China and Afghanistan: Rite of Passage for Global Powers

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Written by Justin Leopold-Cohen

The two high Asian states, China and Afghanistan, which share a small border in the Wakhan region, were subject to a recent flurry of news coverage concerning a Chinese military endeavor underway in Afghanistan. If true, it suggests that perhaps China may be following in the footsteps of the United States, which has had a military presence in Afghanistan since 2001, or going even further back, to emulating the Soviet Union, which engaged in a 10-year war there from 1979-1989.

While China has had confrontations with Afghanistan in the past, this resurgence began with denial. Asian media sources reported throughout late February that Chinese military patrols had crossed into Afghanistan while Chinese Defense ministry spokesman, Ren Guoqiang, stated that even though Chinese security forces do have counter-terrorism cooperation along the China-Afghanistan border, “reports in foreign media of Chinese military vehicles patrolling inside Afghanistan do not accord with the facts.”

This denial of operations comes amid numerous allegations and photographic evidence dating back to November 2016. Some analysts and think tank scholars are concluding the Chinese statements that “the law enforcement authorities of the two sides have conducted joint law enforcement operations,” is a way to say that China is getting more involved in Afghanistan, while still avoiding actual confirmation of a military role. The distinction between military or law enforcement is important to the Chinese, who have similarly used these distinctions and technicalities when deploying Coast Guard vessels, but not Navy ships into the South China Sea, to assert its territorial claim with a domestic agency.

Though it remains unclear what type of operation is underway, or if one is underway at all, China has been “acting as a growing regional power with security interests it wants to deal with itself rather than abrogating such responsibility to others,” and as it has usually attempted the more diplomatic route with Afghanistan, the lack of success may be turning it away from soft power options and towards a more direct approach, “recognizing the need for greater security engagement.”

The United States has its own long history in Afghanistan, it being the beachhead of the War on Terror in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington DC, and has had a significant military presence there ever since. In the early 2000’s, there was “support from the American public, Congress, the international community and the Afghan people themselves,” though when a decade had passed and support waned in 2014, then-President Barak Obama announced that the U.S. had to “recognize Afghanistan will not be a perfect place…and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one. The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans”—a statement which concluded by citing the withdrawal of American forces by 2016 (though the following year, it was announced that nearly 10,000 American servicemen would remain until at least 2017).

Now the choices fall to President Donald J. Trump. The situation in Afghanistan remains fragile, with the Kabul government controlling approximately 60 percent of the nation’s territory, the Taliban controlling 15 percent, and the remainder contested between various other factions including the Islamic State and al-Qaida. It remains to be seen how President Trump will move ahead in Afghanistan, or whether he will let China take the reins in the region, which was speculated in 2012 during the initial talk of Western withdrawals.

In 1979, it was the Russians (then Soviets) attempting to control Afghanistan, when they dispatched military forces to secure a Marxist regime that was dealing with a growing insurgency “among both tribal and urban groups, and all of these—known collectively as the Mujahideen.” Russian forces quickly found themselves in a decade long quagmire, and in “1988 the Soviet Union signed an accord with the United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan and agreed to withdraw its troops.”

At present, though Russian forces have long since departed, at the end of 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed Russian intelligence sharing with Afghanistan-based Taliban against ISIS forces in the region—which are speculated to be the first steps of a Russian push to have a larger political and military presence in the region. Such a move could very well have them butting heads against the Chinese who have thrown their backing to the Afghan government.

While Russia may be claiming to be anti-ISIS, China has a multitude of reasons for wanting to get involved in Afghanistan. One, and possibly chief of these reasons, is to end the sanctuary its neighbor provides to the Islamic Uighur insurgents who operate in Western China, often fleeing across the border in Afghanistan, a conflict that has cost hundreds of lives in recent years. There’s also the recent proclamation by ISIS of its intent to attack China, which is thought to be retaliation for Chinese mistreatment of the Muslim Uighur population.

Afghan government officials have largely been welcoming towards more Chinese involvement, often supplying information on Uighur militants, and requesting China be more involved in peace making.  Additionally, in the past, China has had numerous dealings with Afghanistan over mining of rare minerals, with some of these contracts amounting to as much as $3 billion. A more stable Afghanistan is definitely in China’s best interest; it can assert regional power, gain a measure of security, and prosper economically.

Though China still denies having a military presence within Afghanistan, it is clearly involved and will have to be wary not to make the same mistakes as the U.S. or the Soviets, as well as be on the lookout for future involvement from Trump and Putin.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the U.S. government, or any other government or institution. 

About the author: Justin Leopold-Cohen completed his undergraduate degree in American History from Clark University in 2013. He later interned with the Hudson Institute’s Center for Political and Military Analysis before beginning his graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University, pursuing a Master’s Degree in Global Security Studies.