By Jamaluddin Aram-In first grade I had a pencil and on it in a golden color it said: “dosti mardom-e chin wa Afghanistan zinda ba’ad,” long-live the friendship of the people of Afghanistan and China. And that was the first time I heard the word “China.” I had to wait until later to learn that we were neighbors.
Afghans cannot be blamed if they have looked with suspicion — in the past 4.5 decades, at least — at the motives of their neighboring countries. For those who lived as refugees in Iran and Pakistan, resentment, anger and, at times, hatred might replace suspicion. When one moves from the personal stories and experiences to the state level, “dakhalat dar omoor dakheli,” interference in internal affairs, has been a phrase that we are all familiar with. Afghans, whether ordinary people or the head of state, often place the roots of the unending instability within our borders in places beyond our borders.
Since the establishment of the diplomatic ties between the Afghanistan and People’s Republic of China in 1955, China has managed to stay on the good side of the Afghan people, and at times out of the fray entirely. However, the connection between the two neighbors goes beyond the sixty two years marked by the formal protocol. It is said that in the seventh century AD, a Chinese monk named Xuan Zang visited present day Bamiyan that was a Buddhist valley at the time. In a way, for Afghans, China has always loomed large. We hear the word chin, China, in Hafiz Shirzai’s, the 14th century Persian poet, poem: “ai khoon-bahai nafa-e chin khak rah-e tu.”And it is our only neighbor whose name is mentioned in a hadis, the prophet’s saying. While China as a notion cuts deep and far back in our literature and culture, what Afghans see and touch up close are the Chinese products, often associated with frugality, that permeate the Afghan cities and villages alike. Perhaps, it is this disparity between the abstract and the tangible, between the exotic and the ordinary that builds an aura of mystery around the notion of China in an Afghan mind. China remains near by, yet far away.
The thought of Kung Pao Chicken, or any other Chinese cuisine for that matter, does not stimulate the Afghan appetite — mainly because we have not been exposed to it. Similarly, few people know about Confucius’ teachings and even fewer people read him. While commercial transactions are vital, it is sharing culture — from music to food — that strengthens the bond between two people. The list of things that can, but don’t, connect the people of Afghanistan and China is long.
Perhaps, this cultural separation can be explained by the differences. The Sinitic (a family of languages encompassing varieties of Chinese dialects, including Mandarin) and Indo-European (Farsi and Pahstu belong to this family) are far apart. Afghanistan shares its shortest border with China, 76 kilometers, the lowest point of which, Wakhjir Pass, is still 5,000 meters above the sea level. The Chinese government’s tendency to follow the principle of non-interference is another reason. When the Taliban came to power in the early 1990s, Beijing suspended diplomatic ties with the regime, and established formal relations with Kabul only when President Karzai took power in 2002.
Since then, the Sino-Afghan relationship, government to government at least, has reached new heights. In 2012, President Karzai and President Hu Jintao launched the China-Afghanistan Strategic and Cooperative Partnership. The countries agreed to cooperate in the political, economic, cultural and security fields. President Hu Jintao said: “We will continue to manage regional affairs by ourselves, guarding against shocks from turbulence outside the region, and will play a bigger role in Afghanistan’s peaceful reconstruction.” China is becoming one of the main investors in Afghanistan. In 2008, Jiangxi Copper, the country’s largest copper producer, won the contract to develop the Aynak Cooper Mine outside Kabul. The state-owned China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) is chosen for an oil field of Amu Darya in northern Afghanistan. Between 2001 and 2013, China provided roughly $240 millions in development assistance and aid. In the past couple of years, the cooperation has picked up speed. China gave $80 million each year from 2014 to 2017. In August of 2016, “Sino Afghan Special Railway Transportation” was inaugurated. Connecting Afghanistan’s Hairatan Port to the coastal state of Jiangsu was a historical milestone. The railway connects Afghanistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan all the way to the city of Nantong in Jiangsu Province — just north of Shanghai. The railroad cuts down cost and travel time and gives Afghanistan an alternative route to the port of Karachi.
China is increasingly getting involved in helping Afghanistan in areas of agriculture, education, housing, anti-drug trafficking, counter-terrorism. The last one is important because for a long time Beijing was reluctant to cooperate with Afghanistan in areas of security and provide military aid. That is changing. China has an alliance with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan to combat terrorism and extremism. And Beijing has made efforts to help the peace process in the frame of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group.
China is expanding regional ambition can explain it’s increasingly more hands-on approach towards Afghanistan. In 2013, President Xi Jinping announced his ambitious initiative to revive the Silk Route, “One Built and One Road Initiative.” Afghanistan plays an important role in connecting China to the world through the initiatives’ China-Central Asia – West Asia Economic Corridor. This fits Afghanistan’s needs for building its infrastructure and its desire to become a regional hub for trade. In 2014, while welcoming the initiative, President Ghani said “We feel that our vision of Afghanistan as a hub of regional trade, transit, and peace would be an illustration of your [China’s] vision of East Asia and South Asia cooperation.” However, as security situation deteriorates in Afghanistan, Beijing must grow more concerned. Insecurity in Afghanistan will impact Beijing’s ambition for the peace of the region. Stability on both sides of the border is crucial for the “One Road One Belt” to succeed.
The Chinese Ambassador to Afghanistan, H.E. Mr. Yao Jing, called Afghanistan and China “more than neighbors” and said that not only our interests, but also our futures were connected. In the past six decades, Afghanistan and China have traveled different paths. By implementing massive reform programs, China has become the second largest economy in the world. It has lifted 700 million people out of poverty. Afghanistan, too, has experienced events of historic proportions, but our story is not as happy, unfortunately. While the world and the region went through tremendous changes, one principle stayed constant in the Sino-Afghan relationship: mutual respect. Now, it is clear that an unstable Afghanistan can hamper China’s ambition for peace and prosperity in the region, it remains to be seen whether China will take a more aggressive approach in ensuring that Afghanistan does not go backwards. By the same token, it remains to be seen whether the cultural bond between the nations will start to follow in the footsteps of, and keep pace with, political and economic cooperations.
The author is majoring in English and minoring in history at Union College in Schenectady, NY.