Rustam Ali Seerat, Research Scholar (International Relations), South Asian University, New Delhi
China though geographically close to Afghanistan, has been a distant land, politically and socially . The Afghan people have little knowledge about China. The socio-political distance extends to the era prior to the decline of China in the 18th century. Though the Silk Road had connected Central and West Asia to Chinese lands and commodities were flowing along the Silk Road, from China to Europe, passing through the Muslim world of present-day Afghanistan. However, economic exchanges brought less of China’s political influence in the region. Even with the re-emergence of China in the latter half of the twentieth century and the flow of its products into the Afghan market, the socio-political influence of China on Afghanistan remains limited. Socially, culturally and politically, China is still a far and mysterious place for Afghans.
This notion of China – a distant mysterious land – can be extended to the rest of the Islamic world as well. Such a portrayal of China goes long back to the first days of Islam. Mohammad, the Islamic prophet, told his followers “seek knowledge even if it’s in China”; in the Arab imagination, China was the farthest place they could think of. Silk trade did not bring Chinese cultures and social knowledge into the region in the ancient times, same as its current economic products do not educate the Muslim world and Afghanistan about China’s society.
After the trip by the President of Afghanistan to China in 2015, in the Afghan social media, a racist Facebook post was circulated. Quoting Mohammad Mohaqiq, the second deputy to the Chief Executive of Afghanistan, allegedly saying “I feel like I am in Dasht-e-Barchi, all the faces are familiar to me” after he was asked by a journalist about his visit to China. Mohaqiq was referring to the western part of Kabul dominated by the Hazaras, an ethnic group with Mongoliod features, different from the Pashtun and the Tajik ethnic groups. The writer of this article cannot confirm this rumour; however, Mohaqiq is famous for his reckless and politically incorrect remarks. The Hazaras of Afghanistan though ethnically close to the Chinese population, are as politically and socially distant from China as other ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
Most Afghans have a rather simple image of the Chinese, of being business-minded people who have little interest in Afghan politics. Post-2001, China has been a sought-after neighbour by Afghan governments. They have asked China to use its contacts with the Taliban and pressure Pakistani officials to forge a peace deal between the Taliban and the government. However, the Chinese have tended to view Afghanistan from the Pakistan lens.
China’s political intervention starts with Mongolian rulers – if we think of Mongols as Chinese – that dominated Persia in the 13th century. Some settled in the region and adopted local cultures and religion while some others left for the Indian subcontinent, losing all their socio-political links with the Mongol empire or Mongolia. In the last fifty years, China’s modest intervention came with the emergence of leftist forces in Afghanistan. A Maoist movement among the many factions of the leftist named Shola Javid was supported for short a time by China in the 1970s, however, when the Soviet-backed leftist groups dominated political power in 1978, it totally eliminated Shola Javid. During the 1990s the Chinese government had its contacts with the Taliban government, and these contacts continue till date. It also supports the current Afghan government and has invested in Afghanistan copper mines.
The Impact of OBOR on Afghanistan
Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s President, has boasted of converting his country into a trade hub of South and Central Asia. However, these efforts are undermined by the long-term Indo-Pak animosity, which halts any type of inter-regional and intra-regional trade partnership. China’s ‘one belt, one road’ (OBOR) initiative isolates Afghanistan from the trade route between East Asia and Europe. This will have a two-fold negative impact on Afghanistan. First, if India joins the OBOR initiative, it would have a trade route to the Central Asian Republics, Russia and Europe, which passes through western China. Afghanistan should hope that India would initiate its own model of Silk Road in order to reach Central Asian nations. Such an Indian-initiated trade route would make Afghanistan a transit nation and would increase its strategic significance.
Secondly, China is also building the Gwadar port in Pakistan as part of the OBOR initiative which will connect the Central Asian countries to the India Ocean through Pakistan by bypassing Afghanistan. The success of OBOR will undercut the significance of Afghanistan as the main trade pass between South and Central Asia, a disappointment for people like President Ghani.
China is not a bad neighbour in the minds of common Afghan people, in comparison to Pakistan and Iran, the two most hated neighbours. It is seen as a harmless but resource-hungry giant sleeping beyond the Wakhan mountains which neither bothers itself with the political changes in its small far-western neighbour (Afghanistan) nor has shown any interest in getting itself involved in it.