China’s discreet headway into Afghanistan

China’s discreet headway into Afghanistan

Salman Rafi Sheikh,

While China continues officially to deny playing a leading role in managing conflict in Afghanistan, there is also no gainsaying that China continues to make a meaningful headway into Afghanistan, a development that would, even if Beijing denies, have a strong impact on which way the wind blows in Afghanistan in next few years.

This week Pakistan’s Maulana Sami ul Haq, the cleric who is known as the ‘father of Taliban’, called upon China to play a pro-active role in bringing peace in Afghanistan, saying that Beijing’s stakes in Afghanistan are bigger than those of the US, which has been fighting the Afghan war since 2001.

While Sami ul Haq is not an official representative voice of the Afghan Taliban, his assessment of China’s importance in the region does reflect what the Taliban also probably think of China. Needless to say, Sami is reported to have strong connections with Taliban, and his confidence that China will be welcomed as a conflict mediator only testify this connection and China’s acceptability.

It also testifies the increasing headway of China in Afghanistan. As such, despite China’s denial of establishing a military base in Afghanistan, we now have an official confirmation about how China is already helping Afghanistan establish a mountain brigade in the country’s northern regions to help boost its counter-terrorism capacity.

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This cooperation in establishing a brigade is apart from China’s willingness to train Afghan soldiers on the Chinese soil. And while China has denied that it will be sending its troops on that military base, an anonymous but officialsource confirmed to South China Morning Post that China may send its troops at some point in future.

Of course, these troops will not be there to fight the Taliban. In fact, China’s primary purpose would be fending off the extremist and separatist threat from Chinese separatist factions, some of which are based in Afghanistan.

And, the fact that China is also actively seeking to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan means that China will gradually become a lot more interested in Afghanistan’s internal security situation so that its projects don’t become an easy target for Chinese Islamist and separatist groups; hence, the necessity of military base and enlisting the support of the Afghan military.

And, by establishing itself physically in the region, China will be able to put itself in a far better position to broker a deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban that it could otherwise do.

What also adds to China’s strength is the fact that China is perhaps the only country in the region that has been able to maintain productive relationship both with the Taliban and the Afghan government, making it, again, the only country in the region that used instability in Afghanistan to its own advantage, although it played no role in creating that instability through the US-led ‘war on terror.’

What China stands to gain from its increasing role in Afghanistan is not just security against the Islamist threat or use Afghanistan in its BRI project; it also stands to take a big leap forward in terms of raising its regional and global profile as a conflict mediator, and project itself as a power capable of wielding influence strong enough to end the mess that the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, the US, was unable to cover on its own.

Afghanistan, therefore, can be a launching pad for China, if it uses it as such, to re-position itself in the world.

Already, China has got the Gawadar port under its control for the next 40 years (until 2059), and the addition of a military base in Afghanistan, where China can position its own troops anytime, would only add massive strength to China’s ability to make military moves in the Indian ocean and Hindukush regions, giving it military access to both the Middle East and Central Asia, world’s most energy rich regions, at one and the same time.

Given this, there remains little to deny that China has more stakes in Afghanistan than even the United States, which had always wanted to turn Afghanistan into a strategic outpost to maintain its influence on the same region that China is now targeting, albeit rather discreetly and in an altogether different manner, which makes it a lot more acceptable country for the Afghans than the US.

With China thus directly increasing its physical presence in Afghanistan, it will no longer remain possible for the US to manipulate the Afghan war as it deemed fit. There will be a lot more pressure on the US to withdraw from Afghanistan than is currently the case.

And, if China does ultimately succeed in brokering a deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban, there will remain no reason for the US to keep its military in the country.

China’s discreet headway into Afghanistan, therefore, is all set to change the war-torn country’s landscape both politically and geo-strategically.