What is China’s military doing on the Afghan-Tajik border?

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BISHKEK (TCA) — As China is concerned with the potential threat of Uyghur extremism in its western Xinjiang province, Beijing now looks at the security situation in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province that borders China, with the issue of Chinese military presence in the area being on the agenda. We are republishing this article on the issue by Paul Goble, originally published by The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor:

Perhaps few places on earth are as wrapped in mystery and intrigue as the northern reaches of Afghanistan, where, 150 years ago, Russia and the United Kingdom played the great game against one another and where, most recently, Moscow and the West were locked in geopolitical competition with each other and then with insurgent Islam. Now, China has entered the fray as a major player. Although, as has historically been the case with most activities in this almost inaccessible region, Chinese actions thus far have allowed for ample misrepresentations or denials.

A month ago (January 2018), Afghan general Davlat Vaziri told the Fergana news agency that Afghanistan’s Armed Forces were going to establish a new military base in the northern province of Badakhshan, which was made possible thanks to Beijing agreeing to finance and supply the entire project (Fergananews.com, January 3). The accord was reached when (acting) Afghan Defense Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami visited the Chinese capital at the end of last year.

According to an anonymous Fergana source in the Afghan Ministry of Defense, “the Chinese side is worried that Chinese Uyghurs, who now are among the terrorists [sic], may move into the territory of China via Afghanistan and become a headache for the Chinese authorities.” Atikulla Amarhel, a retired Afghan general, said that the project would be useful both for his country and for China because “along the 76-kilometer border” between the two countries “live Chinese Muslims who remain an object of close attention for the Chinese government” given that some of them have participated in the past as fighters for the Islamic State in the Middle East. According to a Kabul-based analyst, “a very large group of Uyghur militants already is in the Afghan province of Badakhshan,” from which it could quickly move into China (Fergananews.com, January 3).

Afghanistan’s defense ministry said that “preparation for the start of construction of the military base in Badakhshan has already begun.” Moreover, “a special commission” has been set up to oversee the effort, one that, the ministry asserted, will be overseen by China’s own military experts (Fergananews.com, January 3).
Yet, on January 26, the Chinese Ministry of Defense denied that Beijing was involved in this project at all (TASS, January 26). And that denial, Fergana argues in a new article, raises the question of just what is going on in this border region and what Chinese intentions really are (Fergananews.com, February 6). Has China issued this disavowal because it did not want its activities widely known? Or does Beijing have some broader goals in Afghanistan than the alleged containment of a Uyghur threat to its own control of Xinjiang?

The above-cited Central Asian news agency points out that Afghan Defense Minister Bahrami did in fact go to China at the end of December 2017. Moreover, the minister’s representatives said in Kabul, on January 2, that China had “agreed on the construction of a military base in the northern province of Badakhshan.” Finally, Fergana notes, the Afghan defense ministry press office said at the time that China had agreed to assume all costs for the arming and equipping of Afghan soldiers at the new base. But now that China has disavowed any such agreement or commitment, Kabul finds itself in a difficult position; and both Afghanistan and neighboring Tajikistan appear worried about just what is likely to happen next (Fergananews.com, February 6).

The Chinese embassy in the Afghan capital has reportedly refused to discuss the matter, even though senior Afghan officials continue to insist that there was a bilateral agreement about the base and that they had been counting on it (Fergananews.com, February 6).

What is worrisome, retired Afghan General Nazar Muhammad said, is that three months ago, there were reports that Chinese forces had in fact entered Afghan territory and were patrolling along the country’s northern borders in heavily armed military vehicles. Officially, Kabul has denied this, but Muhammad insisted the denials should not be taken at face value. Of even greater concern, the Chinese apparently came by road through Tajikistan because there is no road connecting China and Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province directly. Furthermore, local officials say the Chinese have developed extensive contacts with ethnic Kyrgyz who live on both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan (Fergananews.com, February 6).

These same officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, assert that the Uyghurs in northern Afghanistan have developed close ties with their co-ethnics in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan; and having learned of those connections, the Chinese decided they needed a military presence to block an Uyghur resurgence in the countries of Central Asia and in China’s Xinjiang Province. According to Afghan sources, the United States has informed China that Washington does not want to see such a Chinese base created in the Badakhshan—supposedly, that is why Beijing has denied any plans to build one. However, they add, that is not the end of the story by any means.

China is convinced that the Uyghurs of Afghanistan and Central Asia must be destroyed before they have a chance to move into China. Beijing would prefer to have others do this, especially since in the topographically challenging northern reaches of Afghanistan even Chinese forces would be at a serious disadvantage. The Chinese are patrolling and they are likely providing assistance to the Afghans—the Chinese embassy in Kabul has admitted as much—in order to give themselves both leverage and an early warning capacity.

But such Chinese involvement whether overt, as the Afghans had thought, or covert as now appears to be the case, opens the way for Beijing to put pressure not only on the Uyghurs in Afghanistan and elsewhere in Central Asia but also on the states of that region as well. And that, rather than Beijing’s much-ballyhooed fear of the Uyghurs, may be the real reason China is acting as it is.