Chinese troops. File Picture: REUTERS/ROLEX DELA PENA
Chinese troops. File Picture: REUTERS/ROLEX DELA PENA

For several years, the US has been trying to convince China it needs to be more involved in maintaining stability in Afghanistan, which is attached to the far western Chinese border by a narrow strip of land.

Understandably, the Chinese response so far has mostly been along the lines of: "You broke it so now you own it." China’s leaders are well aware of Afghanistan’s reputation as the graveyard of empires — from Alexander the Great to Great Britain, the Soviet Union and now the US. But Beijing’s traditional reluctance to get bogged down in an unwinnable foreign war may now be starting to fade.

Reports have emerged in recent weeks of Chinese troop carriers operating in the Afghan border region adjacent to the autonomous region of Xinjiang, where the Muslim Uighur population bristles under Chinese rule.

Chinese authorities have denied that the People’s Liberation Army is operating in Afghanistan, but acknowledged that "law enforcement authorities of the two sides have conducted joint law enforcement operations in border areas to fight against terrorism".

This is a distinction without a difference and follows China’s pattern in other theatres such as the South China Sea, where Beijing often projects power using enormous and heavily armed "coast guard" ships instead of its formal navy. In the case of Afghanistan, the Chinese troops involved are probably from the paramilitary People’s Armed Police, or the military-style "special police" Swat brigades.

So why has China chosen this moment to dip its toe into the murky pond next door? One obvious reason is the rising unrest and series of attacks carried out by suspected Uighur militants in Xinjiang in recent months.

Beijing is concerned that Uighur separatists enjoy support in Pakistan and Afghanistan and that their capacity to plan and launch attacks from across the border is increasing all the time.

This capacity may also be rising because of the vacuum left by the US as it tries to extricate itself from its longest-ever war. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a US government watchdog, estimates that uncontested government control in Afghanistan declined to 57% of the country in 2016 from 72% a year earlier. President Donald Trump’s commanders in Afghanistan have warned that several thousand more US troops are necessary just to maintain a "stalemate".

With the situation deteriorating, Beijing seems to have finally decided that it must indeed do more to improve stability in its war-torn neighbour, even if its efforts only extend to the narrow strip of land along the Wakhan Corridor that connects Afghanistan proper with the Xinjiang border.

But if Trump is hoping that Chinese troops will take up some of the burden of pacifying the country, he is certain to be disappointed. Beijing’s objectives are tightly limited to neutralising the threat of terrorist attacks in China. The Communist party’s mantra of "never seeking hegemony" remains strong and there is zero appetite for large-scale military adventurism abroad. The moment Chinese soldiers start coming home in body bags is the moment Beijing will pull back.

Even if China did decide to go beyond hunting Uighur fugitives in the border territories, its efforts would undoubtedly end in failure, given Beijing’s lack of experience in conducting military operations and in nation building. Since those efforts would also be inimical to US interests, Washington must be very careful what it wishes for when it comes to sharing the burden in Afghanistan.

© The Financial Times 2017

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