| ||China Shows Interest in Afghan Security, Fearing Taliban Would Help Separatists|
The New York Times
By Jane Perlez
[Printer Friendly Version]
BEIJING - In a sign of China’s growing interest in neighboring Afghanistan after the departure of the United States and NATO-led forces, President Hu Jintao met the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, in the Great Hall of the People on Friday and announced a new strategic partnership between the two countries.
Mr. Karzai was given special attention this week at the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group of six countries organized by China that includes Russia and Central Asian nations bordering Afghanistan. China is trying to ensure that a Muslim separatist group in a western Chinese region does not benefit from the Taliban when Western forces leave Afghanistan.
In a joint statement, China and Afghanistan said they would step up cooperation in security and the fight against terrorism, as well as increase intelligence sharing. No specifics were given.
A modest $23 million grant for unspecified projects that accompanied the new partnership indicated that despite concerns about the stability of Afghanistan after 2014, when most United States and allied troops are expected to be gone, China had no immediate plans to play a major development role.
This was Mr. Karzai’s fifth, and most prominent, visit to China. No Chinese leader has been to Afghanistan since the 1958 visit of Prime Minister Zhou Enlai.
China’s major worry is the prospect of a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan lending sanctuary to the separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, led by ethnic Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking, largely Muslim people in the autonomous western region of Xinjiang. The group wants a breakaway homeland in Xinjiang.
In official statements, the Chinese government refrains from specifying the threat of Afghanistan’s harboring Uighur separatists, but an orderly transfer of power that would stop short of a Taliban takeover appears to be of uppermost importance for China.
At a Foreign Ministry news briefing shortly after the warm welcome for Mr. Karzai, a spokesman said China supported a “step by step” process that allowed for a role by other countries after the withdrawal of Western troops.
In efforts to work toward some semblance of stability in Afghanistan after the Americans leave, Chinese and American diplomats have been talking for more than a year about the shape of the post-2014 political landscape, American officials and China analysts say.
A new kind of Great Game, a competition for influence among Afghanistan’s neighbors, many of whom belong to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or play a role in it, is a likely outcome from the Western withdrawal, the analysts say.
China has already put down investment stakes in mineral-rich Afghanistan, signing an oil and gas deal late last year, and beginning development at a copper mine four years ago.
But from the discussions between the United States and China, it was clear that China would not play any significant security role inside Afghanistan, a decision consistent with its noninterference policies abroad, the American officials and analysts say.
The Chinese government has refused to contribute to a $4.1 billion fund for sustaining the Afghan Army after 2014, but has offered to train a small number of Afghan soldiers, particularly in antiterrorism techniques.
In a show of cooperation with the United States, China admitted 15 young Afghan diplomats to the China Foreign Affairs University last month as part of a joint American-Chinese program. The State Department will also sponsor training for the Afghan diplomats.
China’s main concern is about how post-2014 Afghanistan will affect China’s internal security, the analysts said.
“China’s first concern is national security and to make sure the Uighurs don’t get more strength,” said Yun Sun, a Washington-based analyst specializing in China’s neighbors. “The official line is that the Uighurs get terrorist training in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
“China supports the international community in its efforts in Afghanistan, but stays away from direct military involvement,” Zhao Huasheng, director of the Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, wrote in a recent paper.
China dislikes the Taliban because of their close relations with the East Turkestan group, but deals with the Taliban on a pragmatic basis, he wrote.
Looking toward the uncertainties of post-2014 Afghanistan, China has already established some forms of communication with elements of the Taliban through the channels of the Pakistani military, said Sajjan Gohel, the international security director of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London-based group.
“Beijing wants guarantees that the Taliban will not give sanctuary or support to the Uighur terrorists should they develop an open presence in Afghanistan after the troop handover,” Mr. Gohel said.
The prospects of instability in Afghanistan have not discouraged China’s investments in big energy and mining projects.
The China National Petroleum Company signed a deal in December to explore oil and natural gas in the Amu Darya River Basin, an area where the Soviet Union held concessions during its occupation.
As part of the deal, the Chinese company pledged to build Afghanistan’s first oil refinery within three years.
In 2008, the China Metallurgical Construction Company invested more than $3.5 billion in the Aynak Copper Mine in Logar Province in Afghanistan, not far from the Chinese border.
Bree Feng contributed research.