The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. For the duration of their stay in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union operated from a string of bases across the country. Of interest to us in the present context, are the bases they had in the Badhakshan Province, where they established a string of bases and posts to ensure that Mujahideen did not enter into this territory. One of these bases is Bazai Gonbad in the Little Pamir access to which was through a dirt track through Tajikistan.
Strangely enough it is this spot that the Chinese are exploring to establish a military base in the Wakhan Base. In fact a recent report of the South China Morning Post (29 August 2018) goes a step further and claims that “China had funded and started building a training camp for Afghan troops in Afghanistan’s isolated Wakhan Corridor.” This report quotes both Afghan Defence Officials at the Afghan Embassy in Beijing and Chinese military officials familiar with the project. SCMP quotes one of the sources as saying that “Construction of the base has started, and China will send at least one battalion of troops, along with weapons and equipment, to be stationed there and provide training to their Afghan counterparts.” No one at this stage is committing to placing their bets on the location of this military base.
Prior to understanding the logic of stationing Chinese troops in Afghanistan, it is necessary to understand how the Chinese are getting troops into Afghanistan. As of now, it is through Tajikistan, just as the Soviet Union did when they invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Today, China is Tajikistan’s largest creditor and from time to time, Tajikistan has given up territory to China in return for debt relief. One such territory is said to be on the tri-junction of China-Tajikistan and Afghanistan in the east of Tajikistan. Of specific interest is a town in Tajikistan known as Murghab in eastern Tajikistan (See map below) which has roads leading upto the border with Afghanistan. Along this route, at two places, the Chinese have brought in PLA troops, in small numbers, of course, so that the world does not notice, ostensibly for the purpose of joint border patrolling.
The origins of this joint border patrolling can be traced to August 2016 when at the first meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination and Cooperation Mechanism (QCCM- consisting of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan) meeting on counter-terrorism, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and China signed an agreement on joint border patrolling. Under this agreement, China agreed to fund the construction of 11 border outposts for Tajikistan. China and Afghanistan also agreed to undertake joint border patrolling in the Little Pamir. This is the origins of the idea that China would be involved in border patrolling along the Tajik-Afghan border. That is why WION spotted Chinese Ministry of Public Security vehicles roaming in the Little Pamirs in 2016.
The so-called joint patrolling apparently ended in December 2016 when the Afghans realized that the patrolling could provide the excuse for China to regularly ingress into their territory and Afghanistan does not have the capability to defend their territory. The Chinese logic to this patrolling was that it was necessary to prevent the infiltration of ETIM cadres based in Afghanistan! This narrative changed a bit when it early 2017, the Chinese proposed that they would help Afghanistan to raise a Mountain Brigade to be stationed in Badhakshan. The idea was that China would fund, equip and help train the Afghan National Army (ANA). After much discussion, and stating of requirements, the Chinese decided that it would be better not to hurt the sensibilities of the Americans who were on the ground in Afghanistan and kept stating (through 2017 and 2018) that they had no plans to construct a military base or military training camp in Badakshan, Afghanistan.
Afghan military sources have stated that they have discussions with China on setting up a military base in Badakshan and reports show that in 2016, Chinese forces, probably border guards did move down to Bozai Gonbad. They stayed there for a while and then moved back into Tajikistan. Actually, the Tajik route as used by the Soviets is also the shortest access for the Chinese. China can fly into Murghab or move by road through G-315 highway. Troops can deploy from Tushkurgan in Xinjiang and then cross the border into Tajikistan.
There is sufficient anecdotal evidence of Chinese presence in the Wakhan corridor. Gohar Abbas, a Pakistani journalist, who is also a Wakhi, travelled to the Wakhan Corridor. His report talks of fellow journalists seeing Chinese presence in the Wakhan in 2016. While the location of the actual military camp in Badhakshan may yet be decided, it is most likely to be located either in the Little Pamir, due to access issues or in the Wakhan, further west as it can be accessed again from Tajikistan. Such a camp would be located close to Ishkemish, as there are roads coming down from Khorog in Tajikistan into Afghanistan.
What is China precisely upto in the Wakhan corridor? This is a tactical question and its contours will become clear sooner than later. The strategic intent behind this is to secure China’s southern borders, just as Soviet Union did and Russia is presently doing. There is no terrorist threat in Badhakshan from ETIM; there could be Taliban camps in the Western Wakhan, but certainly not beyond that. The mere talk of Chinese presence led the USAF to carry out strikes against Taliban targets in Badhakshan in January 2018. Clearly, the Chinese were surprised at the US signaling and that is why all Chinese foreign and defence ministry statements deny their military presence in Afghanistan. Assuming for a minute, hypothetically, that the US agrees to withdraw from Afghanistan, China would be the happiest. This then gives them the opportunity to gain a foothold in Afghanistan. Why?
Ultimately, China wants Afghanistan to be a part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and by extension of the Belt and Road Initiative. This will be possible only when, either there is a Pakistan controlled government in Afghanistan or when it manages to get a foothold in the region through which the Ancient Silk Road passed through. This is Badhakshan! China will ensure in the near future its military presence in northern Afghanistan that much is for sure. It will be low key and garbed as military training site for the ANA. In reality, it will be base for the Chinese in Afghanistan. The sooner India and Russia wake up to this reality the better. In fact, the sooner India prepares itself to set up a military establishment in the Wakhan corridor the better. This will give it the means to keep an eye on Pakistan Occupied Kashmir also. Otherwise, in years to come there will be more articles on how China is encircling India in South Asia and its extended neighbourhood!