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The Afghan Badakhshan province borders the China’s province of Xinjiang. It was part of the ancient Silk Road linking the East to the West. Today, the Silk Road is being revived and the China’s interest in the province is on the rise.
Afghanistan boasts large deposits of raw materials China could import. Beijing is investing $55 billion in the neighboring Pakistan. It plans to construct an economic corridor stretching to the Arabian Sea. The project will spur the world economy. Afghanistan can benefit too. China is the Afghanistan’s largest trading partner and investor. According to its “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) project, a big infrastructure is to be built in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Stability in Afghanistan corresponds to China’s interests but there is little hope the United States can bring it. After all, it has not achieved any substantial gains since 2001. There have been surges and reductions, changes of tactics and strategy, numerous reports on how to change the tide of war but the Taliban is strong, the economy is in shambles with drugs trafficking being the only business to thrive. So far, the Trump administration has not presented a long-awaited strategy defining its Afghanistan policy, despite the fact that there are 8400 American troops in the country. The presence will increase soon. The US relationships with pertinent actors, such as Pakistan, are in shambles. Washington has 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 to reconcile the differences between the countries of the region. The Afghanistan-Pakistan relations worsened in 2017 as they exchanged mutual accusations of rendering support to jihadists operating in the border areas. Beijing is working hard to improve the relations between the two countries. It arranged a tripartite meeting at foreign ministers level in 2017. The talks produced working panels to promote cooperation in various areas. Another meeting is expected to take place this year in Kabul.
The East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a Uighur nationalist and Islamic movement from China’s Xinjiang region, is operating in Afghanistan. The militants gain combat experience fighting side by side with the Taliban and other militant groups. Beijing does not want the seasoned warriors to come back and engage in terrorist activities on its territory.
Russia and China step up military aid to Central Asian states. They believe that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) can substantially contribute into achieving peaceful settlement. Both are trying to create a network of regional states. Moscow and Beijing are motivated by their national interests, which coincide. As major powers they are working together to promote security in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
All told, the China’s interest is strong enough to justify military engagement beyond its borders. The Afghan government officials reported that China is to build a military base in Badakhshan. The discussions on the location and further technicalities for the base are to start soon. The weapons and equipment will be Chinese but the facility will be manned by Afghan military. No doubt, Chinese military instructors and other personnel will come to carry out for train and assist missions. The preparations for construction have already begun. Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission Xu Qilian said the construction is expected to be complete in 2018.
In 2017, the Taliban delivered serious strikes temporarily capturing Ishkashim and Zebak districts of Badakhshan from the government troops. The Afghan government failed to provide the military presence substantial enough to ensure security. Before the attacks, an agreement with local field commanders had been in place, giving them their share of lapis lazuli production in exchange for peace. 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 special concern. It makes border security an issue of paramount importance for Beijing.
The question is how far is China ready to go? Until now, it has limited its military activities to special operations teams patrolling the Wakhan Corridor. A military base in Badakhshan is an important move to demonstrate Beijing is ready to expand its presence in the country and become an alternative to the United States. China has a trump card the US lacks – the cooperation of Russia and Pakistan. Beijing represents the SCO, a large international organization comprising such actors as Turkey, Iran, India, Pakistan and the countries of Central Asia. The SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group’s activities were restarted last year upon the initiative of Russian president Vladimir Putin. They were suspended in 2009. Russia advocates launching direct talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban as soon as possible. Beijing supports the idea. Moscow has said it is ready to host a conference on Afghanistan.
The SCO can make the crisis management process a real multilateral effort. It will reduce the clout of the US but increase chances for peace. Security cooperation and diplomatic activities can open new chapter in the Afghan history.
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