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China’s Surreptitious Advance in Afghanistan

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China Power

China’s Surreptitious Advance in Afghanistan

Deteriorating Afghan security poses risks for China, so Beijing is quietly building up its presence in the area.

China’s Surreptitious Advance in Afghanistan
Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sharida Jackson

Given the dysfunctional state of affairs in war-torn Afghanistan for the past decades, and the country’s strategic location on the world map, it is unsurprising to witness China’s fast-growing interest in the region. The progressively deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, and the potential risks that could pose to Beijing’s long-term economic and strategic endeavors, is an unsettling prospect for China. However, the geographical proximity between Afghanistan and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China is arguably the most crucial motivation for greater Chinese involvement in the region.

International media outlets and intelligence agencies worldwide have been circulating reports pointing toward the creation of a Chinese military base in the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province for a while now. Although China has not embarked on militarization programs on foreign soil historically, and has profusely denied the rumors about building an Afghan “mountain brigade,” China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti provides an example of China’s newly adopted strategy of leveraging economic influence to further its strategic objectives.

On September 6, 2018, the Afghan ambassador to Beijing stated in an interview with Reuters that China was all set to train Afghan soldiers on Chinese soil, in an effort to counter Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda militants attempting to infiltrate Xinjiang through the northeastern border of Afghanistan, the mountainous Wakhan Corridor. As per recent reports published by the South China Morning Post, despite straight-faced denials, China is very much in the process of building a military training camp in Wakhan itself, and intends to station at least one battalion of troops at the base, accompanied with requisite weapons and military equipment, on completion of the project.

In March 2018, the International Crisis Group also released a report affirming the discreet presence of Chinese soldiers in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) of Tajikistan, which borders both the Wakhan Tract in Afghanistan, and Xinjinag in China. Chinese military activity in Afghanistan, therefore, needs to be understood by juxtaposing China’s projected strategic intent — countering Islamist radical forces targeting the Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang — with the larger objective: expanding the scope of their strategic and economic influence toward Central Asia.

At the recently held meeting between the foreign ministry delegations of China and Pakistan in Islamabad, it was collectively decided to extend the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project toward the “west.” While the specifics of the expansion were not made public, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi had announced earlier this year that Afghanistan would certainly come under the purview of CPEC, which is part of President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). Over the last three years, China has provided $70 million worth of military aid to Afghanistan, and $90 million worth of development assistance targeting Badakhshan province in particular. Given the current strategic predispositions and policy predictions, financial and material assistance to Afghanistan is likely to increase in the foreseeable future as well.

By establishing a physical presence in the region, China will become far better equipped to broker a peace deal between the militant factions operating in different regions of Afghanistan and the government apparatus of the country, overtaking India as the frontrunner in the peacebuilding process, and taking a step toward acquiring international recognition as a legitimately benign global power. In keeping with their aspirations to singlehandedly exploit the strategic leverage of Afghanistan, China has successfully convinced India to jointly partake in a limited capacity building program in Afghanistan, which has left Kabul considerably disappointed with New Delhi, their hitherto foremost South Asian development investor.

China, however, seems to be striving to achieve a diplomatic equilibrium of sorts. Unlike most other states, it views the chronic instability in Afghanistan as an opportunity to make considerable strategic headway, while at the same time playing the diplomatic card by projecting the intent of synthesizing a truce between the various warring entities in the region. China has thus far fared well in retaining Pakistan as an “all-weather” ally, by consistently allaying Pakistani fears and insecurities regarding growing Sino-Afghan closeness, while simultaneously integrating Kabul in its strategic calculus.

Having said that, the most important factor leading to the fast-paced militarization of Badakhshan is the threat that exiled Uyghur fighters of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), operating out of Afghanistan, pose to strategic stability in China. Xinjiang has been explicitly termed by Chinese authorities as the frontline for the “three evils” of separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism. Adding to that, there exists the dangerous possibility of radical elements hailing from foreign lands using Afghanistan as a launch-pad to establish insurgent links with the already vulnerable Uyghur-inhabited areas of China. Military operations in Afghanistan will therefore be imperative for China to counter militant activities of groups such as ETIM, install a system of checks along their western border, and secure a concrete security mechanism with Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

China’s forward policy in the Wakhan Corridor needs to be assessed with a critical eye. Although on one level it seems to be motivated primarily by the threat of radicalization, China’s interest in the region is also contingent on the strategic role that Afghanistan is capable of playing in the larger scheme of things. Despite China’s vehement denial, there seems to be sufficient evidence available indicating a definite military build up in the region, which provides China with an opportunity to showcase its ability to transform into a balancing force in the regional dynamics.

Shubhangi Pandey is Junior Fellow with ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme. Her research focuses primarily on the Kashmir conflict, along with the security dynamics of Afghanistan and Pakistan vis-à-vis the role of non-state militant actors. She has previously worked as a researcher at the Northern Division in the Ministry of External Affairs, and several think tanks in New Delhi.