On September 22, Zhou Yongkang, top Chinese security official and a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, made a four-hour visit to Afghanistan. It was also China's first high-level official visit to Afghanistan since 1966.
Zhou's visit has aroused more debates and suspicion than US President Barack Obama's visit to Afghanistan in May. Will China change its principle of non-intervention and play a more active role? Will China compete with other powers, particularly the US and India, for more influence? Will China be prepared to take a more proactive stance after NATO's withdrawal in 2014?
Zhou's visit shows that the security and political significance of Afghanistan for China is rising and China's approach to international affairs is also changing. China is going to change its wait-and-see policy and will take a set of more proactive measures to shape the situation within and around Afghanistan.
Afghanistan lies on the traditional route between China and South Asia. Afghanistan should not be a strategic base for international anti-China forces. If they established permanent bases in Afghanistan and Central Asia, the US and its allies could put heavy strategic pressure on China, as well as Russia and other surrounding countries.
But the terrorist activities, factional conflict, and inefficient government transformed Afghanistan into a US strategic burden, not an asset. China's most serious concern has been greatly eased.
Besides, Afghanistan should not be a source of threats to China's domestic security. Afghanistan hosts lots of international terrorist and extremist groups with potentially global reach and is full of illegal drugs and weapons. It could be very dangerous for China if we can not manage these issues well. And China wants access to Afghanistan's markets and resources after 2014.
The first goal for China is to help Afghanistan build a more efficient government. Without domestic stability, security and order, no country can achieve any positive targets. The second goal is to maintain a friendly relationship with the Afghan authorities in both Kabul and provincial capitals and with the ordinary Afghan people.
We don't expect a pro-China government there, but Chinese are looking forward to see an Afghan government not opposed to China, and which gives China enough tools to protect its interests and citizens there. At least, China can prevent threats from spreading into China from Afghanistan.
China has taken some active measures to achieve these goals. Prompted by China, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) granted Afghanistan and its neighbors Iran, India, and Pakistan observer status. It is very likely that the SCO will become an important platform to handle the Afghan issues in the future. China is also keen to participate in a UN-led peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan after 2014.
On the bilateral level, Zhou's visit is an adventurous diplomatic leap for the cautious Chinese government. It shows Chinese leaders' willingness to strengthen their direct ties with their Afghan counterparts.
But China must take a cautious though active approach to Afghan issue and should take lessons from previous world powers: the UK, the USSR, and the latest one, the US. Almost all of them broke their teeth biting into Afghanistan. As a rising power and a neighbor of Afghanistan, China will have to take on more responsibilities in Afghan affairs, but it needs a prudential approach.
China should adhere to the principle of non-intervention, and respect Afghan people's choices in their political system and in other affairs. The failures of the US and USSR were as a result of their attempts to plant a political model they favored into Afghanistan.
China should not deploy any military forces on Afghan soil except for joining the UN-led operations. But China can help the Afghan government to "train, fund and equip Afghan police" as stated in the new agreement between two countries.
China needs to do its best to promote economic and trade ties with Afghanistan though many Western countries have blamed China for exploiting or seeking to exploit Afghan natural resources. The economy and market, not the gun and missile, are the most powerful forces to change a society, and to transform a pre-modern state into a modern state. China could do better than the Western countries in developing the Afghan economy.
Most importantly, China should work with other countries and international organizations. Afghanistan's tragic history was formed mainly by competition and conflict between world powers, between the Russian and British empires in the 1800s and early 1900s, and between the US and the former USSR in the 1970s and 1980s.
For any country to help Afghanistan honestly, it should prevent Afghanistan from becoming an arena for the world powers again.
The author is associate professor at the Center for American Studies, Fudan University. firstname.lastname@example.org