Beyond the Lingo Barrier

Written by Dr. Moonis Ahmar  •  Region  •  May 2013 PDF Print E-mail

China’s “soft power” approach in Afghanistan comes with strong ulterior motives.

“China and Afghanistan are good neighbors, friends and partners. The exchange between the two peoples could date back to 2,000 years ago.”

-Mr. Xu Feihong, Chinese Ambassador to Kabul.

China’s transformation from a sleeping giant to a dragon in a span of just four decades cannot be understood without exploring the “open door” policy unleashed by the then Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Maintaining a double-digit economic growth rate for several years and holding around 3.4 trillion dollars of foreign exchange reserves, China aims to deepen its influence, particularly in Asia and Africa with large-scale investments.

A critical aspect of China’s policy in global affairs revolves around “soft power.” Beijing systematically pursues four pillars of soft power: cultural influence, economic and trade ties, diplomacy and negotiations to resolve conflicts. Since 1978, China has refrained from taking sides in violent conflicts and preferred to deal with contentious issues through peaceful means.

In January 2008, the Confucius Institute opened in Kabul University but due to security reasons it ceased its activities in October 2010. The institute aims to develop a better understanding among Afghans about Chinese culture and language. The President of Kabul University recently stated, “China and Chinese language both play an important role in the international arena. I hope the Chinese leaders can contribute to the bilateral friendship by learning this language as well.” The Confucius Institute at Kabul University targets young Afghans who were exposed to Russian, English or other European languages and cultures and will now have an opportunity to learn Mandarin - a language of the world’s most popular country and the second global economic power.

No one can deny the importance of culture and language in strengthening the bonds of friendship and cooperation between people of different countries. However, if “soft power” and “cultural diplomacy” are analyzed, the prime thrust is to establish political and economic influence. In the case of Chinese involvement in Pakistan, the former PPP led coalition government took a keen interest in promoting Mandarin by offering it in various Universities. In many cases, knowledge of Mandarin Chinese opens the doors to educational and economic opportunities.

In the case of Afghanistan, China is showing a keen interest due to three major reasons. First, around $1 trillion of untapped mineral resources in Afghanistan are a source of great interest for China. Although, other foreign players also have an eye on the untapped and unexploited mineral resources in Afghanistan, unlike many foreign stakeholders, China enjoys a positive image in the country because of Beijing’s single track policy of non-interference, despite mounting concerns about the role of the Al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups. Apart from investments in mineral resources and oil fields, China’s state-owned mining company has invested in copper mines in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Logar.

Second, a post-2014 NATO/U.S. withdrawal scenario motivates China to exercise a pro-active policy in Afghanistan so it can fill the void after foreign troops withdraw.

Third, the concerns of China vis-à-vis the potential role of Taliban/Al-Qaeda in patronizing the Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan are somewhat legitimate. During Taliban rule (1996-2001) Islamic groups were trained in the Chinese controlled Xinjiang province, proving that Afghanistan was supporting secessionist groups of Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang province). China rightly feels that if Afghanistan plunges into another phase of civil war or comes under the influence of Taliban, the scenario will be detrimental to its interests in its Xinjiang province.

Whether China will act as a “buffer” between the foreign Western powers and the local groups is yet to be seen. Beijing supports the war on terror and under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), is a partner in combating extremism, separatism and terrorism. Certainly, China has close strategic and security relations with Pakistan but is cognizant of the strong Afghan lobby that holds Islamabad responsible for the prevailing violence in the country.

China may have a smooth sailing in Afghanistan through its economic and cultural role, but much depends on peace and stability in this volatile country. If the situation is marred with uncertainty and crisis, to expect the student community in Kabul to take serious interest in learning Chinese language and understand the Chinese culture may be wishful thinking. 

Dr. Moonis Ahmar is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Karachi and Director, Program on Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution.

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