China and Afghanistan edge towards ‘strategic partnership’


To help stabilize the region, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has offered to increase cooperation with Afghanistan. But what the cooperation would entail remains open.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit concluded Thursday in Beijing. Among the topics discussed was the security situation in Afghanistan. There is fear that the withdrawal of international security forces from Afghanistan – due to take place by the end of 2014 – could create a security vacuum with devastating consequences for the entire region. The SCO is thus looking to increase cooperation with the country.
One step has been to grant Afghanistan observer status. But China aims at taking cooperation further still. Chinese President Hu Jintao recently said in an interview with People’s Daily, the main newspaper of the Communist Party, that China wished to play a larger role in Afghanistan.
China’s role in Afghanistan: Afghan President Hamid Karsai, who attended the two-day SCO summit in the Chinese capital, said in a speech before Chinese students, “We will be working with President Hu Jintao to sign a memorandum of understanding between us … for the creation of a strategic partnership between the two countries.”
A “strategic partnership” would be a clear sign that China is willing to take up a more active role than its current one. But it is not yet clear what such a partnership would entail. The Chinese foreign ministry has said it would simply expand China’s current cooperation with Afghanistan, which is focused on the production of natural resources, energy and education. When it comes to security, China has played a very minimal role in Afghanistan and Chinese experts do not believe this will change in future.
SCO’s future role of in Afghanistan is just as unclear. The organization was founded 11 years ago by China, Russia and Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Cooperation focuses predominantly on fighting the so-called “three evils:” terrorism, extremism and separatism. While it has conducted a number of joint military operations in Central Asia, China maintains the group’s members do not wish to develop the SCO into a military alliance – a kind of “NATO of the East.”
“Cooperation between SCO members aims at creating peace, development and conflict resolution. According to its basic principles, the SCO is non-confrontational nor is it directed against any third parties. It will not develop into a military or political bloc,” said Liu Weimin, China’s foreign ministry spokesman.
Trial run for politics: But now it seems Afghanistan could become a kind of trial run for the group’s political activity. When it comes to China, President Karzai said the People’s Republic could help to bring Pakistan and Afghanistan together.
“We have been of the view that China can play a very significant role in bringing Afghanistan and Pakistan together towards a cooperative environment in the ‘war on terror’ and radicalism. So nobody in this region will feel that one or the other will need to rely on the use of radicalism as an instrument of policy.” Beijing brought representatives from Pakistan and Afghanistan together in February in a dialogue on the Taliban. It was the first time that China openly expressed interest in helping secure stability in Afghanistan. China might soon be putting its money where its mouth is.