China Moves Closer to Afghan Security Roleby
Beijing seeks regional anti-terror bloc, boosts military aid
Fears Afghanistan will become safe haven for Uighur militants
As China watches Afghan peace talks founder and Islamic militants make inroads in parts of its troubled neighbor, Beijing is taking its most concrete steps yet toward assuming a direct security role in the country.
In recent weeks China has pledged $70 million in military aid to Afghanistan and proposed a four-nation security bloc including Pakistan and Tajikistan. The partnership -- floated by top Chinese General Fang Fenghui and endorsed by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul last month -- would see China help coordinate efforts to fight terrorism on its backdoor.
The moves signal growing concern by Beijing that nascent peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban could fail, providing a safe haven for Islamic State-linked Uighur militants who might seek to plot attacks on China. They dovetail with a broader foreign policy revision under President Xi Jinping, who has shown a willingness to expand its security presence in Africa and the Middle East to protect growing overseas Chinese interests.
"There are real, direct terrorist threats stemming from Afghanistan, where the state of affairs in counter terrorism is dire," said Zhao Gancheng, director of the Center for South Asia Studies at the state-backed Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. "If there is no progress in peace talks, we can’t just sit around and do nothing."
It remains unclear how China’s proposal would work. Fang, who heads the People’s Liberation Army’s Joint Staff Department, offered few details about the security bloc when he proposed the idea on Feb. 29. Afghan and Pakistani officials had little to add.
Unlike the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China’s existing regional security framework that includes Russia and covers trade issues, the new group would center on Afghanistan and focus on stemming terrorism. The obstacles are immense: Afghanistan and Pakistan routinely accuse each other of using militants to achieve strategic goals, and Tajikistan has long been tied to Russia’s sphere of influence.
"It’s unlikely that China’s anti-terrorism bloc will be very helpful for Pakistan given its own support for the Taliban," Ahmad Saeedi, a former Afghan diplomat based in Pakistan, said by phone. He called China’s financial assistance to Afghanistan “almost nothing."
China has joined the U.S. and Pakistan in seeking to broker talks between Ghani’s government and the Taliban, which has made gains as American troops hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces. Those efforts have produced little to date, mostly due to Taliban infighting following the revelation last year that founder Mullah Omar had died.
At the same time, security on the ground is worsening. Groups swearing allegiance to the Islamic State have popped up and the Taliban reportedly control more territory than at any point since 2001, prompting the U.S. to alter its timetable for withdrawing troops from a conflict that has killed 2,300 American soldiers and cost more than $700 billion.
China and Afghanistan share only a 92-kilometer (57 mile) border, including the ancient Silk Road trade passage known as the Wakhan Corridor. Yet the proximity to China’s Xinjiang region gives it special concern. The Chinese government has blamed members of the region’s Uighur Muslim minority for numerous attacks, including one at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming in 2014 that killed 31 and injured 141 more.
Ghani cited the East Turkestan Islamic Movement -- founded by Uighur militants and accused by China of fomenting unrest in Xinjiang -- among the groups justifying the need for a coordinated anti-terrorism response. Some 300 Uighurs were on a list of 22,000 Islamic State fighters obtained by German intelligence last month, said Li Wei, head of security and anti-terrorism research at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
"The link between Uighur militants and IS is among our great concerns," said Li, whose organization is affiliated with China’s Ministry of State Security.
The inclusion of Pakistan and Tajikistan in the bloc suggests that China also worries about Xi’s signature “One Belt, One Road” initiative to develop a network of ports, highways, railways and pipelines between Europe and Asia. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor is the plan’s $46 billion flagship project.
China is helping train Afghan police and has pledged 2 billion yuan ($327 million) in economic aid to Kabul through next year. Yet its latest moves go further, said Andrew Small, a research fellow at the Washington-based German Marshall Fund and author of The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics.
"Military aid and military cooperation with Afghanistan is a step above their previous diplomatic and economic support," Small said. "If the situation there does not stabilize, the direct threats from Afghanistan look more concerning, in addition to the implications for China’s broader security and economic interests in the region."