Afghanistan in Chinese Strategy Toward South and Central Asia

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 10

The resurgence of great powers’ interests in Central Asia in recent years is reminiscent of the “Great Game” that ensued in the region in the 19th century between Czarist Russia and Imperial Great Britain. Afghanistan’s geographic location has made it a much coveted strategic pivot in the current Great Game. Notwithstanding the similarities between the two periods, some stark differences stand out prominently: one, there are now significantly more stakeholders in Afghanistan’s security (United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, India and China); two, while the first Great Game was precipitated primarily by Russia’s quest for access to the warm waters and the creation of a buffer between British India and Czarist Russia, the stakes now include oil, hydropower sources, strategic metals, pipelines, transit routes and access to markets. These significantly higher stakes have led to Central Asia assuming military, geo-political, geo-economic and geo-strategic significance for two major blocs—one led by the United States (NATO) and the other by China (Shanghai Cooperation Organization)—vying for influence in the region with seemingly dissimilar interests. “China needs them, Russia wants to control their distribution, and Western powers want to ensure they are not monopolized by Moscow or Beijing” (USA Today, December 15, 2007).

Afghanistan’s strategic location between Central and South Asia is of immense geo-strategic significance for the landlocked countries of Central Asia and its prosperity is inextricably linked to the security situation in Central and South Asia. Immense energy resources and strategic location on China’s western frontier have led to Central Asia being referred to as China’s Dingwei (Lebensraum) [1].

China’s Interests in Afghanistan

The present regional order prevailing in Afghanistan and Central Asia is similar in some ways to what transpired in Europe after the end of the Second World War. The United States and Western European powers, under the NATO umbrella, desire strengthening their presence in the region to counter the growing power and regional influence of both China and Russia while China, like the erstwhile Soviet Union, is aspiring to extend its security perimeter westward by developing close links with the countries in the region and ensuring unhindered access to the energy resources therein.

Some Indian analysts are convinced that China is engaged in a “creeping encirclement” of their country [2]. They see Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran forming the right or western pincer of this move, Bangladesh and Burma (also known as Myanmar) making up the left or eastern pincer with Sri Lanka acting as the southern anchor and completing the encirclement (refer to Figure-1 in PDF). India’s recent overtures toward Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia and the development of close ties with these countries appear to be aimed at weakening China’s right pincer and denying Pakistan a secure western frontier (The Hindu, November 7, 2001). Afghanistan figures prominently, therefore, in Chinese and Indian foreign policies. In fact, the decision to establish the first ever Indian military outpost on foreign soil at the Farkhor Air Base in Tajikistan, just 2 kilometers from the Tajik–Afghan border, could well be perceived as an attempt to reduce the impact of the Chinese encirclement (Indian Express, February 25, 2007). According to a Chinese military journal, India’s forays into Afghanistan and the Central Asian arena are “designed to achieve four objectives: contain Pakistan; enhance energy security; combat terrorism; and pin down China’s development” [3]. As in the past, Afghanistan has once again emerged as the “strategic knot” for the region’s security.

Afghanistan’s significance for China is also due to the latter’s imperative of ensuring Pakistan’s security. Pakistan, which is China’s foremost ally in South Asia and has been instrumental in China’s emergence on the global scene, has been constrained by its lack of geographic depth. Often referred to as Pakistan’s lack of strategic depth, this has been touted as a major weakness in Pakistan’s military confrontation with India. Pakistan’s military considers that a friendly Afghanistan bestows additional strategic depth to the country—this was one of the factors that led to Pakistan supporting the emergence of a “friendly” Taliban regime in Kabul. An adversarial regime in Afghanistan is perceived to be denuding Pakistan of this strategic depth’ and could also impinge on Pakistan’s security by making it contend with two simultaneous threats. Since ensuring Pakistan’s security is an imperative for China, it would view any Indian ingress into the country with wariness, concern and caution.

China, like Czarist Russia, yearns for access to the Indian Ocean and the plan to build a major port in Gwadar on Pakistan’s Mekran Coast is a step in this direction (China Brief, February 28, 2005). This port would enable China to project its military presence in proximity of the strategic global petroleum shipping routes as well as the oil-rich Middle East. The economic feasibility of Gwadar as a shipping hub would be significantly enhanced were it to be linked to Central Asia and China by road and rail links. Once again, since all such transportation links between Gwadar and Central Asia have to traverse through Afghanistan, the focal importance of the latter cannot be understated. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), “Afghanistan’s strategic location could make the country an important pipeline transit route” [4].

The vast expanse of the Chinese province of Xinjiang, which is inhabited by the Uyghur Muslim minority, poses a security predicament for China. Since the Uyghurs have strong religious and ethnic traditional links with the natives of Afghanistan and the neighboring Central Asian Republics (CARs), China is very keen that the militant Islamic ideology of extremist elements such as the Taliban be prevented from spilling over into Xinjiang (China Brief, April 14). Additionally, the presence of sizeable Western military forces in Afghanistan is also a source of major concern for China [5]. China was a major actor in the Afghan civil war and a key supplier of small arms to the insurgents in the combined U.S.-Pakistan effort to force a Soviet withdrawal from the country. “Current Chinese interest in Afghanistan, given its continuing civil war and virtual statelessness, is low and relations are weak” [6]. This interest, however, would certainly grow once the situation stabilizes since China’s security imperatives directly translate into its interest in a stable and moderate Afghanistan that is also free of Western military presence. In line with its earlier practices, China is exhibiting a policy of patience toward Afghanistan and simultaneously making imperceptible inroads into the country through growing economic relations and investment. These overtures would place China in an influential position in Afghanistan once the Western militaries eventually withdraw from the country. In an indicator of China’s growing involvement in Afghanistan, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, during his visit last month to China, indicated a desire for China, Russia and the SCO to play a more positive role in bringing stability to Afghanistan, but without getting into a conflict with the United States and NATO (AFP, April 14).

China’s booming demand for energy and mineral resources, plus its growing dependence on imported petroleum, has made Beijing increasingly concerned with ensuring supplies of reserves and the uninterrupted flow of oil at reasonable prices [7]. The resource-rich CARs, having estimated oil and gas reserves of 23 billion tons of oil and 3,000 billion cubic meters of gas respectively [8], have great geo-economic significance for China as a source of fossil fuel. While Afghanistan has no proven fuel deposits, it nevertheless offers the easiest transportation route for the exploitation of the energy resources of the CARs and is predicted to have substantial non-fuel mineral resources essential for China’s industrialization [9]. This geo-economic significance of Afghanistan for China should not be understated considering the latter’s serious interest in the Caspian Sea hydrocarbon resources and the growing Sino-Afghan trade which reached $317 million in 2005-06. China has also evinced an interest in a pipeline to the Arabian Sea, with a view to importing gas and oil by supertankers from Gwadar, but it should be noted that the Gwadar port project is still severely debilitated by the absence of links to access the hinterland from the port [10]. As another option, China is considering transporting its energy shipments from Central Asia and the Middle East via tanker to Gwadar and then by pipe or truck to western China through the Karakoram Highway (KKH) [11].

Pakistan as a Trade and Energy Corridor for China

The second option falls in line with what the Pakistani leadership has been harping upon for the past few years—their vision of exploiting Pakistan’s geography as a Trade and Energy Corridor (TEC) for China and other neighboring countries including India. Just last month, President Musharraf told a student audience at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, “Pakistan is very much in favor of a pipeline between the Gulf and China through Pakistan and I have been speaking with your leadership about this. I am very sure in the future—it will happen” (The Associated Press, April 14).

President Musharraf further elaborated that he envisioned improved road linkages between the two countries as well as a rail link, a fiber optic communications link and energy pipelines. He also suggested the possibility of extending the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline to China (Daily Dawn, April 15). Interestingly, on the same date that President Musharraf made this speech, the Indian government announced the visit of its petroleum minister to Islamabad to negotiate the possible extension of the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) gas pipeline to India and renaming it as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline (, April 14).

Although senior Pakistani leaders have repeatedly alluded to the proposal for the construction of an oil and gas pipeline connecting Pakistan and China, there has been no official response or statement yet on this suggestion from the Chinese leadership. Despite the evident potential of the TEC that Pakistan has to offer to China, the latter has, at the declaratory level, shown only marginal interest in the idea till very recently when China has started evincing a strong interest (, May 5).

Notwithstanding China’s reticent and non-committal position on this specific proposal, it is continuing support and participation in the major infrastructure projects in Pakistan that could be construed to be components of the TEC. China’s commitment to the construction of Phase II of Gwadar port, the new international airport at Gwadar, the upgrading of the KKH and interest in investing in an oil refinery and storage facilities are examples that substantiate the Chinese interest [12]. This involvement of China in major infrastructure development in Pakistan leads to the assumption that while there is no categorical commitment on the TEC by China, it can be said with some confidence that it will support Pakistan’s initiative, while maintaining a low profile, because of political and strategic considerations. For ease of analysis, the proposed TEC could be split into two distinct sectors for development: a Trade Corridor and an Energy Corridor.

The Trade Corridor’s starting point is the existing Karakoram Highway. A decision to upgrade the 335 kilometer KKH was taken during President Musharraf’s visit to China in February 2006. The envisaged upgrade would widen the KKH from 10 to 30 meters, make it suitable for long vehicles and allow it to remain functional the entire year (The Hindu, July 11, 2006). In parallel with the KKH upgrade, China is also involved in the construction of a new rail line linking Gwadar to the main Iran-Pakistan rail line and is working with Pakistan to expedite customs over the Sino-Pakistani highway with a view to creating a stronger regional trade system. On the Chinese side, a new extension of the Xinjiang railway up to Kashgar (about 500 kilometers via the KKH from the Sino-Pakistani border) has been completed while Pakistan has reciprocated by building a dry port at Sust on the KKH, which was inaugurated by President Musharraf on July 4, 2006 [13]. In another related development, Iran has offered Pakistan land access through its territory to Central Asia and Afghanistan for trade in return for similar access to China through the KKH [14].

A railway line along the KKH is also being considered as an integral part of the TEC Project. This would be used not only for trade purposes but also to transport energy, in case a pipeline is not a viable option. This rail track will be linked to Gwadar, where oil-refining and storage facilities are planned to be constructed by the Chinese. Pakistan has shortlisted a Chinese and a European firm to conduct the feasibility study for this 1,000 kilometer rail-track. In Pakistan, the 750 kilometer track starts from Havelian and passes through the Karakoram mountains up to the Pak–China border at Khunjerab with the second part, consisting of a 250 kilometer track being constructed inside the Chinese province of Xinjiang (The Nation, November 16, 2006). Experts estimate that this project could take 10 years to complete and cost around $5 billion [15].

While the envisaged Trade Corridor comprising of road and rail links could also be utilized for the transportation of oil and gas, a more efficient means of transporting these commodities would be through pipelines. These would make up the Energy Corridor component of the TEC. In an address in Islamabad on May 23, 2006, former Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said, “Pakistan and China are considering a feasibility study for an oil pipeline from Gwadar port to western China to transport China’s oil imports from the Gulf. An oil pipeline from Gwadar to western China would greatly reduce the time and distance for oil transport from the Gulf to China. A major oil refinery at Gwadar would further facilitate China’s oil imports” (Daily Times, May 24, 2006).

The Pakistani government presented a blueprint of the 3,300 kilometer Karakoram oil pipeline during the first meeting of the Sino-Pak Energy Forum held at Islamabad from April 25-27, 2006. This proposal entails the construction of a 30-inch diameter pipeline from Gwadar till the Khunjerab Pass capable of handling 12 million tons of oil per year with an estimated construction cost of between $4.5 and 5 billion [16].

China has also recently shown interest in reviving the dormant UNOCAL pipeline project to pump natural gas from Turkmenistan to India through Afghanistan and Pakistan. This could also then be extended to China just like the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline. Additionally, China’s Ex-Im Bank is financing an oil pipeline from Port Qasim in Pakistan’s south to the country’s north. This pipeline would cater for 75 percent of Pakistan’s future oil needs and it has been under construction by China’s Petroleum Engineering and Construction Company since June 2006 [17].


China’s strategic interests in Afghanistan are multi-dimensional, but in its view any substantial advancement in Sino-Afghan ties is contingent upon stability returning to this war-ravaged country and foreign forces withdrawing from its soil. Energy-hungry China is also keen on capitalizing on the convenience that Afghanistan and Pakistan offer for the exploitation of energy resources of Central Asia and the Middle East, and is working in this direction. As regards the utilization of Pakistan as a TEC, it appears that while the Trade Corridor could be expected to be established in the near future, the activation of an Energy Corridor would take an appreciable amount of time and could only be considered a long-term possibility because of the enormous costs involved. For China, therefore, the stability of Afghanistan emerges as a priority while the prospects of Pakistan becoming a trade corridor are more promising than it becoming an energy corridor in the short and medium terms. Since the chances of China using Pakistan as an energy corridor are remote in the short term, it can be concluded that Pakistan should place equal if not greater importance on providing TEC facilities to its South Asian, Central Asian, and West Asian neighbors, who are eager to tap Pakistan’s TEC potential.


1. Tarique Niazi, “The Ecology of Strategic Interests: China’s Quest for Energy Security from the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea to the Caspian Sea Basin,” China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Volume 4, No. 4 (2006) p. 97-116.

2. John W. Garver, “China’s South Asian Interests and Policies,” Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology, Prepared for panel on “China’s Approaches to South Asia and the Former Soviet States.” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 22 July 2005.

3. Srikanth Kondapalli, “The Chinese Military Eyes South Asia,” chapter in Andrew Scobell and Larry M. Wortzel, Eds. “Shaping China’s security environment: The role of the People’s Liberation Army,” US Army Strategic Studies Institute, October 2006. The author has cited this information from the editorial titled “India Participates in Central Asia” which appeared in Bingqi Zhishi, Issue 197, No. 3, 2004, p. 6.


5. “America’s War on Terrorism and Chinese Strategy,” Published in China Brief, Volume 2, Issue 5, February 28, 2002 by the Jamestown Foundation.

6. Sujit Dutta, “China’s Emerging Power and Military Role: Implications for South Asia,” Chapter in “In China’s Shadow: Regional Perspectives on Chinese Foreign Policy and Military Development,” Edited by: Jonathan D. Pollack and Richard H. Yang.

7. John W. Garver, op cit.

8. Asma Shakir Khawaja, “Pakistan and the ‘New Great Game’,” Islamabad Policy Research Institute Paper No. 5, Published by Asia Printers, Islamabad, April 2003.

9. Significant Potential for Undiscovered Resources in Afghanistan. United States Geological Survey Report,

10. Tarique Niazi, op cit.

11. Fazal-ur-Rahman, “Prospects of Pakistan becoming a Trade and Energy corridor for China,”

12. John W. Garver, op cit.

13. Fazal-ur-Rehman, op cit.

14. Naqi Akbar, “Railways shortlist two companies for China rail link study,” The Nation, 16 November, 2006.

15. Fazal-ur-Rehman, op cit.

16. Ibid.

17. Stephen Blank, “China’s recent energy gains in Central Asia: What do they portend?” CACI Analyst, October 31, 2007.