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.

The reduced international presence in Afghanistan may also allow the heroin trade to continue unchecked. (Opium cultivation grew exponentially after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 but has decreased in the last year due to the U.S. troop surge. Questions remain, however, over whether this downward trend will hold as the Western presence in the country begins to shrink in the next couple of years.) In 2007, according to Li Xianhui, the director of drug prevention in China's Ministry of Public Security, 386 kilograms of heroin were smuggled into China from the so-called Golden Crescent of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, a total that exceeds the cumulative figure for 2001 to 2004.

These various threats are not likely to result in the deployment of Chinese troops in combat missions or protective roles, since the Chinese government is well aware that if it were to base troops overseas unilaterally -- even in a humanitarian role -- alarm bells about a neo-imperial Chinese foreign policy would go off in capitals such as New Delhi and Tokyo.

But China has an active interest in ensuring that the Afghan military is effectively able to guard the border separating the two countries. This goal was underlined by the meeting in March between Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Chinese Minister of National Defense Liang Guanglie. China's Defense Ministry pledged to continue its low-key support of Afghan forces in the form of military supply and personnel training. Both governments aim to bolster the capabilities of Afghanistan's national army and police so that, in the words of Wardak, they will be "strong enough to defend the country against internal and external threats" in a post-NATO future.

Trade and development assistance form an even larger part of the burgeoning Afghan-Chinese relationship. Although the Afghan economy accounts for just one-tenth of one percent of China's overall trade portfolio, 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. Under the terms of the deal, signed in May 2008, China will also build a 400-megawatt coal-fired power plant, a freight railway running from the XUAR through Tajikistan to Afghanistan, a hospital, and a mosque.

Such agreements also meet a secondary need for China: developing its western regions. Despite the ethnic violence last July -- or perhaps because of it -- Beijing has redoubled its efforts to boost the economies of its two western provinces, the XUAR and the Tibet Autonomous Region, which also recently witnessed ethnic riots in 2008. In March, Hu said that development of the western region is a priority of China's twelfth Five-Year Plan, which will run from 2011 to 2015.

These concerns are likely driving China's development of local infrastructure in the Wakhan Corridor, the thin strip of land that leads to the only direct border crossing between Afghanistan and China. Beijing is funding the construction of the new road, supply depot, and mobile communications center that will allow greater movement and trade across the border. It is even possible that China could open the Wakhjir Pass, a high-mountain crossing that was once part of the Silk Road, to further trade to the restive XUAR.

In January, at a conference on Afghanistan in Istanbul, China's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, said that China has provided ¥900 million ($132 million) in reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan since 2002. In 2009, Beijing converted $75 million in concessionary loans into grant assistance -- effectively writing off the debt -- with the remaining $60 million to be delivered to the Afghan government in four installments by 2013.

Of course, this development assistance pales in comparison to the contributions of other countries, most notably the United States, which provided $5.87 billion between 2002 and 2007 and budgeted $3.77 billion for 2008 and 2009. The United Kingdom's Department for International Development spent £147.5 million ($220 million) in 2008-9 in Afghanistan. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross spends approximately $70 million per year in Afghanistan, more than half of China's budget over eight years.

China's growing interest in Afghanistan cannot be separated from its longstanding concern over spheres of influence. Beijing is uncomfortable with the idea of more than 100,000 U.S. troops stationed just across its border, and India's expanding presence in Afghanistan is similarly disquieting. India is among the top donors to Afghanistan, ranking fifth behind the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Canada. Overall, New Delhi has pledged $1.2 billion in reconstruction assistance, including funds for building a new parliament building in Kabul. In recent years, Beijing has deepened its relations with India's neighbors, including Bangladesh, Myanmar (also called Burma), and Pakistan, and sought to pull Nepal and Sri Lanka away from their traditional Indian-centric foreign policies. Now, from Beijing's perspective, India appears determined to leapfrog this cordon sanitaire by building up its ties with Afghanistan.

Ultimately, Beijing would like to see the influence of foreign powers in Afghanistan decrease so that it can continue its policy of noninterventionist intervention, building trade relationships and avoiding political interventions. China has followed this policy with regimes in countries such as Iran, Sudan, and Venezuela.

This sort of arrangement will increasingly suit the needs of both capitals. Beijing can pursue its agenda of promoting trade and combating insurgent groups, while Kabul will gain a reliable, long-term partner that makes few demands in regards to corruption and democratic governance. As U.S. and NATO military commanders consider pulling out beginning in 2011, they very well may leave behind a China that has stronger regional relations and influence. This may not have been China's primary goal -- it wishes to see little more than a stable Afghanistan and little disruption to Xinjiang -- but it is certainly a welcome side effect.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now