By Fu Xiaoqiang
Afghan President Hamid Karzai started his second official visit to China Sunday after attending the summit of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO) as a guest.
He told Chinese journalists that Afghanistan is willing to develop all-round friendly relations with China, a good neighbor and friend, which has contributed significantly to Afghanistan's reconstruction over the past four years.
His wishes accord with China's diplomatic strategy with regard to relations with neighboring countries being a good neighbor to surrounding nations and helping make them prosper. Promoting co-operation in various fields with Afghanistan, an important neighbor, facilitates regional stability and security in China's western regions.
Things have changed since Karzai's first China visit four years ago. Reconstruction in Afghanistan, for instance, has been going well. The country's new constitution has been enacted and presidential and parliamentary elections were successfully staged, with the help of the international community.
As a result, Afghanistan has become a normal country with a basically complete political infrastructure. In addition, initial economic recovery has been achieved.
Against this backdrop, Afghanistan is showing an ever-stronger desire for more extensive co-operation with the South Asian and Central Asian nations. The country is expected to soon become a full member of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation.
Karzai also expressed his wish to further expand his country's co-operation with the SCO and its individual member states. As a geopolitical hub wedged between the South, Central and West Asia, Afghanistan is bound to play a bigger part in regional co-operation.
As the SCO improves its functions and working mechanisms, it is having a greater influence on Afghanistan. It is quite possible that Afghanistan will ask for co-operation with the SCO in some chosen areas in the near future.
Peace and reconstruction dictate that the neighboring nations in the region are vitally important to Afghanistan, although the United States remains the most influential player for the country politically and militarily. It is only natural that Afghanistan should not put all its eggs in the US basket. The country's desire to be more independent and self-reliant will get ever stronger with the unfolding of events in the regional political and economic arenas.
SCO member states have carried out effective co-operation in combating terrorism and extremism. Afghanistan, enormously haunted by the same problems, has good reason to work in concert with the SCO members in this regard. This also serves US interests in this region.
China is among those countries that first provided aid to post-Taliban Afghanistan. As early as 2002, for example, China pledged economic aid worth US$150 million to the country. China has also become actively involved in the construction of highways, water conservation projects, hospitals and other public infrastructure. For example, Kandahar Hospital and the Parvan water conservation project have become symbols of Sino-Afghan friendship.
As an increasingly important global economic player, China provides its neighbors with important opportunities and a vast market. Karzai, in an interview with Chinese media, expressed his hope that Afghanistan would benefit from China's economic growth, with more and more Afghan commodities finding their way into the Chinese market.
Taking all this into account, Karzai's current China visit has very special connotations laying foundations for all-round Sino-Afghan co-operation, pinpointing specific fields for collaboration and, in turn, promoting common security and co-prosperity.
China and Afghanistan have never had any disputes with each other, something that helps lay good foundations for co-operation. The two nations have been developing their relations via equal exchanges and mutually beneficial undertakings. Grape and carrot planting techniques in China, for instance, were borrowed from Afghanistan in ancient times.
Afghanistan is a staunchly independent nation that does not like being dictated to by major powers.
At the same time, China's good-neighbor policy is in the interest of Afghanistan and the Chinese aid is based on the principles of equality and respecting Afghanistan's sovereignty. This will be the guideline for future Sino-Afghan relations.
The visiting Afghan delegation is the largest since the founding of the new government. Securing specific aid projects and developing trade links constitute important aspects of Karzai's China tour.
China is by far one of Afghanistan's most important trade partners, being the third largest exporter to the latter after Japan and Pakistan. But China imported just US$900,000 worth of goods from Afghanistan last year. The huge potential in this regard needs to be tapped.
It is advisable that China continues its involvement in the infrastructure construction on the condition that the safety of Chinese personnel is guaranteed and that Chinese enterprises are encouraged to seek business opportunities in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, China may have a role to play in training the technicians and managers desperately needed by Afghanistan for its reconstruction and development. Expanding the enrolment of Afghan students studying in Chinese universities is also an imperative task.
At present, terrorism and drugs pose two major obstacles to Afghan reconstruction. These are also destabilizing factors affecting western China.
More opium is planted and more drugs are trafficked than before. This has seriously affected the country's economic reconstruction and the security situation. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime predicts that Afghanistan's opium output in 2006 will hit 4,500 tons and that roughly 87 percent of the world's heroin will originate from Afghanistan.
Driven by the huge profits brought by drugs, terrorist elements and local armed bands are secretly engaged in opium planting, drug processing and deals, with the money made from drug-related activities used to fund the expansion of their forces. All this makes the bad security situation even worse.
At the same time, drug processing and trafficking bring security problems to Afghanistan's neighbors.
In view of all this, it is in the interest of all parties that Afghanistan works in concert with the SCO or its individual member states in combating organized crime, drug trafficking and weapons smuggling. China and Afghanistan are expected to work more closely in this regard, with the signing of a package of agreements during Karzai's current China visit.
In addition, the two countries will possibly conduct co-operation in the field of energy resources.
The SCO and the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation offer China and Afghanistan a platform for co-operation. This all-round bilateral collaboration is not aimed at any third party and there is no intention to rival other big powers.
The author is an associate professor with the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.
(China Daily June 19, 2006)