The United States and its allies are accelerating their withdrawal from Afghanistan. The post-US Afghanistan will face many uncertainties and is likely to fall back into war and become a regional or even global security problem. As an important neighbor of Afghanistan and a responsible power, China cannot stay away from Afghanistan’s affairs completely. Under such circumstances, how to play a constructive role in Afghanistan without repeating the mistakes of the Soviet Union and the United States is a very important issue. Compared with the previous powers, China is in a good position to participate in Afghanistan without getting caught up in it.
First, the geopolitical environment is different. In the past, the major powers were involved in Afghanistan and fell into the “Afghan trap”, apart from Afghanistan’s intrinsic strategic value, also because they were countries that were “passers by”. Historically, Afghanistan was the main strategic route to, and from, the South Asian subcontinent for the northern peoples. When Alexander the Great entered and left the Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan was a must-see. Even the most famous Chinese monk, Master Xuan Zang, passed through Afghanistan to enter and leave the Indian subcontinent. In modern times, Afghanistan was one of the optional routes for the British to go north to Central Asia and the Soviet Union to go south to the Indian Ocean, and later became a strategic route for the United States to go north to Central Asia. But for China, there is no such need for Afghanistan geographically or geopolitically. Neither the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is more important to China, nor the strategic corridor between China and Central Asia, are directly linked to Afghanistan. In an age of maritime navigation, China’s best route to South Asia lies in the seas, not in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Second, the strategic environment is different. The British Empire’s invasion of Afghanistan was mainly to consolidate the British-Indian Empire’s northern line of defense. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was the result of its strategic game with the United States in Afghanistan. The U.S. had actually abandoned Afghanistan after the Cold War, and the “September 11” attacks can be regarded as the “accidental factor” that caused it to invade Afghanistan. The former partners, who had been cultivated and nurtured by the United States, attacked its own core. If there was no retribution visited upon Afghanistan, its prestige as a dominant power would have been severely affected and its international status shaken. But Afghanistan does not involve the most core interests of the United States. The resultant strategic hesitation and uncertainty has led to a kind of “Hobson’s choice” (‘chicken ribs’ choice in Chinese, signifying little choice except to pay a high price for something of little value) for the United States and is the main reason for the failure of the US strategy in Afghanistan. China has no such problem. So far, issues related to Afghanistan do not require us to intervene like previous major powers, and it is also inconsistent with our constructive stance on peaceful resolution of the Afghan issue.
The third is that the strategic principles are different. Whether it was the British Empire, the Soviet Union or the United States, they all combined ideology with their foreign policy, which ultimately manifested itself in their occupying, and attempting to transform, Afghanistan. But China is different. We have long adhered to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, and we will not force Afghanistan to change its regime form and values. Therefore, China can adopt a more constructive, pragmatic and nimble policy on Afghanistan. China does not need to formulate clear-cut specific goals in its Afghan policy like the previous major countries, and it will not be deeply involved in the internal affairs of Afghanistan like them.
In short, the Afghan problem does not involve China’s core interests. China’s main concern on Afghanistan is, first, to fulfill its responsibilities as a major power. As a world power, China has the responsibility and obligation to contribute to international peace and stability. As Afghanistan is China’s neighbor, it is all the more important for China to make constructive efforts to solve its neighbor’s problems. The second is non-traditional security issues. Terrorism, drug smuggling and other non-traditional security issues are aspects that may have a negative impact on China upon Afghanistan’s becoming a war torn country. In the long run, the response to these non-traditional security issues needs to be based on peace and stability in Afghanistan. Therefore, China adopts an approach of “constructive involvement/intervention” to the Afghan issue, focusing on trying to facilitate/promote the process of internal reconciliation in Afghanistan, instead of directly intervening in Afghanistan’s internal affairs like the previous major powers, and thus will not fall into a quagmire from which it is hard to extricate oneself like them.
(The author is a Professor and Director of the Center for South Asian Studies at Fudan University)
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