CHINA HAS A small frontier with Afghanistan, a horseshoe-shaped border of fewer than 100 kilometres around the eastern end of the Wakhan Corridor (seen above), the isolated, mountainous valley on the roof of the world wedged between Tajikistan and Pakistan that connects Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Badakhshan with the western marches of Xinjiang.
The corridor is an ancient trade route, spilling into Xinjiang through the Wakhjir Pass, but has long been closed at the Chinese end for fear of the drugs, Uighur separatists or other extremists that might flow through it.
It does, though, open up into a much larger space, the one being created by the United States’ patchwork withdrawal from international affairs, and into which Beijing is venturing, albeit tentatively.
China will be funding, supplying and likely building, a military base in Badakhshan, according to Gen. Dawlat Waziri, the Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, quoted by Russian news sources.
The base’s location has yet to be settled. Afghan forces will garrison it (and thus it will not be a Chinese military base, as the Defence Ministry insists).
However, Xu Qiliang, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, speaking after meeting a delegation to Beijing in December headed by acting Afghan Defence Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami, said Beijing would build the base sometime in 2018 to “strengthen pragmatic cooperation in areas of military exchange and anti-terrorism and safeguard the security of the two countries and the region, making contributions to the development of China-Afghanistan strategic partnership of cooperation”.
Beijing and Kabul already have a 2015 border policing agreement that involves equipment supply, training and joint patrols. There have been reports of Chinese forces operating on the Afghan side of the border since 2016. A report by the French news agency AFP last October quoted local Kyrgyz saying Chinese soldiers had been intermittently bringing them food and warm clothing for the past year.
The Defense Ministry has confirmed counter-terrorism and anti-cross-border crime operations but has dismissed Central Asian and Indian reports of Chinese military vehicles patrolling inside Afghanistan.
The policing relationship has already expanded to the defence side with a pledge by Beijing of $70 billion in military aid to the Afghan government over three years.
The proposed new base would represent a step up on that co-operation. It would effectively be a forward base for cutting off any support coming from Afghanistan for militant factions of the Muslim Uighur population that once formed a majority in Xinjiang but is now outnumbered by Han Chinese following years of inward migration.
Islamic State’s regrouping in Afghanistan following the military defeat of its self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq is particularly concerning for Beijing because of its recruitment of ethnic Turkmen jihadis, some of whom have links with Uighur separatists who want to establish a state of East Turkestan.
China has also offered to involve Kabul in the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Afghanistan could provide an alternative route to some or all of the CPEC, which itself has security concerns. To this end, Beijing has been mediating disputes between Pakistan and Afghanistan whose common border is tribal lands where neither government’s law runs writ.
China is already part of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, comprising Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States, whose task of bringing an end to the Afghan civil war has foundered on the combination of deteriorating relations between Islamabad and Kabul and eroding trust between Beijing and Washington. Using bilateral relationships, Beijing could exploit its relationship with Islamabad to use the influence the Pakistan military has over Afghanistan’s insurgents to rein in the Taliban, even to the point of bringing them into peace talks (although that would not help it deal with the threat of Islamic State).
The emergence of an alliance of Pakistan and China in Afghanistan, in partnership with Russia, would be challenging to the United States’s close relationship with the Kabul government and another example of Beijing building alternative security alliances to its own specifications — all further signs of the gradual expansion of China’s growing clout in the region and willingness to use it.