Afghanistan,China Chronicles

Afghan National Army soldier maning his position in Helmand

Source: NATO photo by Kay M. Nissen

This is the fifty seventh part in the series The China Chronicles.

Read all the articles here.


As the political and security situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate, China’s role in the war torn nation has come into sharp relief. Though China and Afghanistan share a border barely stretching 76 km, Beijing’s worries about the deteriorating security landscape there have continued to grown. As a major global power with its perhaps only ‘all-weather’ ally on the planet, Pakistan, in the region, the preponderance of jihadist narratives are counter-productive to the country’s Xinjiang region, which borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has a suppressed Uyghur Muslim population in a region widely considered to be one of the most surveilled in the world.

Earlier in the year, reports underlined Beijing’s wish to setup a military base in Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Badhakshan, which borders Tajikistan, Pakistan via Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) and China. This information set-off a chain of reactions from regional players, specifically in India which has a prominent strategic presence and interests in the country. China’s interests on a specific military presence in Badhakshan, despite its larger interest on the stability of Afghanistan, revolve around the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), its connections with the likes of Al Qaeda and Taliban and its influence with the Uighur populations in China’s Xinjiang province, with the group’s nationalistic and separatist agenda finding resonance in the region.

In March, the TIP (also known as East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM)) released a host of videos, pictures and literature to highlight its presence and operations in the tribal areas of Afghanistan. It also showcased joint operations with the Taliban, captured American Humvees and other armaments, some operated by child soldiers and so on. A month after the TIP videos, an American B-52 long-range bomber targeted supposed TIP targets in Warduj district in Badhakshan, a region known to have been under control of the Taliban since early 2016, when the group took control of the main highway between the city of Kunduz and the Tajikistan border. The strike is widely believed to be in concert with Beijing and the Pentagon, and analysts believe the Taliban takeover three years ago was made possible by TIP’s help, which has since expanded training roots both in Xinjiang and other areas such as PoK.  With a sizeable presence in Syria, the group has also played a crucial role in the war for Idlib.

TIP’s presence and influence in China amidst the Uyghur community is seen as a critical threat by Beijing, which is using cutting-edge surveillance technology to monitor the community and even re-calibrate Islam according to the Chinese state ideas.

 

To counter TIP where it fosters, China now has both the political resolve and military infrastructure to orchestrate long-term counter-terrorism commitments beyond its immediate sphere of influence and interests. Beijing’s diplomacy in Afghanistan against Uyghur separatists pre-dates the America-led invasion, and even today, it applies considerable pressure on Kabul for targeted operations against the TIP while also actively playing the diplomatic card to bring the Taliban and the current Western backed government of President Ashraf Ghani to negotiate a workable truce. Beijing hosted a Taliban delegation in March last year, to talk peace and, perhaps more crucially, Pakistan – Afghanistan relations as China aims to invest over $60 billion in the China – Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

A Chinese military presence in Afghanistan is going to be an uneasy prospect for Indian thinking in the region. Despite the aim being a narrow one, that of curtailing the TIP’s influence regions and helping the Afghans to do so, the China – Pakistan brotherhood could build considerable pressure on the ground against the arguably sizeable Indian influence in Afghanistan’s economy, society and polity. New Delhi is a bystander to the attempts of bringing the Taliban to the fold, including the prospect of political inclusion with its views of there being no such thing as a good terrorist or bad terrorist. This exclusion is unavoidable for India due to the prevailing situation in Kashmir and its narratives around it that have formulated the country’s stance on terrorism from a universal perspective and not just a regional one.

During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s summit with Xi Jinping in Wuhan, the issue of joint participation in economic projects in Afghanistan came into play.

 

While this is not the first time such an idea for cooperation between the countries has been floated, they both do have experience with working in politically challenging environments. Both Indian and Chinese companies were part of conglomerations investing in Syrian oil fields prior to the start of the civil war. However, a military dimension of China in Afghanistan may also work, albeit in a limited manner, in India’s favor. China’s global projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and CPEC rely on safety and stability of both investments and personnel and this may force Beijing to pressurize Islamabad to curtail its support for the Taliban, which in effect could mean erasing the influence and financial backing of the TIP as well.

The idea behind the Badhakshan base is inevitable, and may get more traction under the current White House administration of President Donald Trump who would be more than happy for others to share its burdens.

 

The Chinese, while having a permanent presence in Badhakshan to tackle threats like the TIP directly, can also portrait their moves as being critical to global peace and security, a narrative that Beijing has had a hard time selling due to its aggression in the South China Sea and use of debt-trap diplomacy in the Indo - Pacific region. The recently inaugurated Chinese PLA Logistics Support Base in the African state of Djibouti showcased how a potential Chinese military base might function, to showcase their presence for helping maintain global peace despite holding exercises such as live-fire drills within weeks of the base’s operationalization. An operational base in Afghanistan would be a serious indicator of Chinese intent to play a greater role in the country. It could, however, also be productive for India if it would result in greater pressure on China in global forums to reign in Pakistan’s open support for the Taliban.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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