China recently confirmed it was participating in “joint counterterrorism operations” inside Afghanistan. The size of Beijing’s force is still unclear but reports began surfacing last November that it was patrolling in northeastern Afghanistan’s Little Pamir region. Chinese mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles, known as the Norinco VP 11, and Humvee-type vehicles known as the Dongfeng EQ2050 were clearly photographed in the remote Shia-populated area.
China’s increasing role with the Kabul government comes at a time when the administration of US President Donald Trump is juggling multiple foreign-policy issues. Its determination to defeat global terror groups in places such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan is straining a military already worn out from 16 years of continuous fighting.
America’s war in Afghanistan has been raging since the days and weeks following the deadly al-Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001. At its height that year, the United States had about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. There are now fewer than 9,000 troops in the war-ravaged country. It is unclear whether Trump and Secretary of Defense James Mattis will increase troop levels to combat a resurgent Taliban, remaining al-Qaeda networks or a growing Islamic State presence.
Meanwhile, China continues to invest heavily in Afghanistan. For example, in December 2011, China’s National Petroleum Corporation signed an oil and gas deal that many claimed would be worth US$700 million. Some Chinese believed the deal would be worth far more.
In addition, Afghanistan has an estimated $1 trillion worth of unexploited minerals. Chinese companies have signed numerous deals to extract coal and copper but have, in many cases, refrained from implementing them, citing security concerns. These mineral claims will not go away, and any improved conditions in Afghanistan will see a resurgence of Chinese mining activity.
Trump has called the war in Afghanistan a “total disaster”. His silence since assuming office is a telling sign. However, it could be that he is waiting on a comprehensive plan from his military commanders on how they will defeat radical terror organizations. Afghanistan will likely be included in the new strategy, which is due on his desk shortly.
Beijing’s interests in Afghanistan are twofold. First, it wants continued access to oil, gas and other mineral deposits. Second, it does have concerns that Islamic extremism could eventually find its way into China, something it would find unacceptable and threatening. It’s no wonder that joint counterterrorism operations with Kabul are ongoing.
America’s vast reach around the world is stretched. With military forces deployed to nearly 100 countries worldwide, the United States needs allies to counter the growth of terror groups and their influence on millions of defenseless people. China should be one of them.
Trump should consider beginning a serious dialogue with Chinese President Xi Jinping on how to plan and implement joint counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. Doing so would not only put more pressure on the Taliban and other groups, but also demonstrate Beijing’s and Washington’s resolve to cooperate, rather than compete.
This first step would relieve pressure on America’s military forces in the region and should lead to cooperation in other security matters such as Taiwan and the hotly contested South China Sea.