Reported patrols by China underline Beijing’s interest in Afghan security
Reports that Chinese forces are patrolling inside Afghan territory near the countries’ shared border, if confirmed, would underline China’s desire to play a larger role in regional stability.
“Assuming it’s true, this should not be concerning for U.S. forces at all,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center. “Given how troubled the Afghan forces are, they can use all the help they can get.”
In November, an Indian news outlet, WION, published photographs of what experts said appeared to be Chinese military trucks in the Wakhan corridor, a narrow stretch of mountainous territory extending from northeastern Afghanistan to China that separates Tajikistan from Pakistan.
Last month, a Western journal, the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, said there was “overwhelming evidence” that Chinese units have been inside Afghanistan.
Afghan officials have denied the reports. A Defense Ministry spokesman said only that Afghanistan and China, as well as Tajikistan — which borders the two countries — are sharing intelligence and stepping up individual patrols as part of an agreement to combat smugglers, drug traffickers, and terrorists.
A Pentagon spokesman declined to say whether the United States had any intelligence on possible Chinese activity, saying only, “We’re aware of the reporting.”
Like other neighbors of Afghanistan, China is concerned about the country’s worsening security situation and its potential impact on prized economic initiatives. Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” project is planning a network of trade routes through Central Asia and the Middle East, and its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor seeks to improve pathways for Chinese cargo.
In addition, China is battling a separatist movement among Muslim Uighurs, who live in the country’s western regions. Uighur militants have fought with an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, and they’ve carried out terrorist attacks in Central Asia. In the past, they’ve taken refuge in Pakistan and Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, which includes the Wakhan corridor
“China has shown deepening concern over this, which has found expression in its increasing emphasis on security in its dealings with its neighbors to the West,” said Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
Beijing mostly stayed out of Afghan security affairs during NATO’s 13-year ISAF mission, but it has stepped up its involvement since the drawdown of Western forces two years ago.
China has donated military supplies to Afghanistan and has trained Afghan police officers. The two countries have signed several security agreements, including one focused on increased cooperation between border police forces. China has also joined various peace initiatives.
“Since the formation of national unity government (in 2014), the security relations between Kabul and Beijing have increased unprecedentedly,” said Ahmad Bilal Khalil, a researcher with the Kabul-based Center for Regional and Strategic Studies.
Last month, a Chinese military spokesman said Afghan and Chinese “law enforcement authorities” had conducted “joint law enforcement operations” to fight terrorism “in border areas.” The spokesman said the Chinese military has not been inside Afghanistan, but he did not address whether units such as border police had.
The 47-mile Afghanistan-China border is surrounded by some of the world’s highest mountain ranges, and no roads exist to connect the two countries. Had Chinese units entered Afghanistan, they most like would have come in via Tajikistan.
Two years after NATO ceased combat operations in Afghanistan, the Taliban have regained more territory than they’ve ever held since the U.S. invasion in 2001. Afghan security forces control only two-thirds of the country’s districts. American officials say 20 of the 98 U.S.-designated terrorist organizations in the world now operate in the country.
Though relations between the United States and China are tense elsewhere around the globe, including in the South China Seas, Kugelman said any Chinese operations inside Afghanistan probably wouldn’t worry NATO.
“In Afghanistan, the U.S. and China have very similar interests,” he said. “They want Afghanistan to become a more stable place ... and they want any form of militancy to be kept at bay.”
The Pentagon’s silence on any Chinese operations would likely stem from a reluctance to draw attention to an adversary’s activity in an area that should be a U.S. sphere of influence, Kugelman said.
“It could be that the U.S. doesn’t want to make a big deal of the fact that a strategic rival is taking on a bigger role in Afghanistan,” he said.