While the outcome of June’s US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue was decidedly mixed, there was one clear bright spot among the items on the agenda: Afghanistan. Indeed, the State Department dossier on the June meeting went so far as to use the word “coordination” to describe US-China involvement in the region—a word markedly absent from discussions on other foreign policy issues on the table. But for China the ongoing troubles in Afghanistan are not just a matter of foreign policy. Conflicts in Afghanistan have spilled over into neighboring countries, threatening national security, and Beijing is praying that China isn’t next. Afghanistan may prove to be the key to a lucrative pipeline through Central Asia and China is keenly aware of this economic opportunity. Additionally, America still has tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan mere miles from the Chinese border. All these factors could lead one to think that China would assert itself aggressively and unilaterally in Afghanistan as it has in border disputes with India and, most recently, Taiwan. And yet China seems determined to work with the United States on an issue in its backyard. What exactly are China’s strategic goals in Afghanistan, and how do they differ from China’s strategies in other parts of the world? What does this newfound cooperation between the US and China on a policy issue as crucial as Afghanistan entail for other areas of contention, such as the South China Sea?

Answering these questions requires an overview of China’s geopolitical challenges. Within China’s borders three regions have seen unrest in recent years: Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. Each of these province-level divisions, officially “Autonomous Regions,” is home to a minority ethnic group dissatisfied to varying degrees with its standing in Chinese society. Inner Mongolia is the least contentious of the three, with a semi-active independence movement and less social conflict. The turmoil in Tibet, Western Sichuan and Gansu, a focus of international humanitarian concern during the 1970s and 80s, has been brought into focus in recent years by a series of Tibetan self-immolations and inter-ethnic strife in gentrifying Lhasa.

Then there’s Xinjiang. An expansive desert region that comprises one-sixth of China’s total land area, the province is home to the Uyghur minority group, a predominantly Sunni Turkic people related to the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz. The province is also home to a violent civil conflict—really a low-level war— between the Chinese government and Uyghur separatists. The separatists initially identified themselves as pan-Turkic. Since the late 1990s, however, the Uyghur militants have increasingly turned to Islamism. In 1997 a radicalized Uyghur, Hasan Mahsum, founded the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) with a generous donation from Bin Laden. Beijing and the ETIM have been fighting ever since; the conflict escalated in 2007 after a series of ETIM suicide bombings and Chinese retaliations, including an attack in which 16 Chinese policemen were killed by militants. Since then the situation has deteriorated further. Uyghur separatists detonated a bomb in Tiananmen Square in 2013, an incident that the government refused to comment about. But in 2014, Xinjiang’s Shache County witnessed what the provincial government called a “serious terrorist attack…premeditated, with links to domestic and foreign groups.” Over fifty people were killed.

Afghanistan’s role in the Uyghur insurgency could not be clearer. Since the 1990s connections between the ETIM, Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda have been strong. Mahsum, the ETIM’s leader, spent time in Afghanistan with Bin Laden and was killed on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in North Waziristan. After the attacks of 9/11, when China increased counterinsurgency efforts in Xinjiang, it did so with an eye on Afghanistan. Indeed, China’s ongoing crackdown on radical groups has focused on training camps in the Pamir Mountains, a region that lies in Southern Xinjiang on the Afghan border. The porous nature of the region allows people and goods to travel unencumbered between China, Afghanistan and Pakistan—an uncertainty that presents a terrifying challenge to the Chinese state.

In this security climate, then, China has good reason to believe that the United States is not the biggest threat to its interests in Central Asia. To resolve what has proven to be a costly conflict in Xinjiang, and to prevent the Afghan conflict from further affecting China’s internal stability, China has committed itself to working with the United States—a superpower that has interests in the region remarkably similar to its own. Much like China, the United States must remain involved for fear of compromising its domestic and regional security interests. Both countries are eager to see the conflict resolved without having to devote military resources, and have embraced a so-called “Afghan owned, Afghan led” peace process; Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei declared the country’s “support” for the strategy in an April press conference, and the phrase also found its way into the final report from the Strategic and Economic Dialogue this June in which both sides formally affirming their commitment to an “’Afghan owned, Afghan led’ reconciliation process.” China has honored that commitment in recent months, facilitating talks between the Taliban and Afghan government. The United States has been nothing but supportive of these efforts; The Economist recently reported that Chinese and American diplomats were present at this month’s high-profile Murree conference, designed to address regional security concerns. In January, as well, China hosted a talk between the Taliban and Afghan authorities; while an article in the The Diplomat made no mention of US involvement, government reports were more positive. So the reason China is willing to work with the United States is counterintuitively simple: they have similar goals in the region, namely preventing Afghanistan’s problems from affecting internal security.

But what of Afghanistan’s strategic economic significance? Right now it seems as if any conflict over Afghanistan’s resources will be put on hold. Neither China nor the United States stands to reap an immediate economic benefit from Afghanistan—the country’s economic infrastructure is nonexistent, with an abysmal HDI of 0.468, the lowest in all of Asia. Moreover, security issues preclude any sustained investment or development. Compare this with the equally strategic South China Sea region, a region that borders the advanced economies of Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan as well as the emerging economies of the Philippines and Vietnam—a corridor through which almost one third of international trade is conducted. The sea also contains remarkable oil and gas reserves; a 2009 report by the US Energy Information Agency estimated that over 11 billion barrels of oil and 13 trillion cubic feet of gas lie beneath the seafloor. For all these reasons American incursions in what China considers to be its area of control in the South China sea are perceived as basic affronts to China’s economic security. The reality could not be more different in Afghanistan. There are no resources China can extract from Afghanistan without the country secure, and the only way to do that is to work with the United States. What will happen when the war in Afghanistan ends? Only time will tell.

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