The US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan poses an important geopolitical dilemma for China. With Xi Jinping’s recent meeting with Hamid Karzai in Beijing and his assurance that China would continue to support Afghanistan’s reconstruction as well as remain a “stable, strong friend and neighbor,” it is worth taking a look at China’s relationship with Afghanistan’s southern neighbor, Pakistan. Over the last several years China has built a “special” relationship with Pakistan, largely in response to US support for India. Up to this point, the relationship has proven beneficial for both sides. Pakistan was able to secure a strategic ally against India, as well as allowing it to play a double game between the US and China, whereby it could leverage one against the other in order to achieve a more favorable outcome for itself.
China on the other hand supported Pakistan to balance the US support for India, as well as to prevent itself from being surrounded or “contained” as the US continued to court its neighbors, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. China also gains security and economic benefits, with Pakistani cooperation in helping secure Xinjiang province by capturing Uyghur separatists on its territory, and China’s investments in Pakistan, especially its $1.6 billion deep water port project at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. However now that NATO and the US are withdrawing from Afghanistan, China needs to maintain stability on its borders, and also prevent any security issues in Afghanistan from destabilizing affects in Xinjiang province amongst its own Uyghur minorities or from “Eastern Turkmenistan” a radical Islamic group. Pakistan, for its part, has always sought a weaker government in Afghanistan, so it could focus the bulk of its army on its border with India.
Furthermore, recent relations with Afghanistan have been both complicated and tense. The border region is ungovernable and allegedly a safe haven for militants. Both sides have accused each other of supporting militant groups, and generally causing mischief. Furthermore the Pakistani Army occasionally combats militants in the border region, which while necessary for its domestic security situation, can enflame relations. As the situation directly affects its security situation, Pakistan wants a seat at the table in any Afghanistan solution.
This puts China in the awkward position where its own interests and Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan diverge. China needs to balance its relationship with Pakistan, while at the same time supporting a stable government in Afghanistan, regardless of the form it takes. China wants to maintain strong relations with Pakistan to balance US influence in the region, however stability in Afghanistan means preventing Pakistan from meddling in its affairs. For now China can continue to balance its interests in Pakistan and Afghanistan because NATO is doing most of the heavy lifting in Afghanistan.
However after the NATO withdrawal, the geopolitical calculus changes. In the near future, China’s national interest could change, at which point it may need to choose between a deteriorating status quo, or maintaining stronger support for a stable secular government and burgeoning economic relations with Afghanistan, and a lesser Pakistani relationship. If the security situation post-2014 in Afghanistan deteriorates, it’s possible that China will pick Afghanistan in order to secure Xinjiang province and its core national interest of a stable and secure border region.