi Copper’s concerns are valid. The area is dangerous and the historical site above the mine requires some care. Additionally, Afghanistan is still working on resolving and passing its new mining legislation, something that understandably makes foreign companies hesitant to invest in the country.
But whatever the reality of these concerns, the truth is that this is not the message that has gotten down to most Afghans. All they see is a large foreign company sitting on one of their prime assets without any sense that it is going to develop it any time soon. This angers people and is only one of a number of negative images China has in the country. Aside from having a low visible public diplomacy presence, China’s contribution to Afghanistan’s security (300 police trained after Zhou Yongkang’s visit last year) is low and there is a strong sense that China prefers perennial enemy Pakistan to Afghanistan. China’s soft power in Afghanistan is in a very low state.
China has a difficult hand to play in Afghanistan. On the one hand, as a wealthy neighbor with influence over Pakistan and positive links to the Taliban it is perceived as being the one holding one of the best hands in the region. But at the same time, the realities on the ground mean China is wary of getting too involved in a situation that has historically proved very difficult to mend. But the current approach of waiting and seeing is having a deeply counter-productive result. Not only is it engendering anger amongst the Afghan population, but it is furthermore helping render a situation in Pakistan that is dangerously escalating out of control even worse. More instability in Afghanistan is only going to make Pakistan more dangerous.
A quick fix solution to this is difficult to see. But some ideas exist that could help raise China’s profile. The initial security contribution offered by Zhou Yongkang should be developed further – more police should be trained and China should offer to help foot the costs of maintaining the Afghan security forces post-2014. Focusing this money towards specific areas where China’s companies have made investments would be a way to link this money to specific Chinese interests. Secondly, China should undertake a soft power push into Afghanistan. Other rising Asian giant India provides somewhere in the region of 2,000 scholarships a year to Afghan students to come to India – China provides far fewer. Increasing this number is an easy way to start to develop a new cadre of young Afghans with a stronger feeling towards China. And finally, China’s companies that are invested in Afghanistan should do more to help develop the nations infrastructure. Chinese companies are amongst the best in the world at doing such work in difficult environments – they should deploy this ability into the Afghan context.
China has long played the waiting game with Afghanistan. The time has come to step forwards and develop a more coherent, sustainable and holistic approach to find some resolution in Afghanistan. Helping solve the country’s problems will not only be of benefit to the region and world, but it will directly help China’s development of its own western provinces. A win-win if ever there was one.