Kabul’s New Patron?

The Growing Afghan-Chinese Relationship

When Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited China last month, his hosts pulled out all the stops. During his three days in Beijing, Karzai met not only with Chinese President Hu Jintao but also with Premier Wen Jiabao and the Politburo Standing Committee member Wu Bangguo. Karzai signed agreements with Chinese leaders on economic cooperation, technical training, and preferential tariffs for Afghan exports.

It was Karzai's fourth trip to China as Afghanistan's president and the latest sign that, as Washington shows its impatience with the Karzai regime (pressuring it, for example, on electoral reform), Kabul is beginning to look for new supporters and patrons. As the regional hegemon, China is the obvious choice. Successfully courting Beijing, Kabul reasons, could yield benefits in terms of trade, economic assistance, and even military training.

The interest appears to be mutual. With U.S. President Barack Obama having set a deadline of July 2011 to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, China is increasingly aware that it will soon have a pivotal role in Afghanistan's security and that of the whole region.

China's interests in Afghanistan are twofold: security and trade. Afghanistan remains a source of instability to China's west, particularly as it abuts the restless Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Concerns about Islamist militancy on its western border have only heightened since the Uighur riots of July 2009 and are likely to increase as the United States withdraws. The Turkistan Islamic Party (formerly the East Turkistan Islamic Movement), which Beijing often blames for attacks within China, is based in Afghanistan and the borderlands of Pakistan. In September 2003, Hasan Mahsum, then the TIP's leader, was killed in South Waziristan by Pakistani security forces supported by Chinese intelligence officers. In February, a U.S. drone strike killed Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, the TIP's most recent leader, in North Waziristan.

As the United States begins its military withdrawal and such drone strikes become less frequent, China worries that the TIP will gain greater freedom of movement. Even if the group remains unable to launch cross-border operations into Xinjiang, the TIP's mere existence in Afghanistan and Pakistan (coupled with its increasing use of Uighur-language militant propaganda on the Internet) will continue to be a serious concern for China.

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