Be­yond the Lingo Bar­rier

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

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

What are China’s ul­te­rior mo­tives be­hind con­vinc­ing Kabul Univer­sity to teach Man­darin to young Afgha­nis?

“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, di­plo- macy 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 visà-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.

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