Opportunities and Limits of China’s Role in Afghanistan

By Angela Stanzel

China’s increasing engagement in Afghanistan reflects its interests in a stable immediate and wider neighbourhood, in particular since Beijing announced to revive the old Silk Routes. While tackling security remains a long-term goal there is scope for the Chinese government in the short and medium term to increase capacity and improve the situation in Afghanistan.


China’s role in Afghanistan is gradually evolving towards more engagement in various areas, which reflects the Chinese government’s concerns about deterioration of security and the impact this could have on the region as a whole. In particular since China announced to revive the old Silk Routes, its “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) initiative, it has even more an interest in a fairly stable immediate and wider neighbourhood. The Silk Road initiative has already given a new impetus to China’s infrastructure development in Pakistan, which had been promised Chinese investment of $45 billion in to construct a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.1 This project, linking the deepwater port of Gwadar with the Chinese Western province Xinjiang, also includes co-operation to strengthen security – the greatest obstacle in Pakistan.

The Silk Road initiative has already given a new impetus to China’s infrastructure development in Pakistan, which had been promised Chinese investment of $45 billion in to construct a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

There is some hope in Afghanistan to benefit too from China’s investment and its aim to transform the region into a major trading hub. OBOR is almost cut out for Afghanistan’s need of infrastructure on the one hand and potential vast natural resources on the other hand. The country, at the crossroads of Central and South Asia, between India in the South and Russia in the North, would have he potential to become a part of China’s trade and investment network. Beijing already sent a signal towards more cooperation: During Abdullah’s visit to China both countries signed a memorandum of understanding on the OBOR initiative. Since this summer, China started operating the first cargo trains to Afghanistan (Hairatan and Mazar-e-Sharif) in frame of its OBOR network.2

However, the precarious and uncertain security situation is one of the main obstacles for China to implement major projects on the ground. China has failed once before in its attempt to invest into a large-scale project in Afghanistan: A planned $3 billion lease of the Aynak copper mine in 2008, by a consortium of Chinese state-owned companies, never launched mainly due to security issues. Ever since, China has remained reluctant to make large investments in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is increasingly presenting a security concern to China, in particular since the large numbers of NATO forces had left the country by the end of 2014. Although this year the Taliban did not control as many districts as in 2015, they continued to carry out large-scale attacks throughout the country: In June, security guards at the Canadian embassy in Kabul were attacked; in July, Taliban militants drove a truckload of explosives into a foreign military facility; in August, militants stormed the campus of the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul; in September, the Taliban launched two major attacks in the capital within a couple of hours; in November, the Taliban stormed the German consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Please login or register to continue reading... Registration is simple and it is free!

About the Author

Angela Stanzel joined the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) as a Policy Fellow for the Asia and China Programme in 2014. Before joining ECFR, Angela worked for the Körber Foundation in Berlin, for the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels (Asia Programme) and the German Embassy in Beijing (cultural section). Alongside China’s history, politics and economics, her research work focuses on East and South Asia’s foreign and security policy.

1. “China’s Xi Jinping agrees $46 bn superhighway to Pakistan”, BBC, 25 April 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-32377088.

2. Eltaf Najafizada , “China lays new brick in Silk Road with first Afghan rail freight”, Bloomberg, 11 September 2016, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-09-11/china-lays-new-brick-in-silk-road-with-first-afghan-rail-freight.
3. “China joins Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan in security alliance”, Reuters, 4 August 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-security-idUSKCN10F1A6
4. Divya Kishore, “China delivers its first shipment of military aid to Afghanistan”, International Business Times, 4 July 2016, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/china-delivers-first-lot-military-aid-afghanistan-1568784.
5. “Inaugural Strategic Dialogue by China – Afghanistan militaries held in Beijing”, China Military News, 8 August 2016, http://english.chinamil.com.cn/news-channels/china-military-news/2016-08/08/content_7195557.htm.
6. “Chinese forces patrol deep inside Afghanistan: Report”, Afghanistan Times, 5 November 2016, http://afghanistantimes.af/chinese-forces-patrol-deep-inside-afghanistan-report/.
7. Thomas Ruttig, “In Search of a Peace Process “ A ‘new’ HPC and an ultimatum for the Taleban”, AAN, 26 February 2016, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/in-search-of-a-peace-process-a-new-hpc-and-an-ultimatum-for-the-taleban/
8. Zhao Huasheng, “What is behind China’s growing attention to Afghanistan”, Carnegie, 8 August 2016, http://carnegie-mec.org/2015/03/08/what-is-behind-china-s-growing-attention-to-afghanistan.
9. “China aids Afghan villages”, 26 July 2016, http://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/chinas-aid-afghan-villages.
10. Zhao Huasheng, “What is behind China’s growing attention to Afghanistan”, Carnegie, 8 March 2015, available at http://carnegie-mec.org/2015/03/08/what-is-behind-china-s-growing-attention-to-afghanistan.
11. Akhtar M. Nikzad, “China to build 10,000 residential apartments in Afghanistan”, February 23, 2016, http://afghanistantimes.af/china-to-build-10000-residential-apartments-in-afghanistan/.
12. Anne-Kathrin Glatz, “Afghanistan: New and long-term IDPs risk becoming neglected as conflict intensifies”, IDMC, March 2015, available at http://www.internal-displacement.org/south-and-south-east-asia/afghanistan/2015/afghanistan-new-and-long-term-idps-risk-becoming-neglected-as-conflict-intensifies.
13. Budapest Process, “Afghanistan Migration Country Report”, International Centre for Migration Policy Development, 2013, https://www.budapestprocess.org/projects/silk-routes-project.
14. Press conference, Merkel and Li Keqiang, 13 June 2016, https://www.bundeskanzlerin.de/Content/DE/Mitschrift/Pressekonferenzen/2016/06/2016-06-13-merkel-mp-li.html;jsessionid=02E4169911C4DC6DDDF18A209C7C517A.s3t1.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of All China Review.