China eyes stable Afghanistan, Central Asia as key to regional development

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Three generations at a village store - Michael Foley/World Bank 2003/The Streets of KabulAt the upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, China will seek to cement strategic partnerships with the former Soviet states of Central Asia. While China and Russia insist that the SCO was created as a counter-terrorism group, the two are in competition for influence and oil and gas rights in the four former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Not yet a full member of the SCO, Afghanistan will be sending observers to the August 16 summit. The country’s stability and economic health is very much of concern to the SCO members who see growth of radical Islam as a challenge to state authority. The threat of instability lead Kyrgyzstan a year ago to allow the United States and NATO to continue using key airbases to support operations in Afghanistan.

China has an active interest in a stable Central Asia: a number of pipelines are planned to run from the Central Asian republics into China’s impoverished western regions, bringing much needed gas and oil to fuel the booming economy. At the same time, Beijing is looking to establish markets for its goods throughout the region, and for this to happen, stability is needed.

With the security situation within Afghanistan precarious, and the NATO presence so noticeable, Chinese influence in its western neighbor is hard to find. But as the economy recovers, expect to see more and more Chinese companies moving in from Pakistan to the south and Xinjiang province to the east.

While the Taliban remains a force in the country, Afghanistan’s economy has improved significantly since the regime’s fall in 2001 – due largely to the infusion of international assistance, recovery of the agricultural sector, and service sector growth. Real GDP growth exceeded 8 percent in 2006 to reach an estimated US$32.4 billion. Despite this economic progress, the country remains extremely poor, landlocked, and highly dependent on foreign aid, agriculture, and trade with neighboring countries.

C-SPAN has some recent footage of Afghanistan’s rebounding economy, focusing mainly on Kabul but venturing out of the capital as well. The video features a tour through a market that would be at home in any Asian city, replete with good made in China and imported from Pakistan.