China or the SCO: Who will supervise Afghanistan?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 15

Presidents Hamid Karzai and Hu Jintao

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit at Astana on June 15, 2011 signalled Asia’s regional security order is slowly shifting as Afghanistan appears to be angling to become a new observer member in this decade-old Central Asian body (Ria Novosti, May 16). The Sino-Afghan relationship looks to be establishing the contours for an institutional linkage between Afghanistan and the SCO. Three factors coincide in this emerging relationship: withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan; the SCO’s tenth anniversary; and the debate about expanding the SCO’s mandate and membership. Although China shares only a 46-mile long border with Afghanistan, Chinese investment in that country is increasing consistently to exploit Afghanistan’s energy and mineral resources. Yet going beyond the conventional strategy of engaging Afghanistan bilaterally, Beijing is considering an alternative SCO-based approach that could ease regional concerns while still serving Chinese interests. The prime medium in this context is the SCO. While Afghanistan’s observer membership in the SCO will combine both the strategically important Central and South Asian region together to address regional security issues, the question arises as the United States draws down: is Beijing following a multilateral mode for engaging Afghanistan vice the normal bilateral one?

China, Afghanistan and the SCO: The Reckoning 

Both the SCO and China have shown great interest in Afghanistan recently: both strongly support the construction and political stabilization of Afghanistan. As expressed at the Astana summit, the SCO is looking for deeper engagement in Afghanistan. This year is a stepping stone for the SCO’s role as there are plans to launch a five-year counter-narcotics strategy to tackle drug production in the region, which would probably require Kabul’s involvement. While Afghanistan has been keen to join the SCO as an observer, China has been keen to receive Afghanistan. This is not surprising given the Afghanistan’s geopolitical situation and at a time when the SCO is on the verge of expansion. One of the key questions is whether China is trying to use Afghanistan to facilitate its greater Central and South Asian interests. Eventually, Beijing may consider Afghanistan for a full-membership, especially if the SCO’s scope is expanded to South Asia. This has to be understood in the broader Chinese policy planning context. Afghanistan is a member in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) along with India and Pakistan where Beijing is requesting membership. Whether through Central Asia or South Asia, Beijing intends to keep Afghanistan engaged and stay connected at every possible level in order to deny the strategic advantages Afghanistan offers to other powers.

In Afghanistan, most powers’ strategic interests converge, whether China, the United States or India: create and maintain stability so Afghanistan’s metal and mineral reserves can be extracted. Extracting Afghanistan’s mineral resources also aids stability by providing Afghan youths job opportunities and creating tax revenues. The China Metallurgical Corporation’s (MCC) investment of roughly $4 billion in Afghanistan’s Aynak copper mine is the largest foreign direct investment so far in that country. If fully implemented, it will be a larger commercial investment than all other current foreign investments put together. The proposal includes the construction of a freight railway, a power plant, housing, a mosque and a hospital. (, May 14, 2010; Xinhua, May 22).

Furthermore, Chinese economic assistance for Afghanistan’s rehabilitation since 2002 has been more than $130 million. In 2009 China announced a $75 million aid package for Afghanistan’s reconstruction in the next five years (Xinhua, March 24 2010). Chinese companies like ZTE and Huawei have partnered with the Afghan Ministry of Communications to install digital telephone switches, providing about 200,000 subscriber lines. Other projects like the Parawan irrigation project, restoring water supply in Parwar province, reconstruction of the public hospitals in Kabul and Kandahar show the wide-ranging and vibrant Chinese engagement in Afghanistan (Niklas Norling, “The Emerging Afghan-China Relations,” Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Analyst, May 14, 2008). China’s leadership has constantly asked for greater international aid for Afghanistan and has advocated coordinating this role through the UN (Xinhua, March 18). 

The driving factor in the Sino-Afghan relationship has been the growing political maturity and trust between the two countries. President Hamid Karzai stated Afghanistan would follow “America’s democracy and China’s economic success” (Norling, “The Emerging Afghan-China Relations”). Implementing this formula, he finalized three specific deals during his previous trip to Beijing in March 2010: economic cooperation, technical training and granting of preferential tariffs to select Afghan exports to China (Xinhua, March 25, 2010). Afghanistan and other countries involved in its reconstruction all see China as a major player in stabilizing Afghanistan.

Beijing is concerned with three Afghanistan-related security issues: terrorism, drug trafficking and cross-border crimes (China Daily, June 11, 2010). China has provided some training to the Afghan police and military officers since 2006 and some reports indicated China planned to give $4 million this year in logistical and material support (Stina Torjesen, “Fixing Afghanistan: What Role for China?” Norwegian Peace Building Centre, No. 7, June  2010). An array of factors like the potential for Taliban resurgence, NATO’s failed counter-narcotic policy with poppy cultivation rising and, most importantly, the not-so-stable regime contribute hugely to China’s fear that Afghanistan’s instability spill into Central Asia. For example, Kyrgyzstan is powerless to police its border with Afghanistan, making the country vulnerable to drug traffickers. Such factors make the SCO a viable means to address security concerns more directly.

Discussions with various Chinese experts give the impression that Beijing currently is considering using the SCO and other multilateral mechanisms as an option for approaching Afghanistan in the context of U.S. troop reduction in the region. The quandary however is, while direct and strong security measures by China analogous to the Western presence would probably help stabilize Afghanistan, an extended Chinese security presence in region could strongly antagonise potential competitors and upset regional relations. Consequently, Chinese officials do not discuss the parameters of SCO engagement in Afghanistan in isolation from its regional context.

The SCO as a Potential Medium

Notably, most of Afghanistan’s neighbours are either SCO members or observers. Beijing—at least, according to Sun Weidong, the Deputy Director-General of the Minstry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) Asian Department—envisions that the SCO should play a bigger and productive role in Afghanistan’s reconstruction process, (Khaleej Times, June 8, 2010). In Beijing’s formulation, Afghanistan is a vitally strategic location that connects South Asia and Central Asia and that both China and the SCO must take seriously. Some argue China should even discuss a more direct security role in Afghanistan and consider using cities like Kashgar and Urumqi as logistical hubs for NATO’s operations in Afghanistan or even deploying troops to the country (D.S. Rajan, “China: Xinjiang’s Wakhan corridor as US base,” South Asia Analysis Group, No. 3579, December 2009; Torjesen, “Fixing Afghanistan”). This, however, is unlikely to happen even if the Russians accepted such Chinese activity, but what is important here is Beijing’s willingness to consider different approaches.

Establishing closer linkages with the region through the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group is one such method. China understands this group is an interesting SCO initiative, which could be used to discuss various security issues beyond the Sino-Afghan bilateral framework. Seeing this initiative as an opportunity to strengthen institutional linkages within the region, Zhang Deguang, the first SCO Secretary General, hoped the SCO would work with this group to address the Afghanistan issue (China Daily, February 4, 2010). At the same time, the future US presence in Afghanistan remains a vital factor behind China’s seriousness on Afghanistan. Chinese experts contend “the United States overall strategy on Afghanistan and South Asia deserves even greater attention than the withdrawal plan." They mostly hint at the US strategy of preparing a “comprehensive plan” for Afghanistan that includes political, military and diplomatic elements (Beijing Review, July 21, 2011). Hence, Beijing’s intention is to develop a similarly comprehensive strategy. Yet, the recent Chinese reach in Central Asia is seen more as a “revival tactic” of its old Silk Road policy than anything new (Xinhua, June 15). Beijing’s current focus is to integrate the region economically with China’s West by prevailing over Central Asian reservations to removing trade barriers (New York Times, January 2).

Regional stability will push China’s progress both in economic and strategic terms to Afghanistan and the adjacent region of Central Asia [1]. China has been facing security problems in Xinjiang and Tibet Autonomous Region. To resolve these, China may opt for multilateral engagement with Afghanistan through the SCO rather than only banking upon bilateral contacts. Interacting with Chinese experts gives the impression that if the SCO’s mandate and membership expands, Beijing would like to use the SCO to influence Afghanistan.

In the view of Chinese analysts, the SCO has become a mature organization with global reach and influence (Beijing Review, June 24, 2010). At the Astana summit, Hu Jintao urged fellow SCO-member heads of state to “make all-out efforts to build the SCO into a regional cooperation organization that features sound institutions, smooth coordination, comprehensive cooperation, openness and harmony” (People’s Daily, June 16).

Beijing is debating deepening both security and economic cooperation in the SCO. On the former, apart from the regular joint counter-terrorism exercises, China has suggested developing “joint warning” and “joint law enforcement” mechanisms to tackle possible security threats. According to Ji Zhiye, a senior Ministry of State Security-affiliated scholar, these threats may come from the resurgence of radical Islamists after the United States withdraws troops from Afghanistan. On the latter, China is planning to propose a new mechanism to develop economic cooperation after it takes over SCO’s rotating presidency in June 2011 (China Daily, June 9). Besides granting financial assistance to SCO members, China wants to push the infrastructural linkages among SCO countries. For example, Director of the SCO Studies Department at the MFA-linked China Institute of International Studies, Chen Yurong, believes that “one of the SCO’s priority economic cooperation programmes is restoring the China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan railway links. China has rebuilt a Kirghiz section of the railway … it has a direct bearing on fostering economic and personnel exchanges in Central Asian countries.” China plans to make the year 2012 “the year of neighbourliness and friendship” among SCO member states (Xinhua, June 8).

South Asia as a Factor

Chinese foreign policymakers are well aware of the strategic opportunities and challenges Afghanistan offers after the U.S. troop withdrawal. To seize those opportunities, “multiple considerations” are being considered in China currently. One of those considerations is how to employ Afghanistan as a common factor for broader Central Asia and South Asia policy. The reference point here again remains the USA. Chinese experts are concerned about the USA’s proposal of tying the Central Asia and South Asia together through the trade and energy corridors (Beijing Review, July 21). When China would prefer to develop the similar strategy like the United States, the most appropriate option for the Chinese at the moment seems to be establishing a strong connection between Central Asia and South Asia by granting SCO membership to Afghanistan. Hence, SCO expansion is a matter of utmost importance in China today. 

From the beginning, China has played safe by stating that the membership expansion debate in the SCO is a “complicated process” and any plan to expand SCO membership should be carried on the basis of “consensus.” Even previously, when the Russians unilaterally proposed SCO expansion, Beijing rejected the idea as “excessive expansion” (Times of India, June 9, 2010). Jiang Yu, spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, once stated that “on the SCO enlargement, the organization is now mainly involved in pragmatic cooperation with its observers and partners.… However, enlargement is a complicated issue which bears on the further development of the SCO” ( 2010).

Though China has never taken an exclusive position over SCO expansion, Pakistan remains a natural choice for Beijing if SCO membership is expanded in future. Apart from having an “all-weather relationship,” Pakistan facilitates Chinese strategic objectives in various ways. For example, China and Pakistan have a great intelligence-sharing relationship to monitor and prevent any possible linkages between Uyghur separatists in China and radical extremists and terrorist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In addition, China wants to use Pakistan to ensure safety of its energy supply routes; hence, Beijing is investing heavily in Gwadar and other areas in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) (Torjesen, “Fixing Afghanistan”; Japan Times, June 9). With respect to India, given the complex bilateral relationship, Beijing wants to consider various strategic factors before even minimally supporting India for SCO membership. The Chinese are well-aware of the strategic advantage India carries in the Central Asian region and the Russian support which goes in favour of India for the prospective SCO membership. Broadly, while the Chinese are aware of India’s rising interests in Central Asian affairs, geographic density and dynamism of the adjacent region of South Asia induces China to consider the benefits of SCO expansion—whether it would help China to exercise greater influence in the Central Asia–South Asia region.

Given the SCO probably will be expanded to South Asia, China realises the importance of India, Pakistan and particularly of Afghanistan in the SCO which will not only radically change the regional power politics but also the political dynamics within the SCO itself. In order not to lose its pre-eminence either at the regional level or within the SCO itself, Beijing would like to institute closer relationship with Afghanistan apart from Pakistan in the region. To facilitate this design, Beijing will try to reach and sway Afghanistan in its favour at multilateral level rather than limiting the option only at bilateral level before the SCO expansion takes place. Beijing’s future agenda and strategy corresponds with the SCO at a wider level, and the broader plan sets the stage for this Central Asian body to play a constructive role in Afghanistan.


1. Pan Guang. “A Chinese Perspective on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” in Alyson Bailes, J. K., Pal Dunay, Pan Guang and Mikhail Troitskiy, “The Shanghai Cooperation Organization”, SIPRI Policy Paper No. 17 (May 2007), p. 46.