China has been expanding its involvement in Afghanistan for some years, but its efforts recently took a significant new turn. As reported by the South China Morning Post, the Chinese military is building an army base in the narrow Wakhan Corridor that connects the two countries. This represents a major new milestone because, prior to this revelation, most of China's activities in Afghanistan had been limited to civilian infrastructure projects, such as the building of railways and hydroelectric facilities.
If China is truly building an army base in Afghanistan (and despite their denials, this seems probable), it would represent the deliberate placement of hard power assets into one of the world's most contested and volatile regions. It would also signal an uplift in Chinese involvement in the region and stand out as China's foreign land military base (and only its second foreign military base, following on from a People's Liberation Army Navy base in Dijibouti).
This article discusses the broader dynamics of China's increasing expansion into Afghanistan at all levels, including economic, military, and strategic positioning. A more specialized analysis of the counterinsurgency implications will be provided in a sister article soon.
Expanding more aggressively into Afghanistan represents a risky proposition for China. First, it will bring it into closer proximity to the cabal of great power rivals who are already jostling for power within the region, including Russia, Iran, Pakistan, India, and the United States. Becoming an active player in the traditional Great Game with these other states will undoubtedly stoke tensions between them. Second, it could draw China into the tumultuous and intractable political, social, religious, and ethnic "quagmire" that encompasses large portions of Afghanistan and has bogged down many of the other great powers active in the region. Finally, it raises the risks of China being labelled more aggressively as an enemy by Islamic extremists and becoming a higher priority target for both international and domestic terrorism as a result. This trend has already begun, with Islamic State issuing its first direct threat against China in February 2018.
Yet, the benefits of greater involvement in Afghanistan may outweigh the risks. From an economic point of view, China hopes to use Afghanistan as an important node in its Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) initiative. The Chinese government has become particularly keen on channeling the SREB through as many different countries as possible because, while a lot of governments to the west of China have stated their desire to participate in the initiative in theory, a good few have ended up reconsidering or even cancelling projects with the SREB during the implementation phase of the plan. Afghanistan may not be the most important stepping stone for trade in the SREB, but bringing it on board as a trade-route hub would certainly benefit the viability of the initiative.
Another advantage for the Chinese expansion is the opportunity to increase their existing exploitation of the natural and mineral energy resources present in Afghanistan. The acquisition of raw resources stands as a central driving force behind much of China's foreign policy activities because its domestic middle class is burgeoning in both in terms of its size and its expectations for consumer goods, transportation, and dependable energy supplies.
The gains from China's foray into Afghanistan are not, however, exclusively economic. One of China's most pressing internal security concerns is the ongoing unrest in its Xinjiang Autonomous Region from the indigenous Uyghur Muslims, who make up about 45 percent of the province's population. While this dissent has existed in one form or another since the Communists occupied the area in 1949, in recent years it has evolved into the use of guerrilla warfare and terrorism by coherent bands of resisters.
The Chinese government has long blamed the limitations of its pacification efforts upon outside support from Uyghur nationalist movements and Islamic extremist groups, including the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement, the World Uyghur Congress, al-Qaeda and ISIS. The development of a hard power base within Afghanistan is almost certainly connected with China's desire to isolate the Uyghur resisters within its own borders and to deny access to a potential external safe haven into which the resisters could retreat and use as a base between bouts of guerrilla and terrorist activity.
China also has an eye on improving its strategic position vis-à-vis its great power rivals. By developing a military base in Afghanistan, it is acquiring a strong foothold into one of the most strategically located, albeit hotly contested regions in the world, given its position as between Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. This is helping to elevate China from being a purely peripheral power in the region into a major player that commands both fear and respect from the surrounding states. More broadly, China's increased involvement in Afghanistan helps to reinforce that China is firmly on track to becoming a truly global power with a presence in every region of the world (rather than being just a regional great power with limited foreign interests).
Finally, the creation of a base in Afghanistan will provide China with a platform for force projection in a major regional nexus that will make it easier for its military to quickly and effectively deploy forces into the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa, and even Europe. Given China's economic and political expansions into these areas in recent years, the acquisition of a closer army base will help to ensure that the Chinese can help protect its citizens and interests in these areas
Implications for the West
Afghanistan is a particularly significant place for China to have built its first foreign military base because the United States and its allies have spent the past sixteen years investing considerable time, money, resources, and effort the country, with only limited success. The Chinese government would have been hard pressed to find a location for the building of its second foreign military base that would have been more of an overt signal to the United States and its allies that it is willing to go toe-to-toe with them across the world in a contest for global hegemony. The United States and its allies must decide carefully how they should respond to this message.
The move also signals a major shift in how China responds to domestic Islamic terrorism, which could have implications for the War on Terror that the United States and its allies are still ostensibly pursuing. Traditionally, China has dealt with non-state violence by the Uyghurs in Xinjiang by classifying the situation as an internal matter and telling other states to keep their noses out of China's sovereign affairs. Their move to take the fight against Islamic terrorism outside of their own borders may indicate a new willingness to deal with the international dimensions of their domestic problems in a more comprehensive fashion. For the United States and its allies, this an opportunity to recruit China to participate as an partner in the campaign, but also a potential challenge if case China decides to pursue an independent path and assembles its own campaign against Islamic terrorism that is separate to that led by the United States and its allies.
A third relates to human rights. China's track record of treatment towards the Muslims within its territory is scarcely glowing - indeed, the United Nations recently accused the Chinese government of having turned Xinjiang, with its 45 percent Muslim Uighur population, into a giant prison camp for its Muslim Ugyhur population. While we cannot yet know for certain how the Chinese associated with the new base will interact with the predominantly Muslim Afghan population, their past behavior domestically suggests that they will not shy away from treating suspected Islamic terrorists and others related to them in a repressive and even violent fashion to achieve their goals. Given the potential of human rights abuses by the Chinese government, the United States, its allies, and the international community as a whole should vigilantly monitor their activities and be willing to diplomatically confront the Chinese about any violations of human rights law.
Ultimately, China's decision to actively expand into Afghanistan is not without risk, but the rewards and implications of its efforts are not insubstantial either. Afghanistan has long been known as "The Graveyard of Empires" - it remains to be seen whether China can avoid falling victim to this curse or will become just another skeleton in the burial pit.