A recent South China Morning Post report citing unnamed sources claimed that China will be stationing People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers in northern Afghanistan to boost counter-terrorism efforts. The unit would be stationed in the Wakhan Corridor, a thin strip of land between Pakistan and Tajikistan connecting Afghanistan to the Chinese province of Xinjiang. The claim was quickly refuted by both the Afghan and Chinese governments. However, the Afghan embassy in Beijing admitted that China will be helping Kabul to create a mountain unit in the north to boost Afghanistan’s counter-terrorism capabilities in the area.
Afghanistan has been an observer member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization since 2012, a summit which also saw then-presidents Hu Jintao and Hamid Karzai agree to closer counter-terrorism and intelligence cooperation and support. In 2016, China made good on this agreement by delivering its first military aid. While there have been reports of PLA troops patrolling in the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan near the border with Xinjiang, and apparent acknowledgement of their presence by the US, both Beijing and Kabul deny Chinese troops are operating on Afghan soil.
Beijing may have a lot to gain from a PLA presence in the troubled nation. Groups of Uighurs continue to move to Afghanistan, sometimes with malicious or even extremist intent. China prefers to keep a strict watch on all of its Uighur citizens and pressures foreign nations, including Afghanistan, to repatriate them as often as possible. A ground presence in Afghanistan would allow China the opportunity to capture extremist Chinese Uighurs without relying on the cooperation of other nations.
Operations in Afghanistan will also be a prerequisite for China to directly combat the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) or East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), extremist Uighur groups.
China may also wish to further secure its small border with Afghanistan. Xinjiang’s border security has become increasingly significant as 2017 has reportedly seen a sharp increase in militants returning from Syria. China also seeks to strengthen Afghanistan’s borders with Pakistan and Tajikistan, which may be used as transit routes allowing drugs, weapons, and militants to enter Xinjiang.
China also benefits economically from a stable and secure Afghanistan. While the smaller nation itself is not a large player in the One Belt One Road initiative, neighboring Pakistan is host to many projects including the Gwadar Port and the massive China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. These projects face significant security challenges, and there have already been multiple attacks on Chinese individuals and sites in Pakistan. The cross-border flow of extremism and militants does little to ensure the safety of Chinese workers and projects in Pakistan.
A hesitant Beijing
Despite the reported sightings of PLA patrols in the Wakhan Corridor near Xinjiang and the military aid that China provides, both Beijing and Kabul maintain that there are no PLA forces on the ground in Afghanistan. As a host to the three evils (terrorism, separatism, and extremism) and as a significant security threat to its economic interests, Afghanistan is a prime nation for intervention, but Beijing has so far resisted taking direct action.
China’s rapidly evolving military is no replacement for the US, but it likely has the capabilities needed for limited operations in Afghanistan. While the PLA hasn’t fought a proper war since the conflict with Vietnam in 1979, units are currently contributing to many UN missions, including notably dangerous missions like Mali. China also founded its first permanent base overseas in Djibouti last year, from which it supports counter-piracy and counter-terrorism operations. A Chinese deployment to Afghanistan would likely be manned by units from the Western Theater Command, which maintains units that train in environments similar to Afghanistan such as Tibet’s mountains and Xinjiang’s desert.
What separates Afghanistan from ongoing Chinese disputes like the South China Sea is that Beijing does not view Afghanistan as a domestic issue, but as a sovereign state
The challenge that Beijing faces in taking on an active role is likely domestic. What separates Afghanistan from ongoing Chinese disputes like the South China Sea is that Beijing does not view Afghanistan as a domestic issue, but as a sovereign state. A hallmark of Chinese foreign policy is military non-interference and respect for sovereignty, at least on ground which Beijing does not claim as its own. While China conveniently breaks from its “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” at times, it is often done in the name of what it views as territorial challenges or in support of UN missions.
The ongoing quagmire in Afghanistan is also likely unpalatable to a Chinese public that may quickly tire of resources and individuals being expended in a conflict that the average Chinese may feel has little to do with them. While Senior Colonel Zhou Bo opined in 2015 that China may soon take a more active role in conflicts to secure its interests, Beijing still faces the challenge of convincing the large Chinese populace that such action is in fact in their interest.
Under ideological and social pressure to avoid direct action, China has instead opted to facilitate talks by maintaining a relationship with the Taliban. Beijing hopes that an Afghan peace process will bring stability to the region, and possibly that in return for its support the Taliban will withdraw its backing for ETIM and TIP. While new talks between the US and the Taliban may represent a positive turn towards resolution, intense fighting and growing Taliban strength may represent the opposite, not to mention the numerous other violent groups in the country.
China is slowly learning how to send its forces abroad in Africa and is putting increasing pressure on Uighur populations it deems extremist; all while some leaders, like Zhou Bo, are foreseeing a more active military role in ensuring Chinese interests. Should Afghanistan continue on its present course, China may become more willing to use military action to achieve its goals, and the PLA may find its way into the country.