In the last few years, China has showed a serious signs of expanding its interest into central and southern Asia. This is a large part of their modern security strategy. Their concern is that Afghanistan will become a stronghold for Islamic separatists threatening their western regions (Eden, 2018). China’s greatest fears and motivation all center on unrest and a perceived threat to overall national security arising out of Xinjiang. The traditionally Muslim-majority province has been a source of pronounced concern for Beijing for decades (thediplomat.com/).
For Beijing, instability in Central Asia in general and Afghanistan in particular is a matter of concern. It is seen to have a “direct influence” on the security of China’s western provinces, particularly Xinjiang. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is known to have bases in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and Beijing has been apprehensive over ETIM fighters and other jihadists entering Xinjiang through Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor to radicalize Uyghurs or carry out attacks in China (thediplomat.com/).
Badakhshan, an Afghan province in the far eastern part of the country is of particular interest. The government is worried this region will become a safe haven for Uyghur terrorists who are the primary threat in the western region (Eden, 2018). Along the 76-kilometre border between Afghanistan and China, a massive gorge is located on the Chinese side, where Chinese Muslims live, who are closely watched by the Chinese authorities. During the rule of the Taliban, large groups of Chinese Uyghurs were seen among foreign militants under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. They had obviously received good military training in the Al-Qaeda camps. Today many are still active now, and not only in the ranks of the Taliban. Many have blended among different groups of foreign mercenaries, which could create great problems for the Chinese authorities. China, with the help of the army and law enforcement agencies in Afghanistan, has been trying to prevent the penetration of Uyghur militants into its territory, most of which have so far joined the IS. Law enforcers assume that that the largest group of Uyghur militants already reside in the Afghan province of Badakhshan and can make a rapid shift to China (enews.fergananews.com/).
The Chinese government has for decades tried to push back against a separatist movement by Uighurs to establish an independent state called East Turkestan. Uighurs accuse the government of forcing demographic changes by settling millions of Han Chinese in the region. The government crackdown increased in recent years because of the rise of the Islamic State and fears of expansion by the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) or Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which China accuses of being behind several terrorist attacks in the country (www.aopnews.com/human-rights/).
The Afghan delegation, led by Defence Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami, visited China during which the parties agreed to build the base. Tariq Shah, with his Chinese colleague General Chang Wanquan and other military officials, discussed security issues and agreed to cooperate on fighting terrorism in the Afghan province of Badakhshan and the entire northern region. The agreement has specified that the Chinese side covers all material and technical expenses for this base: weaponry, uniforms for soldiers, military equipment and everything else necessary for its functioning (enews.fergananews.com/).
China has promised to provide $85 million for the Afghan army to create a mountainous brigade for the protection of the Badakhshan border (ariananews.af/).
The Afghan Defence Ministry said that preparations for the start of construction of a military base in Badakhshan by Afghan military experts has already begun. A special commission established will determine the location of the base, construction costs, and other technical issues (enews.fergananews.com/).
In a formal briefing by the Chinese Ministry of Defense, a brief explanation was given:
"According to the information provided by relevant departments, the law-enforcement departments of China and Afghanistan, in accordance with the agreement of strengthening border law enforcement cooperation between the two sides, have been conducting joint law enforcement operations in areas bordering both countries in recent years, in order to jointly prevent and fight against terrorism activities and organized transnational crimes. I’d like to point out that the report of some foreign media that the Chinese military vehicles entered Afghanistan for patrol is untrue."
Chinese Foreign Ministry has denied media reports stating that Beijing was constructing a military base in Afghanistan to combat terrorism. Though newspapers have reported citing sources that China had started building a training camp for Afghan servicemen to support Afghanistan’s counterterrorism efforts (www.aopnews.com/china-afghanistan-relations/).
Afghans consider China to be their traditional friends and trustworthy neighbors; ones which have increasingly proven to share their wisdom and wealth with others, who need them the most. The trilateral dialogue was a manifestation of China’s ongoing efforts to build confidence, friendship, and consensus among its neighbors for the pursuit of win-win goals against an entrenched zero-sum mentality, moving toward a shared future of sustainable peace, security, and stability throughout the region (thediplomat.com/). China has had a long history with Afghanistan going back to the cold war.
The 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union prompted an international response to support the indigenous Mujahideen groups that formed to fight the Soviets. Chief among the nations supplying money and arms by 1980 were the United States, Pakistan, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and, secretly, the U.K. In 1980, China would, incredibly, receive military support from the United States to combat the threat from both the Soviet Union and Afghan Communists. Over the next several years, China would train anti-Soviet Afghan Mujahideen forces, and provide millions of dollars of weaponry to them (thediplomat.com/). And, it has continued to play a significant role.
It was in early 2015 that China began facilitating talks between the Ghani government and the Taliban. However, the efforts made little progress, partly because of deteriorating relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan on account of continuing Taliban attacks in Kabul. Recognizing that its efforts to get the Taliban to the negotiating table would make no progress so long as Pakistan and Afghanistan remained at loggerheads, China set out to bring Pakistan into its peace efforts. Beijing engaged in several rounds of shuttle diplomacy between Islamabad and Kabul to put in place a trilateral crisis management mechanism. In December 2017, Beijing hosted trilateral talks where the three countries called on the Taliban to join the process. (thediplomat.com/).
From the Afghan perspective, the security threats that contribute to increased instability in the region also extend to the rest of the world, because they emanate from a dangerous nexus of violent extremism by transnational terrorist networks (TTNs), organized crime by transnational criminal networks (TCNs), as well as state sponsorship of terrorism. Indeed, the symbiotic relationships among these lethal networks of terror and crime involve mutual benefits in the form of facilities and capabilities like protection, logistics, financing, training, arms, intelligence, and safe havens.
In the Afghan case, these enable the Taliban and the Haqqani Network to destabilize Afghanistan. And the ensuing regional instability has provided an enabling, operational environment for such terrorist networks as al-Qaeda, Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and others to launch targeted terrorist attacks in the region and beyond (thediplomat.com/). Security is not Chinas only interest in the country.
China signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighborly Relations with Kabul in 2006. Two years later, Chinese companies won a $3 billion contract to extract copper from the Mes Aynak mines in Logar province. An unstable Afghanistan could derail China’s economic ambitions. Success of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as its flagship China-Pakistan Economic Corridor hinges on a stable neighborhood, which in turn depends on a stable Afghanistan. China is Afghanistan’s biggest foreign investor today. It is interested mainly in resource extraction and infrastructure building. It has started extracting oil from the Amu Darya basin in northern Afghanistan. In the telecommunications sector, China’s role has grown from supplying Afghanistan with telecom equipment in 2007 to the construction of fiber-optic links in 2017. Under the BRI, Afghanistan’s road and rail infrastructure would increase, providing this landlocked country with links to more markets (thediplomat.com/). Though China’s activities have been towards the goal of stability it has also created complications.
Because China shares no direct border with Afghanistan it has had to work through intermediate countries to develop it supply network. Doing so they have had to cultivate relations with countries like Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic that separates Afghanistan and China. It has spent that last several years cultivating relations with the country to include building a series of military posts along the border, helping train Tajik troops and taking part in joint training exercises. This has created strife with the Russians, who still consider all their old Central Asian republics their territory. It is assumed that this is steadily leading to an escalation competition for influence in the region. To this effect it is presumed that the Russians may be trying to undermine China’s efforts at expansion in the region by supplying weapons to the Taliban (Eden, 2018). China’s economic development strategy has also met with poor results.
China’s economic ambitions in Afghanistan have not gone well. The Mes Aynak project, for example, has failed to take off largely because of the poor security situation in the country. A railway line linking China’s Jiangsu province and the Afghan rail port of Hairatan, which would have reduced travel time and costs substantially, runs empty from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan on its return route, as Afghanistan’s production of goods for export remains low. Under the BRI, Afghanistan’s road and rail infrastructure would increase, providing this landlocked country with links to more markets. But road and rail lines built under the BRI could suffer the same fate as the Jiangsu-Hairatan railway line: crippled by Afghanistan’s low export capacity (thediplomat.com/).
Conclusion: The future of China’s role in Afghanistan will be continuous but limited. It will seek to maintain influence with the national government in Kabul through its connections with Pakistan and sizeable economic investments there. However, having witnessed the decade long campaign that left the U.S bogged down in the country, China will limit any military involvement solely to the regions they feel most threatened by. The level of military involvement has yet to be fully understood. It is likely that it will change over time based on the circumstances in the western regions of their own country.
China should not be looked at as a potential partner for stabilizing the region. The investments and development projects have been more towards creating a viable trading partner than being a stabilizing force. They have no interest in doing any more than what is either economically advantageous or tied directly to their immediate security. While China is seeking to build itself into a dominate force in the region and develop viable security it also fears becoming bogged down in a costly military excursion such as what the U.S recently endured. They also step lightly dealing with the Russians who see themselves as the reigning power in Central Asia. That said, they will, while treading lightly, pick their battles not just in Afghanistan but in Central Asia. They will also work heavily, through soft power, to influence governments and trying to develop proxies they can use to enhance their position.
Eden, Steve, Badakhstan Converging Tensions, Modern War Magazine, issue 37 September-October 2018.