Until recently, Beijing's policy in Afghanistan could be characterized as masterful inactivity: It sat on the sidelines of a war that it wanted neither side to win. But the late September visit by security chief Zhou Yongkang, the first by a senior Chinese leader in almost five decades, is the most visible sign that the U.S. 2014 withdrawal date is bringing that spectator status to an end. As the United States dials down its goal of defeating the Taliban, China could become Afghanistan's most important mediator and investor.
Since the 9/11 attacks, China's goals in Afghanistan have been almost entirely negative: no victory for the West, nor for extremists; no long-term U.S. bases and no terrorist training camps for Uighur separatists. Most importantly, the Chinese wanted no serious involvement in Afghanistan. With the exception of its large but painfully slow-moving Aynak copper-mine project, China has steered clear of anything beyond a token presence in Afghanistan's economic, security, or political affairs. Fearing the reaction in the Islamic world if it were visibly associated with the Western-led war effort, yet not wanting to poison its relations with the West by rooting for the insurgency, Beijing has treated Afghanistan as a neighbor in name only.
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