China plans to construct an economic corridor stretching

China
Builds Military Base in                          Afghanistan

                                                      
Peter KORZUN

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The Afghan Badakhshan province borders
the China’s province of Xinjiang. It was
part of the ancient Silk Road linking the
East to the West. Today, the Silk Road is being
revived and the China’s interest
in the province is also on the rise.

Afghanistan
boasts large deposits of raw materials China could import.  Beijing is investing
$55 billion in the neighboring Pakistan. It plans to
construct an economic corridor stretching to the Arabian Sea. The project will
spur the world economy and Afghanistan can benefit too. China is the Afghanistan’s largest trading partner and investor.   According to
its “One
Belt, One Road” (OBOR) project, a big infrastructure is to be
built in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Stability in Afghanistan corresponds to China’s
interests but there is little hope the United States can bring it.  After all, it has not achieved any
substantial gains since 2001. There have been surges and reductions, changes of
tactics and strategy, numerous reports on how to change the tide of war but the
Taliban is strong, the Afghan economy is in shambles with drugs trafficking
being the only business to thrive. So far, the Trump administration has not
presented a long-awaited strategy defining its Afghanistan policy, despite the
fact that there are at least 8400 American troops in the country. This presence
will increase soon. The US relationships with pertinent actors, such as
Pakistan, are in shambles. Washington has recently suspended military aid to that
country.   

The instability in Afghanistan threatens the China-Pakistan Economic
Corridor – an important element of OBOR. China is acting as a mediator to reconcile
the   differences between the countries of the region.
The Afghanistan-Pakistan relations worsened in 2017 as they exchanged mutual
accusations of rendering support to jihadists operating in the border areas. Beijing
is working hard  to improve the bilateral
ties. It arranged a tripartite
meeting of foreign chiefs in 2017. The talks produced working
panels to promote cooperation in various areas. 
Another meeting is  expected to take place this
year in Kabul.

The
East
Turkistan Islamic Movement, a Uighur
nationalist and Islamic movement from China’s Xinjiang region, is operating in Afghanistan. The militants gain
combat experience fighting side by side with the Taliban and other militant
groups. Beijing does not want the seasoned warriors to come back and engage in
terrorist activities on its territory.

Russia
and China step up military aid to Central Asian states.  They believe that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
(SCO) can substantially contribute into achieving peaceful settlement. Both are
trying to create a network of regional states. Moscow and Beijing are motivated
by their national interests, which coincide. As major powers they are working
together to promote security in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

All
told, the China’s interest is strong enough to justify military engagement beyond
its borders. The Afghan government officials reported
that China is to
build a military base in Badakhshan.  The discussions
on the location and further technicalities for the base are
to start soon. The weapons and equipment will be Chinese but
the facility will be manned by Afghan military. No doubt, Chinese military
instructors and other personnel will come to carry out train and assist
missions. It has been reported that the construction of the base is expected to
be complete in 2018.

In
2017, the Taliban delivered serious strikes temporarily
capturing Ishkashim and Zebak districts of Badakhshan from the government troops. The
Afghan government failed to provide the military presence substantial enough to
ensure security. Before the attacks, an agreement with local field commanders had
been in place, giving them their share of lapis lazuli production in exchange for cessation
of hostilities. But internal bickering undermined the fragile peace between the
local groups and the Taliban seized the opportunity to intervene. The Islamic
State’s presence in the province is a matter of special concern.  It makes border security an issue of
paramount importance for Beijing.

The
question is how far is China ready to go? Until now, it has limited its
military activities to special operations teams patrolling the Wakhan
Corridor.   A military base in Badakhshan is an important
move to demonstrate   Beijing is ready to expand its presence in the
country and become an alternative to the United States.  China has a trump card the US lacks – the cooperation
of Russia and Pakistan. Beijing represents the SCO, a large international
organization comprising such actors as Turkey, Iran, India, Pakistan and the countries
of Central Asia.  The SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group’s activities were restarted last year upon the initiative of Russian president Vladimir
Putin. They were suspended in 2009.  Russia
advocates launching direct talks between the Afghan Government and
the Taliban as soon as possible. Beijing supports the idea. The two nations are
in the same boat. Moscow has said it is ready to host a
conference on Afghanistan.   

The
SCO can make the crisis management process a real multilateral effort. It will reduce
the clout of the US but increase chances for finding a settlement to the
conflict.. Security cooperation and diplomatic activities can open new chapter
in the Afghan history.