Sources speaking to the South China Morning Post’s Minnie Chan say that Beijing is building a training camp in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. According to one of the sources, Chan reported, when the camp is completed “China will send at least one battalion of troops, along with weapons and equipment, to be stationed there and provide training to their Afghan counterparts.” A battalion, Chan writes, typically has 500 or more troops.
China’s interests in, and activities regarding, Afghanistan have been an increasingly hot topic as the war stretches toward its 17th year and China’s development ambitions reach deeper into South Asia.
Late last year, China’s hosting of a trilateral meeting with the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan drew headlines casting Beijing as a possible peace broker. A subsequent meeting between Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister Chang Wanquan and Afghan Minister of Defense Tariq Shah Bahrami, as well as Bahrami’s meeting with the Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission Xu Qilian got less attention, though The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda covered the meeting, noting that it “underlined the increasingly close military-to-military ties between the two countries.”
That flurry of meetings was followed by reports in Fergana News, a Russia-based news outfit focused on Central Asia, that a new Afghan military base would be built in Badakhshan with Chinese funding. The details were thin and statements from the involved parties conflicting.
Fergana reported at the time that General Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, had said that the Chinese would cover “all material and technical expenses for this base — weaponry, uniforms for soldiers, military equipment, and everything else necessary for its functioning.”
Chinese defense officials denied plans to build a “military base.” Defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian said in January that recent reports “on China’s building of its own military base in Afghanistan is ungrounded.” Wu stressed that China and Afghanistan maintained “normal military security cooperation” and that China “has provided some aid and helps to the Afghanistan side and is willing to continue to make common efforts with the Afghanistan side to maintain the security and stability of both countries and the region at large.”
As I wrote in January, a larger regional view helps shed light on China’s increasing activities in Afghanistan. Given the area’s rugged terrain and access difficulties, Tajikistan serves as vital link in the chain between China and Afghanistan. Paying attention to developments in the Beijing-Dushanbe relationship sheds light on the Beijing-Kabul relationship as well.
Importantly, in March the International Crisis Group released a report which, in part, stated that China’s security presence in Tajikistan had been growing. The report more broadly focused on the Tajik government’s tenuous control of its eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) — which borders Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province (of which the Wakhan Corridor is a part) and China’s Xinjiang province. According to the report, “Local officials and residents say China has built an installation in a remote corner of the oblast, near both Xinjiang and the Afghan border.”
One official told Crisis Group that “There are quite a lot of Chinese soldiers here” in GBAO, but that they kept a low profile. Another mentioned a “Chinese security installation,” categorizing it as a “a joint counter-terrorism center” also housing Tajik forces.
In recent years, China has engaged more closely with Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan on border security and counterterrorism, with Beijing’s eye firmly fixed on Xinjiang.
Couched in terms of combatting the three evils — terrorism, separatism and religious extremism — Beijing established a “four-country mechanism” (a Quad of its own, perhaps) for intelligence sharing and training back in August 2016. That announcement was swiftly followed by news that China would finance and build 11 border outposts for Tajikistan along the Afghan frontier, as well as a training facility for border guards. In October 2016, China held its first bilateral counterterrorism exercises with Tajikistan along the Afghan border.
It would be unsurprising for China to pursue a similar form of military and security cooperation with Afghanistan.
It’s worth mentioning that different reports use different terminology — military base, training camp, counterterrorism center, etc — and sometimes use those terms interchangeably. There’s a difference between a joint training center and an outright Chinese military base, a nuance that does not always come across in reporting, not the least because the involved parties (China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan) are not always that precise or forthcoming with details. More than the terminology, what’s important to watch for is what any emerging facilities are designed and staffed for.
The SCMP report follows a steady stream of not only rumors about Chinese forces in the region but more concrete developments that firmly underscore an increasingly close security relationship between China and Afghanistan, not to mention China and Tajikistan in the same sphere.