China has offered the Afghanistan army expanded military aid to combat the Taliban, according to the Afghan Defense Ministry, a move that reflects Beijing’s readiness to deepen its engagement with the war-torn country, The Wall Street Journal reports.
The offer was made during a rare, high-level visit at the end of February by a Chinese military delegation headed by General Fang Fenghui, chief of the Joint Staff Department of the People’s Liberation Army, Afghan officials said.
China has been wary of publicly supporting the Afghan military against the Taliban, as it nurtures relations with the militant group in an effort to be seen as a neutral party in the conflict and help the peace process. However, deteriorating security and the emergence of Islamic State has prompted China to take a more active role in Afghanistan.
The timing of General Fang’s recent trip was seen as a strong show of support for the Afghan government at a time when it is losing control over parts of the country following the withdrawal of most foreign troops in 2014. The Taliban now control nearly a third of the country, according to U.S. and allied officials.
“A commission has been assigned to make the wish list,” Mohammad Radmanish, the defense minister’s deputy spokesman, told The Wall Street Journal. The list might include light weapons, aircraft parts and uniforms, he said.
China’s total military aid offered to Afghanistan, including the latest one, amounts to just over $70 million and was originally promised on the sidelines of a conference in Russia last year. The sum is small compared with aid provided by other countries, including the U.S., which has invested tens of billions of dollars in Afghanistan’s security forces.
But China’s stakes in Afghanistan’s future are growing fast. China has substantial investments planned in Pakistan and faces a rising threat of terrorism at home, which it fears could be aggravated by chaos across its western border in Afghanistan.
“Over the past few years China’s interest in Afghanistan has increased dramatically,” said Barnett Rubin, former U.S. State Department adviser on Afghanistan and senior fellow at New York University. “It now considers the security and stability of Afghanistan as important both for the domestic security of China and for the continuing growth of its economy.”
The U,S., meanwhile, has welcomed greater Chinese involvement in Afghanistan in recent years. “We support any role, China or other nations can play in bringing long-term stability to Afghanistan,” a State Department spokesperson said.
The Chinese Defense Ministry has said that relations between the two militaries have been improving in recent years and that more cooperation is in the offing, including in training.
“Both sides are willing to further deepen military exchanges in various fields and strengthen pragmatic cooperation in counterterrorism, training and training of personnel in order to contribute to safeguarding regional security,” the ministry said in a statement.
China’s offer of military aid to the Afghan government coincided with a high-level meeting with the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, according to people close to the Taliban and other government officials, reflecting Beijing’s continued efforts to maintain close relations with all sides of the conflict.
China’s foreign ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment on Beijing’s meeting with the Taliban in Qatar at the end of February.
The Taliban said it “has good ties with different countries and China is among them. It’s not something new.”
The sustained effort to increase engagement with all sides of the conflict is a break from decades in which China remained on the sidelines, limiting its activity to economic investment and often relying on Pakistan to look after its interests in West Asia.
China and U.S., along with Pakistan and Afghanistan, have cooperated in recent months to restart the Afghan peace process, playing a central role in the latest push to get the Taliban to the table for talks.
“The Chinese have been willing to continue this level of coordination with the U.S. despite other irritants,” said Andrew Small, author of the ‘The China-Pakistan Axis’ and fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. “Particularly with the Taliban talks process,” he added. “The sense is that the two sides have very specific roles to play in pushing various parties along.” -KP