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Behind China's Growing Security Presence

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MateenK View Drop Down
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    Posted: 21-Mar-2017 at 7:56pm

What’s Behind China’s Growing Security Presence in Afghanistan?

What’s Behind China’s Growing Security Presence in Afghanistan?



Recent reports of Chinese security forces operating in Afghanistan have prompted speculation about whether China has crossed another important threshold in its policy and posture on overseas military activity. Claims of sightings of Chinese military vehicles in the Wakhan Corridor, the narrow strip of territory in northeastern Afghanistan that extends to the Chinese border, have been circulating since late last year. But it was only after a People’s Liberation Army press briefing in February that any activities were officially confirmed.

The PLA spokesperson denied the involvement of the Chinese military proper, stating that it was “the law enforcement departments in China and Afghanistan [that] carried out joint enforcement action to jointly combat terrorism and organized transnational criminal activities.” Nevertheless, this represents a striking development. It would not be the first time that Chinese security forces have been involved in joint operations outside Chinese territory, but it is the only known instance of their doing so specifically for counterterrorism purposes.

The details available are still very limited, and while some of them will doubtless dribble out, they are unlikely to be widely broadcast. Even a paramilitary presence in Afghanistan, in the shape of the People’s Armed Police, would be a point of sensitivity. Beijing has long been concerned about the reactions if its security forces were seen to be directly involved in missions of this sort, whether from militant groups in Afghanistan that might decide to make China a higher-priority target, or from broader opinion in the Muslim world, which might start to see China as the next “imperialist” power. The fact that Beijing is taking the risk of undertaking such operations at all reflects the convergence of several underappreciated trends, all of which are likely to lead to more Chinese counterterrorism activities in future.
First, the geographical nature of the terrorist threat facing China has been undergoing its most significant shifts since 2001. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the Uighur militants who had been taking sanctuary there fled to the tribal areas of Pakistan, where they were subsequently based for over a decade. While the fighters regrouped as the Turkistan Islamic Party, or TIP, and produced an array of propaganda materials, their capacity to act from safe havens in Pakistan was extremely limited.

Since 2014, however, both the location and capabilities of the group have changed in ways that make it a far more credible threat. Ahead of a major Pakistani army operation known as Zarb-e-Azb that was launched that year in North Waziristan, a number of Uighur fighters left Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas to join the war in Syria. They connected with a larger flow of Uighur recruits who followed routes from China to Southeast Asia—the principal people-smuggling channel following the tightening of Chinese borders in Central Asia and with Pakistan. Along the way, they acquired real or forged Turkish travel documents and headed either to Turkey itself or continued to Syria.

A small number of these recruits joined the self-proclaimed Islamic State, but the overwhelming majority of those going to Syria went to fight with al-Qaida’s affiliate, at the time known as the Nusra Front. Pakistan’s operation in North Waziristan also displaced the remaining TIP fighters into Afghanistan, where its leadership is now based, with some Chinese counterterrorism experts placing it in the far northeast in Badakhshan, the province where the Sino-Afghan joint operations took place.
The Uighur fighters operating in Syria have shown themselves to be significantly more capable than anything exhibited during the TIP’s time in Pakistan, gaining from superior training and battlefield experience. Some of them have since returned to Afghanistan. As long as the militant group was essentially Pakistan-based, it was contained by Pakistani security forces, which are China’s closest military partners. In Syria and Afghanistan, by contrast, Beijing has to work on a new set of relationships to address the threat, or to take on more direct responsibility itself. Add to this the complicating element of the Southeast Asian transit routes—which, partly as a by-product, have resulted in some of the region’s worst terrorist attacks—and Beijing is now faced with a more geographically diversified threat, as well as a more potent one.

Second, China’s relationship with Afghanistan has taken on an increasingly security-centric quality. Beijing had already assumed a very visible diplomatic role, most significantly through its efforts to advance an ongoing reconciliation process with the Taliban. But the involvement of Chinese intelligence services and the PLA has been growing. This process has been underway since the landmark visit to Kabul in 2012 of Zhou Yongkang, China’s then-security chief, the first Politburo standing committee member to go to Afghanistan for decades.

Since then, a stream of Chinese officials have visited Kabul, including notably the PLA’s chief of general staff, Fang Fenghui, in February 2016. A new military quadrilateral, involving the army chiefs of Afghanistan, China, Tajikistan and Pakistan, convened for the first time last year, mirroring China’s increasing reliance on three- and four-part groupings in its Afghan diplomacy. These military and intelligence exchanges have translated into more concrete forms of cooperation too, including the first major package of Chinese military aid to Afghanistan last summer and the controversial extradition of Uighurs from Afghanistan to China. Beijing has also been encouraging Kabul, which has more pressing challenges to contend with, to conduct more operations in Badakhshan, in order to target TIP fighters.
Third, Chinese counterterrorism activities abroad have been a growing source of internal deliberation in Beijing. A new anti-terrorism law, which took effect last year, opened the door to Chinese security forces playing a role in extra-territorial missions, leading to significant debates about whether and where such operations might take place in practice. Surprisingly serious consideration was given to a Chinese deployment in Syria, which would have been virtually unimaginable a few years ago. In addition to being politically complicated, a Syria intervention was seen as logistically very difficult.

Afghanistan is evidently politically fraught too, though a set of operations focused on the TIP and border security would raise fewer international hackles than any imaginable activity in Syria. The logistics of operating in a country on China’s border are, of course, far easier. My recent interviews in Pakistan suggest that Chinese security forces have also been engaged in more serious counterterrorism training with their Pakistani counterparts to prepare for precisely the sort of physical conditions that exist next door.

Counterterrorism is not the only concern for China in northeast Afghanistan, however. Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan has long been a source of anxiety for China for narcotics flows and criminal networks. But the shifting nature of the foreign-based terrorist threat facing China is having the more important catalytic effect on Beijing’s behavior. For a long time, analysts have rightly been dismissive of the prospect that Uighur terrorist groups could act as a meaningful driver for Chinese foreign policy, given the limited nature of the threat. The latest reports suggest that this is finally starting to change.

Edited by MateenK - 21-Mar-2017 at 8:47pm
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