Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Afghanistan and China

In early July, at the end of a prestigious career in the French Army, General Vincent Desportes was summoned by his boss, Admiral Edouard Guillaud, the French Chief of Defence Staff. Why?
General Desportes, who is presently Director of the Interservice Defence College in France, had dared to speak out what many civilians and defence officials believe. Desportes gave an interview to the daily newspaper Le Monde in which he stated that the conflict in Afghanistan was ‘an American War’. He also said that the sacking of General McChrystal, the Commandant of the NATO forces in Afghanistan should “open a debate on the tactic decided [by President Obama and the NATO]”. For Desportes, the situation on the battle field has never been worse. After explaining that Obama had chosen “a Middle Path which does not work”, he said that it was time to review the NATO strategy.
The Chief of Defence Staff and his Minister, Hervé Morin were not amused. Though General Desportes is due to retire at the end of July, he will probably be punished for telling the truth.
This incident is symptomatic of the feelings not just in France, but in most NATO nations (including in the United States as witnessed in l’Affaire McChrystal). The main French survey organization IFOP has recently found that 70% of the population is “opposed to the French military intervention in Afghanistan”.
Let us not fool ourselves. In the past, great empires have rarely been built for philanthropic reasons. The British did not ‘civilize’ the Indian subcontinent for the good of the natives, ditto for the French in Africa. The ‘colonized’ countries happened to be rich in raw materials direly required to feed the economic engine of the paramount powers.
The recent happenings in Afghanistan seem to follow the same pattern.
For the past nine years, we have heard of the war against terror forcing more than a lakh of American (and NATO) jawans to risk their lives in the far-away Central Asian land to fight for the good of humanity and destroy asuric Talibans roaming around the country.
Remember. A month after the tragedy of 9/11, the United States, supported by several other countries from the NATO alliance, began bombing the Talibans (more nebulously known as Al Qaeda). The military operations’ objective was to grab the power out of fundamentalist hands and prevent the use of Afghanistan’s territory as a terrorist base. At the same time, nobody in Washington thought that ‘terrorism’ could also have some roots in Afghanistan’s neighbouring country, Pakistan was THE ally par excellence.
Eventually, the Taliban regime of Mollah Omar fell and the NATO forces started to ‘control’ the country. Till then, things were still simple to understand. Unfortunately nine years later, ‘control’ is still missing.
But there is now a new angle to the Afghan imbroglio.
Washington disclosed that its surveyors have discovered more than one $1 trillion worth of in mineral deposits in Afghanistan. The New York Times noted: “it is far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself.”
Gen. David H. Petraeus, commanding the United States Forces declared: “There is stunning potential here …There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”
Not surprisingly, one of the first countries to react was China. Xinhua commented on the Pentagon announcement: “it may function as a double-edged sword for the Central Asian country, and it will likely justify continuous US engagement in Afghanistan's rebuilding process.”
Xinhua quotes Wu Dahui, a scholar with the Institute of Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who believes that “Washington has insisted that the stability of Afghanistan relies on its economic rebuilding. The announcement was timed to prove that the US can gain strategically from its involvement in rebuilding the war-torn country. The resources in Afghanistan would feed the US' demand to boost its economy.”
The Chinese themselves are interested to get a share of the cake. In April, Christian Le Mière, the Editor of Jane's Intelligence Review in Foreign Affairs put it thus: “The possibility of cheap resources on its border is of significant interest to Beijing. China has already made the largest single foreign direct investment in Afghanistan: $3.5 billion in the Aynak copper field in Logar province.”
Beijing knows that the Americans and their NATO partners will start withdrawing one day or another. Though China does not want to interfere in the ‘security aspect’, the leadership in Beijing is aware that there is a place to take in the future economy of the country.
The security angle is however not completely negligible, as the leadership in Beijing would not like to see its Western provinces, particularly the restive Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), destabilized.
It was one good reason for President Hamid Karzai to visit China in March 2010. It was his fourth trip to China as President and according to analysts a sign that Kabul has wanted to diversify its patrons and not bank entirely on the US. At the same Time, Beijing is interested by the raw materials in Afghanistan.
In January 2010, Russell Hsiao and Glen E. Howard in The China Brief of the Jamestown Institute mentioned some Chinese moves in the strategic Wakan Corridor: “A recent Chinese report has shed light on three major Chinese developments along the Wakhan Corridor that reportedly began in 2009, which highlight preparations in regional infrastructure along that border.”
The report speaks of a 75 kilometers-long road, extending up to 10 kilometers from the China-Afghanistan border. The road, built by the Chinese Ministry of Defense is badly needed for the transportation of military supplies to Chinese frontier guards. Further, the Chinese have constructed a supply depot to improve the “food quality standard for the police forces”.
The third development is a mobile communications center which would permit the operation of mobile devices along the border. Earlier border troops had to depend on satellite communications. Russell Hsiao agrees that China is not ready to play a ‘strategic’ or military role in Afghanistan.
With the ‘discovery’ that Afghanistan is a rich country (not only for its poppies), cynicism is bound to increase. Many believe that we are witnessing the beginning of a new Great Game, as during the 19th century.
One could ask: where does India fit in this new political and economic order?
Unfortunately, Delhi has a big problem. Were India to get a stake in the minerals, how to bring the raw materials back home? While China may use the Wakhan corridor in the years to come, India has no land route to exploit the mineral-rich Afghanistan. Technically, Indian companies like Arcelor-Mittal or Vedanta could have a chance, for example when the bid for Hajigak iron ore mines opens up, but Pakistan will certainly not allow raw materials to transit through its territory.
The other road through Iran is also doubtful in view of the new UN sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Manmohan Singh would certainly not like to antagonize his American friends.
For the near future, the Chinese are bound to win the raw materials market in Afghanistan. While the NATO forces are fighting an unwinnable war, Beijing has quietly started tapping the wealth of the country. India may be highly considered by the people of Afghanistan, but in the end China is better prepared and one point is sure, Beijing will put pressure on its all-weather friend, Pakistan not to allow India around.
The recent international conference in Kabul did not alter these basic facts.

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