Sep 18, 2011

Sino-Afghan relations

It is said that the Afghan-Chinese relationship goes back to the seventh century when Chinese monks traveled through Silk Road to visit the Buddha statues in Bamyian, blown up by Taliban in 2001. The Silk Road was not only used for a pilgrimage purpose, but also an extensive interconnected route for trade which stretched across Afghanistan and connected the Asia. It was not only for religious and business reasons that monks and merchants throughout the history traveled to Afghanistan; in 1957, Premier Zhou Enlai and Vice Premier He Long visited Afghanistan which marked the beginning of the first diplomatic relationship in the history of Afghanistan and China. Since then, Afghanistan and China ties were bound in formal visiting and nothing remarkable happened until 1963, when a boundary treaty was signed between the two countries.

Afghanistan shares a 76km border to its north with China which is known as Wakhan Corridor. However, relations between the two countries were quite gloomy when Afghanistan delivered statements which condemned China for invading Vietnam and also when, in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan; Chinese government condemned the Soviet Union invasion into Afghanistan. Nevertheless, following the September 11 attack which shocked the Western world, the U.S and NATO members dispatched tens of thousands troops to Afghanistan to destroy and dismantle the Al-Qaeda and terrorist safe havens. While the U.S and NATO troops were fighting against terrorists and in the meantime spending billions of dollars, China started piggybacking on the U.S stabilization and democratization efforts by establishing its economic relation with Afghan. Within a few years, not only had Chinese products overwhelmingly occupied the Afghan markets throughout the country, but China started investing on Afghanistan’s mine fields as well.

Today, if you walk anywhere in Afghanistan, from street vendors to markets, offices and houses, you would find Chinese products, the stuffs which are made by cheap materials and also sold cheaply. In spite of low quality, the majority of Afghans who have low incomes are buying Chinese products. Afghanistan is also a good market for products from Pakistan, Iran, Russia and Tajikistan, but scarcity of goods and less interest in vesting into Afghanistan opened a gap for China’s products. When Chinese products flooded the Afghan markets, the price for all goods which were imported from neighboring countries faced a dull market.

Afghan merchants have often been faced with problems getting visas to travel to Pakistan, Iran and Russia; they have been profiled, delayed or rejected. Even now, it is not easy to get a visa for those countries, but every day hundreds of Afghan citizens acquire Chinese visas at a low fee and in a short time. Of course, it is not only Afghans who travel to China for business reasons; there are many Chinese citizens living and working in Afghanistan. Since 2001, there have been several Chinese construction companies engaged in road construction, building schools and hospitals and several irrigation projects.

All of these contracts are either directly made with Western contractees or with the Afghan government, but the monies in which they are paid are all Western donation to Afghanistan. Likewise, there are many Western organizations that have hired Chinese firms for their reconstruction projects. Currently, there are two Chinese companies, ZTE and Huawei, partnered with the Afghan Ministry of Communications to implement digital telephone switches, providing subscriber lines. In addition, China is a major internet service provider of satellite and broadband to Afghanistan.

What is more strikingly shocking to the West is that, while U.S and ISAF forces are trying to stabilize the country, China is piggybacking on their efforts and investing in Afghanistan’s mineral resources, in addition to which the NYT recently reported that the U.S has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan. In 2007, the state-owned Metallurgical Group Corp. won a bid to develop the Aynak copper mine, which is in Logar province. It is one of the world’s largest copper deposits. In dropping $3.5 billion to develop the Aynak copper mine, Afghanistan has received the biggest foreign investment ever.

Moreover, China has also offered to build a power plant and a railroad from China to Afghanistan, which could triple the investment. China does not have military presence in Afghanistan, but China’s contribution to Afghanistan’s construction process has been quite significant. According to BBC, in recent years, China’s ex-gratia payments to Afghanistan reached up to $350 million yearly. In March 2010, Karzai visited China and the two countries signed a number of cultural and economical agreements. From now on, Afghan students are to receive more scholarships than before and Afghan merchants will have fewer problems in customs and importing goods from China.

Finally, some eyebrows may raise and wonder about the Aynak copper mine project and how China is taking advantage of Western presence in Afghanistan, but needless to say, according to Afghan officials China is willing to invest more than what it had already invested on the Aynak copper mine. As Afghanistan has enormous energy and mineral resources, especially copper, it seems that China is likely to be one of the main players in Afghanistan’s future and is also likely to be the largest investor in Afghanistan. One of the positive points about the Afghan and Chinese relation is that China does not have any political or ideological interests in Afghanistan, making it more safer for them to surpass their competitors and allowing them to take advantage of those countries which are apparently struggling to stabilize and democratize Afghanistan.