China Power

What’s Behind China’s Offer of Military Aid to Afghanistan?

China’s concerns about Afghan stability are real, but direct military aid will remain limited.

What’s Behind China’s Offer of Military Aid to Afghanistan?

Afghan National Army recruits head to the firing line on the small arms range at the Regional Military Training Center.

Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Brian Brannon / Released

China has offered to expand its military aid to Afghanistan, the Wall Street Journal reports, following a visit to the country by a top Chinese general. Outlook Afghanistan put the total value of the proffered military aid at 480 renminibi ($73 million).

The offer came during a visit to Afghanistan by General Fang Fenghui, chief of China’s joint staff department, last week. During a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Fang expressed his hope for increased cooperation on security and counter-terrorism. That apparently includes the potential for military supplies from China. The exact nature of the supplies has yet to be determined, a spokesperson for the Afghan Defense Ministry told WSJ. However, he suggested that Afghanistan’s “wish list” might ask for light weapons, aircraft parts, and uniforms from Beijing – all limited contributions, fitting the limited budget.

Historically, China has not provided much in the way of military aid to Afghanistan, preferring to limit itself to humanitarian and economic aid (and only a modest amount, at that). When China does offer military aid, as it did during a meeting between Ghani and President Xi Jinping last summer, Beijing general limits such assistance to training and general supplies rather than transfers of offensive weapons. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Arms Transfers Database, for instance, does not have any record of any major Chinese arms deals with Afghanistan since 2001 (although the database excludes deals involving small arms and light weapons).

But the lack of military transfers shouldn’t suggest that China isn’t concerned about Afghan security – it most emphatically is. Beijing is particularly worried that instability in Afghanistan provides a safe haven for Uyghur militant groups, who might seek to conduct attacks within China in pursuit of an independent Xinjiang. Even if violence in Afghanistan doesn’t spill over into China, it could jeopardize prospects for China’s Silk Road Economic Belt, Xi’s signature foreign policy initiative.

On Thursday, at a panel discussion with representatives from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on the sidelines of the annual National People’s Congress session, Chinese Premier Li Keiqang reminded officials that Xinjiang “is of strategic importance for the country’s overall situation,” according to Xinhua’s paraphrasing. Li urged the Xinjiang deputies to promote development in the province in order to “consolidate the foundation of lasting stability” – but domestic development will only go so far if instability continues to reign in neighboring Afghanistan.

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To date, though, China’s strategy for ensuring stability in Afghanistan has been to throw its diplomatic weight behind peace talks between the government in Kabul and the Taliban. By nudging its ally Pakistan to encourage Taliban participation, Beijing hopes to finally reach a negotiated solution that will see the Taliban lay down their arms in exchange for integration into the political system. But the Chinese-backed peace talks have been no more successful so far than previous attempts. Last year’s talks ended abruptly due to a leadership succession crisis in the Taliban; this year, the Taliban have emphatically announced that they have no plans to participate in renewed talks.

The promise of military aid to Afghanistan may be China’s way of responding to the lack of progress on its preferred diplomatic track. When it comes to counter-terrorism abroad, China’s strategy is to help build up domestic capabilities in at-risk nations; Fang’s recent offer to Afghanistan fits that pattern. But when it comes to Afghanistan, China will have to strike a delicate balance, or its aid to Kabul could destroy Beijing’s ties with the Taliban (and jeopardize the already ailing peace process).