LONDON, U.K. — You know, I don't like to worry an idea to death, but I feel like I need to reiterate ideas from a column two weeks ago. In that column I noted the irony that while America and its European allies endure a moment of perilous self-doubt about their economies and the strength of their political systems against a backdrop of war in Afghanistan, China is reaping the benefits of economic expansion unfettered by extra military spending.
The two strands of that story came face to face exactly a week ago. Afghan President Hamid Karzai went to China and met President Hu Jintao. The pair signed three trade agreements. Details of the agreements were not provided. No surprise there, transparency is not something that either government makes a virtue.
You probably didn't read about the Karzai-Hu meeting. A check of The New York Times website doesn't show a record of an article on the subject. The Washington Post website shows a report from Reuters previewing the visit but no follow-up.
Friday the news on China was all about U.S. President Barack Obama's long phone call with Hu, urging him to support sanctions on Iran, but most of the reporting on China as of late has been about Google withdrawing from the People's Republic. The Afghanistan news was continued spin down related to the earlier visit of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadenijad to Kabul at the invitation of Karzai. Even now, that continues to be the focus of news analysis and commentary coming out of Afghanistan.
Earlier this week The New York Times ran an excellent article about the difficulties of dealing with Karzai. In it an anonymous senior official is quoted, “We’re trying to find this balance of keeping pressure on him, without setting up bluffs that can be called.”
Is any of this pressure related to trade deals with China? The corruption surrounding the Karzai government has been thoroughly reported here at GlobalPost and in many other places. America, its allies and the United Nations are all involved in efforts to force the Afghan government to clean up its act. But the trade deals with China beg the question: To what degree are these agreements open to scrutiny?
It might be seen as infringement of Afghan national sovereignty but shouldn't the U.S. have some input into how these trade agreements are formulated? Who is fooling whom here? The Afghan government exists in its present form because the U.S. overthrew the Taliban and continues to pour men and money into the country to stabilize the regime.
Shouldn't the U.S. government have a right to make sure there is no opportunity for graft in these new deals? How does the U.S. know whether there are "sweeteners" in the deal that give no benefit to the Afghan people?
When it comes to corruption, will more Chinese spending — China Metallurgical Group Company has already paid $3.4 billion for exclusive rights to develop a massive copper mine south of Kabul — have the same effect as pouring a gallon of gasoline on a campfire? Will it create a dangerous explosion of corruption? Who will provide the security for the Chinese ventures in Afghanistan? The Afghan government? Whose security forces are being trained and to a great degree paid for by the American taxpayer?
I ask again shouldn't the U.S. have some input into these trade negotiations?
Hovering over this specific point is the grand question: What does China contribute to the stability and peace-keeping effort that allows the Karzai government to thrive and personally flourish? $200 billion is the amount Times columnist Tom Friedman estimates the U.S. has spent so far in propping up Karzai and wooing those Taliban who can be wooed and pursuing those Taliban who can't. How much has China spent securing Afghanistan? Shouldn't Washington be sending Beijing a bill for services rendered?
Anyway, as these questions were putting pressure on my normal brain function I decided to ask someone about them: Kerry Brown, former British diplomat in Beijing, currently senior fellow at the Chatham House think tank. Brown began by saying it's a time of suspicion between China and America.
"The Chinese diplomatic game is to be helpful but not go out of their way. That suits every one." The Chinese government's "big concern," according to Brown, is whether the U.S. is really planning to leave Afghanistan. He paraphrased an idea from "p. 131" of Chinese intellectual Wang Hui's book "End of the Revolution": "Where does the American border end? Not at passport control. It goes right up to the border of Korea, the border of Pakistan. These are countries that border China."
China shares a border with Afghanistan also. Brown thinks its rulers are ambivalent about a American presence in yet another country to which it is adjacent. American difficulty might have an upside for the Chinese. On the other hand, Brown points out, "China wants stability in the region and it wants to stop the internationalization of Islamic terrorism."
OK, ambivalence explains why China won't get involved with providing bodies for the international stability force in Afghanistan. A similar ambivalence probably exists on the American side ... a few thousand crack troops from the People's Liberation Army serving in ISAF is probably not something on top of General Stanley McChrystal or Obama's Christmas wish list. But what about a little cash contribution toward the war?
Brown laughs, "China would say, 'We're already doing that. We're funding your defense budget. We're funding your whole deficit.'"
If the U.S. were to press the argument, Brown thinks the response would be, "You want us to re-patriate some of those dollars, we hold? Fine let us buy some of your state-of-the art military hardware." That is something the U.S. government would be reluctant to do.
So a certain balance holds. China creams off the good contracts to exploit the natural resources of Afghanistan ... and in so doing builds a bit of infrastructure for the country. The U.S. provides the military security but China doesn't get involved in expansionism.
These insights leave me with a different question for American policymakers. Should the current equation be re-balanced to draw the People's Republic into a more active role in Afghanistan or should the U.S. follow the centuries old wisdom of Napoleon and "let China sleep"?