China is getting set to play a bigger role in Afghanistan. It is in talks with the Afghan government to establish a military facility in the narrow Wakhan corridor which separates Kashmir from Tajikistan and borders Xinjiang. It has also appointed a new ambassador to Afghanistan.
The Chinese motives are two fold. First, to block Uighyur militants from entering Xinjiang from Afghanistan. Second, play a larger regional role to safeguard and further its interests as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. According to estimates, China has already provided Afghanistan $ 70 million worth of military aid in the past three years. Last December, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that Beijing was open to the idea of linking Afghanistan to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Among the projects discussed in this context are an expressway to link Peshawar and Kabul, a trans-Afghan highway linking Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.
According to an Afghan defence ministry spokesman, discussion on the proposal for a base has been on since December. Broadly, he noted, the plan is to have the Afghans build the base with the Chinese helping finance it and also provide the equipment and training for the Afghans. According to some reports, Afghan and Chinese forces are already conducting joint patrols in the area.
The Wakhan corridor itself has not been affected by the war that has been fought in Afghanistan since the late 1970s. But from China’s point of view it is an important point from where Uighyur militants, many of who have escaped from the collapse of the Islamic State in Syria, can enter Xinjiang. The Chinese have for years kept a wary eye in the region because of the presence of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement militants in Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. It is this factor which has also motivated the Chinese activities in the Gilgit Baltistan region.
The new Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan Liu Jinsong is a familiar face in New Delhi where he has been an Acting Ambassador who has not hesitated to address tough questions on Sino-Indian relations, including the Doklam issue. According to the South China Morning Post, Liu was born in eastern Zhejiang, but raised in Xinjiang. He was previously deputy director of the international cooperation office and one of the directors of the Silk Road Fund.China has claimed that it faces an increased threat from returning jihadists. One official claimed that the number of those intercepted on the border in 2017 had gone up ten fold, but he refused to provide actual numbers. Last November, the Syrian ambassador to China had claimed that there had been 5,000 or so Chinese fighters in the IS.
As a result of the threat, China has undertaken an unprecedented crackdown on the Uighyurs. Restrictions have been placed on the teaching of their language, as well as on their Islamic religious practices. Last week China’s Defence Minister Chang Wanquan said that Beijing would uphold Xinjiang’s stability and “build an iron wall to enhance border defence.” Most of the police personnel recruited in Xinjiang come from the Han provinces of the country.
Since 2010, China has sharply enhanced its economic aid and investment in Afghanistan. One important area has been a pledge for a $ 3.5 billion dollar investment in the Aynak copper mines. But to take advantage of Afghanistan’s rich natural resources, there must first be peace and stability in the country. In 2016, as a gesture signalling its interest, China sent a railway train through various Central Asian countries to the northern border town of Hairatan in Afghanistan.
As a signal of its newly assertive regional policy, Beijing has also sought to cut out a role for itself in bringing stability to Afghanistan. IN December 2017, China hosted the first China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue where it expressed its willingness to play a “constructive role” in improving Afghanistan-Pakistan relations and extending the CPEC to cover Afghanistan as well. Earlier this meeting had taken place at a lower level. Last year, China was also part of the revived SCO contact group on Afghanistan. In a meeting attended by the SCO member states at the deputy minister level, the Afghan delegation was led by the deputy foreign minister Hikmat Karzai. Afghanistan is seeking full membership in this organisation. China is also part of the currently defunct Quadrilateral Coordination Group along with Pakistan, US and Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is naturally keen to be drawn into the regional integration plans being mooted by Beijing. It is aware that with the CPEC, Chinese influence has, if anything, increased in Islamabad. And where the US has lost leverage, China has gained. For their part the Pakistanis are fine with the Chinese role because Beijing usually goes out of its way to accommodate Pakistan. More important, an increased Chinese presence in Afghanistan will offset India’s influence. The US is also supportive of China and has said that it would like to encourage all regional partners to play a positive role and support the Afghan government.
Though there is generally positive attitude towards China’s efforts to mediate between Pakistan and Afghanistan, there are questions about its capacity to deal with the situation. With its stance that it does not like to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, Beijing has lacked the experience of dealing with such situations. Dealing with the complex Afghan situation and the slippery Pakistanis will not be any easy task for the Chinese.
Greater Kashmir February 5, 2018