Beijing's stance is partly the result of its improving relationship with Kabul, including its intelligence services. In recent years, Afghan officials have successfully raised doubts among their Chinese counterparts about how comprehensively China should be relying on its friends in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency when it comes to dealing with Uighur militant groups. After decades in which China's intelligence in the region has been filtered through Pakistan, Beijing is starting to see advantages in diversification.
The shifting trilateral ties among China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan over the last year are one of the clearest signs of Beijing's willingness to play an enlarged political role as 2014 approaches. Afghanistan's most immediate reward has been its systematic upgrade in China's regional diplomacy. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Central Asian security and economic bloc that China founded in 2001, admitted Afghanistan as an observer at its June summit in Beijing. Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a new strategic partnership agreement with China on the same trip. In February, Beijing finally greenlighted a trilateral meeting process with Pakistan and Afghanistan, which will increase its role in mediating between the two sides.
September's "surprise" visit to Kabul was even more striking. Members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top decision-making body, often visit seemingly insignificant states -- over the last three years, the committee's No. 2 member, Wu Bangguo, visited Fiji, Namibia, and the Bahamas. Not only was Zhou's trip the first to Afghanistan by a Standing Committee member in 46 years, but he represents China's security and intelligence apparatus, rather than one of the softer faces of Chinese economic diplomacy. Zhou discussed terrorism and border security, and he announced a deal for China's Ministry of Public Security to "train, fund, and equip Afghan police," demonstrating Beijing's intention to be a player in Afghanistan's dark arts as well as its commercial ones.
Beijing's unusually healthy relationships with all sides to the conflict underpin its greatest contribution: long-term investments that have a better chance of being left in peace. The company operating the $3 billion Aynak copper deal, Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC), has been understandably skittish about the occasional rocket attack, even though its facility has never been subjected to a major assault. Accounts from Chinese officials suggest that MCC's reluctance to move ahead with the contract -- like the reluctance of other Chinese companies to sink money into Afghanistan -- has been as much about not wanting to be identified with the U.S. war effort as direct security concerns. But that political context is changing.
Trade between China and Afghanistan remains a modest $234 million, albeit increasing from barely $25 million in 2000. China previously saw economic activities, especially those on a large scale, as providing ballast to a long-term U.S. presence in the country and therefore best pursued slowly or not at all. Now, with 2014 approaching, the spigots are starting to open again. After four years in which no significant contracts were signed, the last 12 months saw a major oil exploration bid accepted on terms sufficiently generous to the Afghan government as to imply that the contract will be the first of many.
The United States has been asking China for years to do more to incorporate Afghanistan into the region's political and economic order. Now that U.S. troops are heading for the exits, China has finally acceded. But unlike the far-off United States, once China commits serious political and economic resources to the country, no one expects it to leave.