The Afghan province of Badakhshan borders China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. It used to be part of an artery between the East and West known as the ancient Silk Road. Today, that road is being revived as an element of China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, which has prompted major infrastructure construction in Afghanistan and Central Asia, designed to fuel Beijing’s interest in the province.
Afghanistan is home to significant deposits of raw materials that China could import. Beijing is investing $55 billion in neighboring Pakistan and plans to construct an economic corridor stretching to the Arabian Sea. OBOR will energize the global economy and benefit Afghanistan as well. China is Afghanistan’s largest trading partner and investor. Stability in Afghanistan is in China’s interest, but there is little hope the United States can provide it. After all, Washington has not achieved any substantial gains since 2001. There have been surges and drawdowns, changes of tactics and strategy, and many treatises on how to turn the tide of the war, but the Taliban is strong and the Afghan economy is in shambles – drug trafficking is the only type of business to thrive there. So far the Trump administration has not presented its long-awaited strategy outlining its Afghanistan policy, despite the fact that there are at least 8,400 American troops in the country. And their number will soon be growing. Relationships between the US and other relevant actors, such as Pakistan, are a mess. Washington recently suspended military aid to that country.
The instability in Afghanistan threatens the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – an important element of OBOR. China is acting as a mediator, trying to reconcile the differences between the regional actors. Afghan-Pakistani relations deteriorated in 2017 when they each accused the other of rendering support to the jihadists operating in the border areas. Beijing is working hard to improve those bilateral ties. It set up a three-way meeting between all the foreign ministers in 2017. One result of the talks was the creation of working panels to promote cooperation in various spheres of activity. Another meeting is expected to take place this year in Kabul.
The East Turkistan Islamic Movement, an Uighur nationalist and Islamic movement from China’s Xinjiang region, is active in Afghanistan. The militants gain combat experience fighting side-by-side with the Taliban and other militant groups. Beijing does not want those seasoned warriors to come back and engage in terrorist activities on its home soil.
Russia and China have stepped up their military aid to the Central Asian states. They believe that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) can substantially contribute to achieving a peaceful settlement. Both are trying to build a network of regional states. Moscow and Beijing are motivated by their national interests. Mindful of their responsibilities as major powers, they are working together to promote security in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
All told, China might feel that its interests in the area are strong enough to justify a military engagement outside its borders. Afghan government officials have reported that China is planning to build a military base in Badakhshan. Discussions over the technicalities are to start soon. The weapons and equipment will be Chinese, but the facility will be manned by Afghan personnel. Vehicles and hardware will be brought in through Tajikistan. No doubt Chinese military instructors and other personnel will also come to conduct training and assist missions. The vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, Xu Qiliang, claims that the construction is expected to be complete in 2018.
After some powerful offensives in 2017, the Taliban temporarily captured the Ishkashim and Zebak districts of Badakhshan. The Afghan government failed to provide a military presence that was substantial enough to ensure security. An agreement with the local field commanders had been in place, giving them a share of the lapis lazuli production there, in exchange for a cessation of hostilities. But internal bickering undermined the fragile peace between the local groups, and the Taliban seized the opportunity to intervene. The Islamic State’s presence in the province is a matter of particular concern. It makes border security an issue of paramount importance for Beijing.
The question is: how far is China prepared to go? Until now, it has limited its military activities to special-operations teams patrolling the Wakhan Corridor. A military base in Badakhshan would be an important move demonstrating that Beijing is ready to expand its presence in the country and provide an alternative to the United States. China has a trump card the US lacks – its good relations with Russia and Pakistan. Beijing represents the SCO, a large international organization that includes actors such as Turkey, Iran, India, Pakistan, and the countries of Central Asia. Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin took the initiative to restart the work of the SCO Afghanistan Contact Group. Those activities had been suspended in 2009. Russia advocates opening up direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban as soon as possible. Beijing also supports the idea. The two nations are in the same boat. Moscow has said it is ready to host a conference on Afghanistan.
The SCO can make the peace process a real, multilateral effort. It will weaken US clout in the region, but strengthen the chances for finding a settlement to the conflict. Cooperation and diplomacy might open a new chapter in the history of Afghanistan.