China, long a bystander to the conflict in Afghanistan, is stepping up its involvement as US-led forces prepare to withdraw, attracted by the country's vast mineral resources but concerned that any post-2014 chaos could embolden insurgents in its own territory.
Cheered on by the US and other Western governments, which see Asia's giant as a potentially stabilising force, China could prove the ultimate winner in Afghanistan, having shed no blood and not much aid.
Security, or the lack of it, remains the key challenge: Chinese enterprises have already bagged three multibillion dollar investment projects, but they won't be able to go forward unless conditions get safer. While the Chinese do not appear ready to rush into any vacuum left by the withdrawal of foreign troops, a definite shift toward a more hands-on approach to Afghanistan is under way.
Beijing signed a strategic partnership last summer with the war-torn country. This was followed in September with a trip to Kabul by its top security official, the first by a leading Chinese government figure in 46 years, and the announcement that China would train 300 Afghan police officers. China is also showing signs of willingness to help negotiate a peace agreement as Nato prepares to pull out in two years.
It's a new role for China, as its growing economic might gives it a bigger stake in global affairs. Success, though far from guaranteed, could mean a big payoff for a country hungry for resources to sustain its economic growth and eager to maintain stability in Xinjiang.
''If you are able to see a more or less stable situation in Afghanistan, if it becomes another relatively normal Central Asian state, China will be the natural beneficiary,'' says Andrew Small, a China expert at The German Marshall Fund of the United States, an American research institute. ''If you look across Central Asia, that is what has already happened. ... China is the only actor who can foot the level of investment needed in Afghanistan to make it succeed and stick it out,'' he adds.
Support from the US
Beijing fears chaos, or victory by the Taliban, would allow these groups greater leeway. The US is encouraging Beijing to boost its investment and aid in Afghanistan and backs its participation in various peace-seeking initiatives, including a Pakistan-Afghanistan-China forum that met last month for the second time.
Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai says there has been a greater sharing of intelligence between his country and China, and a joint US-Chinese program to mentor junior Afghan diplomats. In one of the only cases of such cooperation in the world, the US brought 15 diplomats to Washington, D.C., last month, after they had received similar training in China. Similar three-way programs are being developed in health and agriculture.
"Recently, China has taken a keener interest in the security situation and the transition process, and we are more than happy that this is increasing,'' Mosazai says. “It's certainly a change, a welcome change.''
He adds that Beijing could play a crucial role in forging peace in Afghanistan because of its close relations to Pakistan, from where several Taliban militant groups operate.
Relationship with the Taliban
Davood Moradian, who heads the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies in Kabul, says the Chinese are treading carefully, realizing they lack expertise in a complex political landscape that has tripped up other great powers.
"The Chinese are ambiguous. They don't want the Taliban to return to power and are concerned about a vacuum after 2014 that the Taliban could fill, but they also don't like having US troops in their neighbourhood,'' he says.
Should the Chinese step into the peace process, either as a principal intermediary or through Pakistan, they could carry considerable weight.
"They are rare among the actors in Afghanistan in that they are not seen as having been too close to any side of the conflict. All sides are happy to see China's expanded role,'' Small says.
Though China doesn't want a Taliban takeover, Beijing regards the group as a "legitimate political force,'' says Small. Beijing was on its way to recognizing the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks that led to the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
The Afghan government has backed off from earlier criticism that the Chinese were not contributing their share to security and reconstruction of the country.
"There was an attitude that the Chinese were just interested in profiting from other people's loss, the blood and sweat of American and other troops,'' says Moradian. "But that is changing.''