Until recently, Beijing's policy in Afghanistan could be characterized as masterful inactivity: It sat on the sidelines of a war that it wanted neither side to win. But the late September visit by security chief Zhou Yongkang, the first by a senior Chinese leader in almost five decades, is the most visible sign that the U.S. 2014 withdrawal date is bringing that spectator status to an end. As the United States dials down its goal of defeating the Taliban, China could become Afghanistan's most important mediator and investor.
Since the 9/11 attacks, China's goals in Afghanistan have been almost entirely negative: no victory for the West, nor for extremists; no long-term U.S. bases and no terrorist training camps for Uighur separatists. Most importantly, the Chinese wanted no serious involvement in Afghanistan. With the exception of its large but painfully slow-moving Aynak copper-mine project, China has steered clear of anything beyond a token presence in Afghanistan's economic, security, or political affairs. Fearing the reaction in the Islamic world if it were visibly associated with the Western-led war effort, yet not wanting to poison its relations with the West by rooting for the insurgency, Beijing has treated Afghanistan as a neighbor in name only. China has denied Afghanistan, separated by a mountainous sliver of land and a tiny border kept as closed and undeveloped as possible, the political attention and largesse that such a strategically significant country might have expected.
But the looming U.S. drawdown has changed this calculus. After years of fretting about encirclement, Chinese officials are instead now urging the United States to withdraw responsibly. China fears that the rapid drawdown of NATO troops could lead to civil war, an escalation of proxy battles among Afghanistan's neighbors, and the destabilization of the wider region -- most worryingly, Pakistan. Reluctant though Beijing is to assume responsibility for preventing any of these scenarios, it has accepted that sitting on its hands is no longer an adequate strategy.
But Beijing lacks the usual Western tools of nation-building. It has no tradition of providing large volumes of aid, its limited peacekeeping force has no experience in combat, and its international training programs remain weak. One participant from the Afghan National Police dismissively described his experience on a Chinese anti-narcotics course as "being taken on a visit to Xinjiang and lectured about China's reform and opening policy." No wonder that instead of getting more involved directly, Beijing is instead using its economic clout and its leverage over Pakistan and the Taliban to expand its influence in Afghanistan.
China's relationship with the reclusive head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, goes back to his rule over Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Among the only non-Muslims to meet with Omar, Chinese officials promised political recognition and support in the shape of telecom projects and other investments. In return, the Afghan side promised that its territory would not be used by "separatist forces" to launch attacks against China. The 9/11 attacks curtailed the relationship, but the essentials of the deal remain in place. China has maintained its contacts with the Quetta Shura, the top leadership of the Afghan Taliban; Chinese and Pakistani officials I've spoken to over the last year say that contacts are increasing. Although Beijing fears the radicalizing consequences of a full resumption of Taliban control, it is far more comfortable than any Western actor in dealing with the group as a political force.
Any Chinese influence over the Taliban ultimately comes through Pakistan, its closest friend in the region. Unlike the mutual mistrust that characterizes ties between Pakistan and the United States, Pakistan's relationship with China commands deep support across the Pakistani political spectrum. Beijing expects Pakistan to accommodate and protect its interests in Afghanistan and its preferences over the country's political future. As one former Chinese official who remains closely involved in the discussions put it: "We want to see a balance of power in Afghanistan, and we've been telling the Pakistanis that they shouldn't be an obstacle to that.… We have our ways to influence them if necessary."