Afghanistan and Chinese Power

Not many countries are developing as swiftly as China. After 50 years of foolishness, despair and acute poverty, the 1980s and ’90s came as a thunderbolt for most Chinese. As a result, the development is most uneven, with the latest Benz honking furiously at peasant-pulled vegetable-laden go-carts in the middle of a somewhat-paved garbage-strewn thoroughfare. Indeed, most new skyscrapers are dilapidated before they are finished and mass ignorance of the outside world is very prevalent. I was asked if I was Thai the other day – and I’m quite white.

However, the expectations of many Chinese are of a New China capable of doling out punishment to any nation foolhardy enough to spy off the coast of Hainan; of a New China in which world travel, luxury, perfect English and international acclaim are commonplace and peasants are fast becoming extinct.

And these expectations are what drive the Communist Party to pour billions into hosting the Olympics, millions into Bora the Wondercoach’s pocket and millions into the Three Tenors’ concert. These expectations demand WTO membership and a football team powerful enough to defeat longtime nemesis Japan – in Japan. Fireworks and parades and drums and streamers lined the streets in many Chinese cities after China squeaked by mighty Oman 1-0 Sunday night – a declaration/celebration of greatness.

This month APEC members will be meeting in Shanghai to discuss China’s WTO membership, shiitake mushrooms, the impact of war and other vital issues. Just another sign of China’s imminent greatness – greatness that may have to be proven in fields other than economics, entertainment and sports.

This war is pivotal for China, although the CCP’s involvement is currently less than insignificant, in terms of money, weapons and diplomacy. China’s stance has not changed since 9/11:

1) against any and all forms of terrorism
2) against the killing of innocents
3) in support of a strong UN role

– and if all things go nicely, the stance will not have to change one bit.

However, Pakistan, China’s good friend here in the East, is being marked by the US as the guardian of the "new government" in Afghanistan after the Taliban are swiftly pounded into the sand. Now, Pakistan has little real international clout. Yes, Pakistan has nuclear missiles, but the ability of Pakistan to control and/or guide a government in Afghanistan with the exiled King as the figurehead is very questionable – especially with an irate and jealous India and good ol’ Kashmir keeping it busy. Don’t forget the Muslims (Pakistan was created for them, ya know) who are none too pleased with the current turn of events and Musharraf’s quick and eager kowtow to the US and crew.

Who else could fill those shoes left vacant by batwing B1 bombs? Russia? Let’s see. Russia is still reeling from 1991 and Chechnya and is busy getting itself together. And we are talking about Afghanistan here. If Afghans have rebellion against foreign-installed leaders in their blood as Robert Fisk writes, then what must flow in those veins concerning their most recent foreign enemy, Russia?

Does Afghan-Russian hatred for one another carry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization? Perhaps. Another member of the SCO, Uzbekistan, has welcomed US and British troops with open arms and wide grins. And the Northern Alliance has a significant number of Uzbeks toting Kalashnikovs.

There’s no telling what Pashtuns and defeated Taliban sympathizers will think of a Russian and/or SCO supported Northern Alliance government with an exiled "foreign" king as symbolic head.

Pakistan, the only country to establish diplomatic relations with the Taliban is the safe bet. So who will prop up cash-strapped, refugee laden, border-war fighting, Muslim insurgent fighting Pakistan when the Afghans start acting up?

Enter China. This, for China, is the only option. But the implications of a Chinese hand in Central Asian politics are not at all pretty for China.

You may have heard of Xinjiang and the Uighers by now. The Uighers are supposedly being trained by the Taliban and if that’s not true then they at least have contact. The Taliban reached out to China this year but were rebuffed. The negotiations dealt primarily with UN vetoes and support for Muslim insurgents in Xinjiang. Apparently, not much progress was made. So how will Uighers and Afghans react to a Chinese hand, indirect of course, in their affairs? How much military hardware will have to be moved to the region to insure peace and stability? How many investment opportunities are there in Kabul these days?

Along with a possible dibs on Central Asian oil (already being secured by the peaceful, rather apolitical, SCO) China gains nothing from a hand in Central Asian politics but a new Muslim headache and a drain on resources.

But consider the alternatives, from China’s perspective: US and NATO troops fortified in the West. It might not seem like much to the rest of us, but the fact that Japan offered "logistic behind the lines" support (manpower) for the campaign worries Chinese greatly.

So, if a power vacuum is created in Central Asia, China had best fill it. Its own national security demands it. If China is aspiring to be a superpower, an international player, a rival – as many Chinese hope and expect: filling the Taliban’s shoes may be the CCP’s next unsavory item in the Grand Voyage Toward Greatness.

This, of course, hinges on the Taliban’s defeat, which is far from clear. We may just see a protracted war in Afghanistan which is the worst possible scenario for all, especially China. Refugees, terrorists, pissed-off Muslims everywhere, Abrams, Marines, Apaches – you name it. Could get ugly.