Could China Play a Role in Afghanistan?

Is Beijing, which is famously allergic to intervention, about to get involved in Afghanistan? It sounds crazy, yet there are intriguing signs. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently floated the notion at a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations, calling it a "possibility for the future."

Chinese Foreign Ministry official Qin Gang quickly rebuffed the notion last week, saying that except for United Nations' peacekeeping operations, "China never sends troops abroad," and that "media reports about China sending troops to participate in Afghanistan are groundless."

Yet the idea of greater Chinese involvement is not as outlandish as it might seem. To be sure, Beijing would balk at sending soldiers to a mission under Western command, like the NATO-run Afghan force. But the People's Liberation Army has become increasingly active in U.N. peacekeeping efforts in recent years. Beijing has deployed 10,000 troops—mainly from engineering units—to U.N. missions in Sudan and other war-torn parts of Africa, as well as to Cambodia and Haiti. If the U.N. Security Council, on which China has a permanent seat, decided to send peacekeepers to Afghanistan, "China would take it into serious consideration," said foreign-policy analyst Gao Heng from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "China would do it if the task were perfectly justifiable—but would not take part under NATO."

Strategically, there are good reasons why China might want to play a role in Afghanistan, with which it shares a small, mountainous frontier. Beijing is battling its own Islamic extremists in the area, and it's extremely concerned about escalating violence in Pakistan, a close ally. Back in the 1980s, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prodded nervous Chinese authorities to join up with American, Pakistani and Saudi intelligence agencies to launch an ambitious covert operation to train, fund and arm anti-Soviet Afghan freedom fighters, or mujahedin. In a classic strange-bedfellows arrangement, Chinese authorities provided light weapons and other assistance to joint anti-Russian efforts based in the Afghan-Pakistani border area.

Of course, now, as then, Beijing wouldn't want to be seen publicly as meddling in Kabul's internal affairs. But Chinese covert ops or peacekeeping troops under the United Nations can't be ruled out, given Beijing's growing jitters over the instability on its Central Asian flank.