Wed, Jul 07, 2010 - Page 9 News List

US fights as China spends to gain foothold in Afghanistan

China, Afghanistan’s largest foreign investor, is using soft power to secure its neighbor’s friendship

By Tini Tran  /  AP , KABUL

Gul Akbar’s tiny store is crammed from floor to ceiling with rolls of electric cables, plugs of all sizes and piles of extension cords. Virtually everything comes from China, as do most of the appliances and electronics being sold in Kabul’s busy Nader Pashtun Market.

Not far away, the sparkling 10-story glass-and brick Jamhuriat Hospital rises in the midst of Afghanistan’s war-torn capital.

Beijing gave US$25 million and the Chinese workers to build it.

Every day, Afghans wait in long lines at the Chinese Embassy for visas to let them cross the border to trade.

As the US and its NATO allies fight to stabilize Afghanistan, China has expanded its economic footprint with several high-profile investments and reconstruction projects. In 2007, it became the country’s largest foreign investor when it won a US$3.5 billion contract to develop copper mines at Aynak, southeast of Kabul.

The US is in favor of the Chinese investment.

“It can be a good thing. As a matter of fact, we encourage all of the international community to take an interest in the economic development of Afghanistan,” US State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said. “Working with our coalition partners and other interested partners, we are trying to establish a viable market economy in Afghanistan. This is one way to wean people from illicit activities and also to fight the ideology of the terrorists.”

For China, the reward is not only expanded trade and access to natural resources, it’s also security for its western flank, the vast Xinjiang region that is home to a separatist movement of minority Uighurs, said Liu Xuecheng (劉學成) of the China Institute of International Studies, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s think tank.

“Our interest is clear. We need a peaceful neighbor because we have our own problems in Xinjiang,” Liu said. “If we have a friendly country in Afghanistan, they can help us to manage issues on the separatists, security and territorial integrity. We want Afghanistan to be successful.”

Though the two countries have always been friendly, the relationship has blossomed in recent years. In March, Afghan President Hamid Karzai made his fourth trip to Beijing, bringing back agreements on economic cooperation, technical training and lower tariffs for Afghan goods.

The emerging alliance is giving Kabul an alternative to its sometimes strained ties with the West. The two neighbors share a narrow, mountainous border, the Wakhan Corridor, and links that date back centuries to the caravans of tea, spices and other riches that traveled the Silk Road.

Afghanistan is “well aware that the US is likely to only be a temporary ally, so it’s looking for a longer-term partner in the region. China would be an obvious choice,” said security analyst Christian Le Miere, editor of Jane’s Intelligence Review.

China drew worldwide attention with the US$3.5 billion winning bid by the state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corp to tap one of the world’s largest unexploited copper reserves. That deal — which included commitments to build a power plant, railway, hospital and mosque, and to employ thousands of Afghans as miners — has dwarfed all other countries’ foreign investments, including the US.

“China is the biggest buyer of raw materials in the world, whether that’s in Africa, Asia or any other part of the world. So if China wants to come to Afghanistan, why not?” Afghan Commerce and Industry Minister Ghullam Mohammad Yalaqi said. “We just like to do the deal.”

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