It was a major logistical feat: the freight train left Nantong in the far eastern Jiangsu province of China winding through the country onto the windswept Alataw pass at the Kazakh border, then into Uzbekistan and finally across the Friendship Bridge into Afghanistan ending up in the northern city of Hairatan, taking 14 days on a newly refurbished track. This route represented the reopening of an old rail line and yet another connection in the new silk road, but also a reminder of the growing ties between Kabul and Beijing.
The Afghan government are keen on Chinese investment as well as being part of China’s Belt and Road vision, while the Chinese are keen to get to grips with a country that lies on the cross roads of the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia and China itself. Chinese firms have placed around USD 100 million in Afghanistan – investing in the Mes Aynak Copper mines and in the Amu Darya oil fields in northern Afghanistan.
This figure should be much higher considering Afghanistan’s rich mineral wealth, but Chinese investment there is dwarfed by the figures planned for neighbouring Pakistan (planned to be USD 45 billion) – the primary reason for this of course is the country’s long standing instability and conflict. Chinese companies are pretty fearless by international standards leading the way in many conflict ridden states, but even they fear to tread in Afghanistan.
China has been a player in the four nation peace talks (Quadrilateral Group) which have strived to bring peace to Afghanistan, but the continued threat of the Taliban has caught the attention of the Chinese leadership. A resurgent Taliban could more effectively support Islamist groups that have carried out atrocities in Western China (this week a suicide bomber attacked the Chinese embassy in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan).
The atheist Chinese state is seen as a target by hardline Islamic groups who view the Sinification of Western China as an opportunity to radicalise the largely Muslim Uighur population. The upshot of this is that the Chinese military have increased co-operation with Afghan forces – including enhanced intelligence sharing, joint exercises and training, particularly since the NATO “withdrawal” in 2014 (although around 13,000 NATO troops remain).
But Beijing has ruled out any military presence in the country, wisely given Afghanistan’s reputation as “a graveyard of empires” a name earned after ejecting superpowers like the British, Soviets and Americans at the height of their military might. Nonetheless the Chinese are stepping up their support providing USD 70 million in military aid for Afghan forces – a fraction of what the US has supplied but enough to signal their concern.
The Chinese are also looking at more infrastructure projects similar to the new rail route and hoping that investment in the country can help bring peace there. This might be in vain, the US piled aid money into Afghanistan without seeing much of a dividend in terms of economic growth or change, but the Chinese must hope their approach of focusing on infrastructure – such as roads, rail and energy supplies can prove more durable and effective.