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China's Economic Projects in Afghanistan and Central Asia: Economy vs. Geopolitics

Tuesday, January 3, 2017 - 01:02

At the present time, Afghanistan serves not only as a base for various kinds of activities of terrorist and extremist groups, but also as an object of geopolitical simulacra projects that represent the possible options for the country's integration into the world community. In this respect, the leading position is occupied by the US. In the period 2005-2011, the USA offered two projects of the kind: a) the “Greater Central Asia,” in which the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRA) was supposed to become a democratic center of the region “Central Asia plus South Asia;” b) the “New Silk Road,” which involves the transformation of the IRA into a regional economic and transport-logistics center. However, these projects fail to take into account the realities of Afghanistan's development; probably, they were originally conceived as declarative projects aimed at justifying the US presence in the country.


Unlike the United State, China does not give a central role to Afghanistan in the project “Great Silk Road Economic Belt.” However, China demonstrates the desire to incorporate this republic into the zone of its interests. In this regard, remarkable are the words of Zhu Feng, an employee of the School of International Relations at Peking University: “The inclusion of Afghanistan in the Silk Road Economic Belt project is not only a question of how our two countries will cooperate in the field of infrastructure construction; it is also a question of the role China will play in the restoration of the IRA.” At the present time, the presence of the PRC in the IRA is indicated mainly in the field of mining and resource development:



  • - the Chinese state-owned companies “Metallurgical Corporation of Chinai Jiangxi Copper Corporation” have invested $4.4 billion in development of the copper deposit “Aynak” in Logar Province;
  • - CNPC and “Watan Oil & Gas” have invested $400 million in development of three oil fields in the provinces Sari Pul and Faryab.


It is necessary to focus our attention on the three important conditions in which these projects are implemented:


  • - China has stable sources of supply of copper (Chile) and oil (the Middle East and Southeast Asia);
  • - for large state-owned companies, such as Metallurgical Corporation of China and CNPC, these projects are: a) low-profit; b) highly risky, given the volume of investment against the background of an unstable military and political situation in Afghanistan;
  • - currently, the project for development of the “Aynak” copper deposit is frozen in view of the launched archaeological excavations that are carried out by joint efforts of the Afghan and Chinese specialists.


Thus, it can be argued with a high degree of confidence that China's declared economic interests in Afghanistan are a mantra of their latent strategy. For China, the very presence in Afghanistan is important, as it enables China to monitor the situation in Afghanistan and the Central Asian Region (CAR) and to react appropriately to any changes. Therefore, it is an obvious choice for Beijing to invest in the above-mentioned facilities even on such economically unprofitable conditions: a) development of the copper mine in the southeast allows China to monitor the situation in the troubled sections of the Afghan-Pakistan border; b) development of the oil fields in the north of the country makes it possible to keep a finger on the pulse in the part of the CA region that borders on Afghanistan.


In turn, Beijing's interest in the economic cooperation with the IRA plays an important role in the perception of its influence by Afghans themselves and the world community. In particular, the United States, as the leading external actor in Afghanistan, does not try to prevent China from such penetration in the republic. An evidence of this is the fact that the official website of the Voice of America quoted Pakistani journalist S. Safi, who said that China has a unique position in Afghanistan: “When the USA and the Arab countries interfere in the Afghan conflict, as a rule, they are accused of pursuing ulterior motives not related to the stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan. On the other hand, China is the only country, with which Pakistan, Iran, the official Kabul and the Arab countries are ready to cooperate.”


Meanwhile, it looks like a deliberate initiative to organize archaeological excavations in the territory of the oil fields developed by China. On the one hand, Beijing demonstrates to Kabul its commitment to assist in restoration and protection of the historical heritage of the Afghan people, which has a positive impact on China's image in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the discovered artifacts indicate that Afghanistan was one of the centers of inter-cultural interaction in the past. In particular, the Buddha figurines are interpreted by Chinese scholars as an evidence of: a) a long history of Sino-Afghan relations; b) the existence of an intrinsic link between the Chinese and Afghan peoples.


However, this strategy of China's behavior lays the foundation for both socio-economic and military presence of the PRC in Afghanistan. The actions of Beijing in this regard can be described as a consistent implementation of the “String of Pearls” concept. Its name was introduced into the political sphere by A. Hamilton (an employee of the US State Department) in 2005. The term relates primarily to the PRC policy to enhance its influence in the Indian Ocean: construction of civil infrastructure facilities (ports, air bases) in coastal states, which, according to experts, can be used to host the Chinese submarines with ballistic missiles and aircraft carriers, as well as for the purposes of intelligence gathering and surveillance organizations. It is possible to extrapolate the experts' thesis on Afghanistan and the Central African region.


In this context, it should primarily be noted that China has started a large-scale reform of its armed forces, which is based on three conceptual provisions:


  • - the people's war: civilians must provide active assistance to the armed forces of China, mainly through organization of the militia;
  • - the active defense: solving any conflicts by means of political and diplomatic tools, provided that the opponent does not strike first; if they do, there shall be war until complete destruction of the opponent;
  • - the local war: conducting local lightning-fast operations, which are enabled by the advanced communications and control systems, intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance.


Secondly, Beijing has intensified its activities in the field of military diplomacy, having initiated a new military-political alliance “China – Pakistan – Tajikistan – Afghanistan.” The agreements reached in its framework resulted in the permanent deployment of China's armed forces in the territory on Pakistan, which occurred in March 2016. Their goal was to provide security of the China – Pakistan economic corridor, which is being constructed through the territory of de jure self-proclaimed unrecognized state Azad Kashmir, which is actually controlled by Islamabad. Moreover, there is a possibility of deployment of units of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in Tajikistan as well. Worth recalling, in February and March 2016, the heads of the general staffs of China, Pakistan and Tajikistan met in Dushanbe to discuss not only the standard questions of coordination and cooperation in their anti-terrorism activities, combating extremism and separatism, drug trafficking and organized crime. There were also meetings in the bilateral Sino-Tajik format, at which the parties discussed the problem of ensuring the safety of Chinese economic projects in Tajikistan.


A similar scheme can also be implemented regarding the penetration of the PLA in the territory of Kyrgyzstan, in the light of the planned transfer of Chinese “surplus enterprises” and the construction of the railway “China – Kyrgyzstan – Uzbekistan,” which is part of the transport corridor connecting China and the EU. However, according to experts, this railroad is not beneficial especially for China in terms of achieving the declared goal, which is the development of a reliable overland trade connection with the Gulf countries and Europe. The main destructive factors are specified as follows: a) the freight trains have to cross the state borders of six countries, undergoing the relevant customs procedures and border inspections six times; b) the high mountain terrain makes it necessity to reformat the trains to ensure the multiplicity of thrust; c) the tensions between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in the border zone.


Together, these factors raise questions about the return on investments in the railway. However, this lays the basis for Bishkek's financial and economic dependence on Beijing, as the former does not have the necessary funds for the project. Two important points should be noted:


  • - Firstly, on the rights of the creditor, the Chinese side usually puts forward such conditions that are disadvantage to the borrower in terms of project implementation (the railway construction): attracting the Chinese labor force and procurement of all necessary materials and equipment from China, on a duty-free basis;
  • - Secondly, the construction of the railways shall involve the PLA soldiers; according to the precepts of Mao Zedong, their presence in the territories of other states allows China to consider these territories as controlled by Beijing.


Consequently, the construction of the railway “China – Kyrgyzstan – Uzbekistan” lays the foundation for both economic and military presence of China in Kyrgyzstan. In this light, it seems that Beijing probably does not consider the railway as part of the transcontinental economic corridor, taking into account the already operative railways in the directions: “China – Georgia – Turkey” and “China – Kazakhstan – Turkmenistan – Iran,” as well as the “China – Pakistan” economic corridor (which is in the implementation stage). With high probability, we can assume that China's plans only include construction of the branch “China – Kyrgyzstan,” which will enhance the flow of Chinese citizens and goods into the republic. Worth noting, this situation is unfolding against the background of infrastructural isolation of the southern region of the Kyrgyz Republic, which is connected with the north only by means of a motorway, and the approval of the proposed railway route bypassing the northern areas of the Kyrgyz Republic, according to S. Pereslegin's transport theorem. Thus, in the long term the socio-economic impact of China in southern Kyrgyzstan may become greater than that of the central government.


Thus, the principle of economic expansion with the military support is what lies at the heart of China's geopolitical project “Great Silk Road Economic Belt.” In turn, if the project is implemented in accordance with this principle, it violates the tacit agreement on the division of zones of influence between Russia (the security sphere) and the PRC (the sphere of the economy) in the CAR, with the joint counteraction to strengthening of the US influence in the region:


  • - a new military-political alliance is established by China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan; it: a) duplicates the function of the SCO in the sphere of security; b) actually torpedoes the Russian-Chinese military cooperation in Afghanistan;
  • - the meaning of the idea of pairing the EEU and the “Great Silk Road Economic Belt” is lost, because the infrastructure projects initiated by Beijing: a) are based on bilateral cooperation with the individual Central Asian states rather than the EEU as a whole; b) serve as a basis for possible military penetration of the PRC in the CA region;
  • - the United States – in contrast to the situation in the South China Sea – are demonstrating passivity in relation to the activation of the PRC in the CA region and Afghanistan in a new format. It's probably because of the United State's desire to strengthen the conflict between: a) China and Russia in the CA region; b) China and India in Afghanistan and Kashmir.


As follows from the above, the geopolitical competition in the Central Asian Region has begun to take a “radical” form. For the Central Asian republics, this should serve as an indicator of the need to develop a strategical long-term foreign policy, taking into account not only the short-term tactical gains from interaction with one or another external actor, but also the long-term geopolitical consequences of such an interaction. The flexibility and inconsistency in the context of the worst scenario may cause a complete loss of the national sovereignty by the Central Asian republics.

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