Chapter 9

The China Gambit

By Yossef Bodansky

“Modern Afghanistan is indeed a purely accidental geographic unit, which has been carved out of the heart of Central Asia by the sword of conquerors or the genius of individual statesmen.” 

- Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India (1899–1905), 1898 

“He who owns the oil will own the world, for he will rule the sea by means of the heavy oils, the air by means of the ultra-refined oils, and the land by means of gasoline and the illuminating oils.” 

- Henri Berenger, French diplomat, 1921

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is at a crucial turning point in its historic ascent as a global Hegemon that started in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union some two decades ago.The consolidation of control over Afghanistan – to be implemented by Pakistan, China’s pre-eminent ally and proxy – plays a crucial role in the grand strategy of Beijing that goes far beyond the relative importance of Afghanistan itself in geo-strategic and geo-economic terms.

Two major points need first to be asserted in lieu of introduction.

First is the legacy of the Great Game – a most thorny issue in the United Kingdom. The classic Great Game has a unique lore – a combination of the romanticised imperialism epitomised in Rudyard Kipling’s masterpiece Kim, and the historical record of sophisticated, relentless and at times ruthless polity implemented through special operations and other unconventional means. Ultimately, it was Kipling who brought both the term the “Great Game” and the romantic aura of the British–Russian face-off over the Heart of Asia into public awareness. In Kim, Kipling described the strategic struggle for India as: “The Great Game that never ceases day or night”. Kipling succeeded not only in imparting the magic of the Great Game and the theatre in which it was being played out, but primarily in elucidating its essence, scope and importance. At the same time, he highlighted the diversity and decisiveness of the discreet actions comprising the Great Game. Discussing practitioners and observers on the ground, Mahbub Ali the Pashtun told Kim: “The Game is so large that one sees but a little at a time.” Still, the individual practitioners were fully aware that theirs was but a transient role in a still-unfolding historic drama – the mega-trend in contemporary terms. As the quintessential British spy Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, known as the Babu, told Kim: “When everyone is dead the Great Game is finished. Not before.” 

Alas, this romantic British–Russian Great Game was neither the first nor the enduring Great Game. Most important is the revival of the original Russian–Chinese Great Game – or “Grand Playground” in the earlier translations. For almost three centuries, the “Between and Betwixt of Empires” – the Heart of Asia or Greater Central Asia in contemporary terms – was the pre-eminent zone of confrontation between China’s Manchu or Qing dynasty (1644–1912) and Russia’s Romanov dynasty (1613–1917). Now, as the US-led West is about to withdraw from Afghanistan, the real upsurge for this crucial region has already begun in earnest. The Heart of Asia has once again become the zone “Between and Betwixt Empires” for both the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China in more than mere geopolitical terms. Indeed, Beijing conducts the Great Game as a key component of the Chinese ascent as a global Hegemon – an historic term of the early Imperial era revived by the contemporary Communist Party in order to define China’s ascent to fill the global vacuum created by the end of the Cold War. Thus, the rejuvenated Russian–Chinese Great Game is the most important of the grand strategic dynamics dominating the Heart of Asia and hence affecting the vital interests of the West.

Second is the preoccupation with Afghanistan as a viable political-military entity. It is not. It has never been. The territory of Afghanistan has always been an instrument of the grand strategic designs of regional powers. Passing through and using the landscape commonly known as Afghanistan have been imperative to making global and regional power-grabs possible. Just as during the wars in Afghanistan in the 1980s and, for that matter, the Great Games starting in the 17th century, the peoples and territory of Afghanistan are presently merely pawns in, and a means to, strategic manoeuvrings of dominant powers. Because of its key location and unique geography, Afghanistan has always been crucial to any regional dynamics and conflagration. However, the ultimate objectives that brought war into and out of Afghanistan have always lain elsewhere. Hence, any conflicts in Kabul are but discrete, though integral, components of a wider and more profound historic evolution in the Heart of Asia and the entire world. Contemporary Afghanistan, though not a functioning state, continues to play a special and unique role in the Chinese surge in the Heart of Asia in quest for the zone “Between and Betwixt Empires” and its immense geo-strategic and geo-economic resources.

The roots of the contemporary Sino-Russian face-off are in the aftermath of the Soviet–Chinese border clashes starting with the March 1969 fighting in Damanskii Island and the Indo-Pakistani war of December 1971. Chinese strategists attest that, in retrospect, Beijing was not that shocked by the ferocity of the Soviet military reaction and the extent of losses they inflicted on the Red Army. Beijing was profoundly shocked by just how quickly it took Moscow to revive the age-old Sino-Russian enmity over the disputed territories, and just how receptive the Soviet population was to these sentiments – including the glorification in popular arts and scholarship of the surge into, and annexation of, Siberia during the Tsarist era. Similarly, Pakistan was not as shocked by the extent of the military defeat in the war with India as by its immediate aftermath. Pakistan was established in 1947 as an amalgam of diverse and mutually hostile peoples glued together by Islam, their lowest common denominator and the raison d’être for their existence as a state. Yet, once fighting was over, what was then East Pakistan opted to gain independence as Bangladesh, thus knocking down Pakistan’s quintessential reason for existence. Therefore, starting from the early 1970s neither China nor Pakistan could continue looking at the world the way they used to. Their aggregate insecurity led both countries to reach out to the United States and facilitate a historic rapprochement, symbolised by President Richard Nixon’s dramatic trip to Beijing in February 1972. Stunned, Moscow refocused on the Orient as a major theatre in the Cold War.

Moscow was cognisant of the importance of Afghanistan for Beijing. Since the early 1970s, Soviet intelligence worried about Chinese penetration of, and influence over, clandestine cadres in the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan’s Khalq faction. This apprehension increased after the failed Eid Conspiracy scheduled for September 1978. The Eid Conspiracy aimed to reverse the ascent of the Khalq and the ensuing purge of pro-Moscow Parcham cadres in Kabul. The plans collapsed in Tehran at the same time that there was a flurry of visits by Chinese senior diplomats and intelligence officials. These Chinese also urged the Shah to invade Afghanistan in order to bring down the communist regime. Najibullah, then exiled as the Afghan ambassador to Tehran, warned the KGB of the Chinese urging of the Shah and foreknowledge of the Eid Conspiracy. Hence, by late 1979 the KGB believed that Hafizullah Amin would try to form an alliance with China via Pakistan as an insurance against Soviet overbearing (which was a wrong assessment of Amin’s intentions).

The Soviet invasion was primarily aimed at securing a springboard to reach swiftly the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea south of the Zagros Mountains, thus defeating the contingency plans of the then-fledgling American Rapid Deployment Force. However, the invasion’s impact on the correlation of forces vis-à-vis China was not ignored. On the one hand, Moscow rejoiced in the prevention of a possible tripartite alliance of Kabul, Islamabad and Beijing. On the other hand, the USSR was determined to reduce tension with the PRC. Toward this end, in the early 1980s, the Soviet Union compromised with China on disputes on the river border issue – an issue of great importance for Beijing since the 1930s.

Beijing, however, considered the Soviet invasion and other activities in Asia (especially Vietnam’s move into Kampuchea) to be part of a Soviet drive to control the Indian Ocean. In mid 1980, a senior Chinese official noted that the Soviet invasion was a key element of “Moscow’s southward strategy that aims at controlling the oil-producing regions in the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf area on the one hand, and Southeast Asia and the Strait of Malacca on the other, with the Gulf area being the most strategically important.” The control over Afghanistan will enable the USSR “to seize ‘oil-supply centres’ of the West in the Middle East and Near East, control the passage from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, and cut off ‘the life-line of the West at sea’ . . . Therefore, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its control of Kampuchea through Vietnam are neither isolated and temporary steps, nor local problems of concern to only one or two areas, but an overall problem concerned with the destiny of many countries and the future of the world.” At first, Beijing sought Western support and partnership for opposing the Soviet ascent. When Washington remained focused on helping the Afghan mujahedin and “bleeding the Soviets” rather than dealing with global-strategic issues, Beijing decided in the mid 1980s to strike its own deal with Moscow.

The Chinese analysis was not without foundation. In the early 1980s, the Soviet Defence Council met a few times informally to consider a pre-emptive capture of the Persian Gulf coast between the Strait of Hormuz and the Pakistani border. Moscow was apprehensive that, being on the verge of defeat in the war with Iraq, Iran would turn to the US for support and put the Persian Gulf under US hegemony (which would happen in 1986). Given the growing US presence in Pakistan in support for the mujahedin operations in Afghanistan, the Kremlin concluded that any surge into Iran would risk “Pakistani” strikes on the flank and rear of the small Soviet forces racing into south-western Iran. 

Thus, Moscow concluded that there was no alternative to occupying Pakistan as well, and in March 1982, Indira Gandhi and Dimitry Ustinov agreed in principle to prepare joint contingency plans for the occupation of Pakistan. In spring 1983, select members of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) High Command were briefed by their Soviet counterparts on contingency plans to occupy Pakistan and divide it between the DRA and India. A major Soviet–DRA build-up in eastern Afghanistan started in April 1984 and intensified markedly during the summer, after the spring offensive against the mujahedin had been concluded. Autumn 1984 saw an unprecedented Soviet military build-up and mobilisation worldwide, as well as modification of the High Command, in what seemed to be in anticipation of a crisis on a global scale. The USSR was planning for a possible war in October 1984, thus exploiting the contentious presidential elections in the US and especially the intense campaign against the Reagan administration’s commitment to winning the Cold War. Soviet forces would race to the Persian Gulf while Soviet–Afghan forces would occupy Pakistan jointly with Indian forces – converging from east and west. The assassination of Indira Gandhi in October 1984 brought down the entire grand design. (Little wonder that numerous former senior intelligence and military officials in both Russia and India are still convinced that the CIA assassinated Mrs Gandhi as a desperate, though well-timed, knockout of the Soviet–Indian plans. For example, the late Leonid Shebarshin, the KGB’s best South Asia hand, the head of the First Chief Directorate and briefly Chief of the KGB, claimed to have iron-clad proof of the CIA’s culpability.)

The Soviet grand design was not completely taken off the table until 1986. As the USSR was preparing to hand over greater responsibility to the DRA the Indian armed forces were given an ever-greater role in a future war. Between November 1986 and March 1987, India tested its own ability to launch surprise attacks on Pakistan in the Brass Tacks “full scale war” exercise on the Pakistani border. The exercise started with some 70,000 Indian troops rushing toward the Pakistani border on one of the main invasion routes, catching Pakistan in complete surprise. Stunned, Zia-ul-Haq mobilised the entire V Corps and sent it to the front lines, while the Southern Air Command was put on high alert. By the time the exercise was over, India had over 400,000 troops – about half the Indian Army – deployed directly across Sindh Province within 100 miles of the border. Zia-ul-Haq was shocked by the fact that Brass Tacks caught Islamabad completely by surprise. He told his chiefs that Brass Tacks should be considered “as a direct threat and challenge to Pakistan’s existence”. The army’s study of the exercise and their own reaction convinced the army chiefs that – had it been a real war – the Pakistani army would have had to withdraw into the heart of Afghanistan and regroup near Lashkar Gah before they could launch a counter-offensive against the Indian forces on the Indus river. Operating within the territory of Pakistan would have meant the annihilation of the Pakistani Army at the hands of the Indians within 48 to 72 hours. 

For the People’s Republic of China, the lessons of Brass Tacks prompted a reassessment of the importance of Afghanistan to its key ally, Pakistan, and this consideration remained prominent as the Cold War was ending and the Soviet threat to China was eroding. 

China’s current commitment to Pakistan, and consequently to dominating Afghanistan as well, is a direct outcome of the evolution of the Chinese post-Cold War grand strategy that was originally articulated in the early 1990s and ensued from the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) analysis of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the then-nascent US-led globalisation, the shape of hi-tech wars as demonstrated in Desert Storm, and the trauma of Tiananmen Square. These issues were studied in the context of Beijing’s resolve to surge as a global Hegemon. 

Starting in the early 1990s, the Chinese High Command carefully studied the military aspects of the implementation of the forthcoming strategic surge. The conclusions were presented in a June 1993 textbook of the PLA High Command called Can the Chinese Army Win the Next War? in which the PLA defines the US as China’s principal strategic adversary and argues for regional wars by proxy. Beijing concluded that “the conflict of strategic interests between China and the United States . . . is now surfacing steadily” to the point that Washington “absolutely cannot tolerate the rise of a powerful adversary in East Asia”. With the PRC determined to become the region’s leading power, “the military antagonism between China and the United States” could reach the point of armed confrontation.

The textbook examined numerous scenarios of regional and global wars in which the PRC might get involved. A key challenge identified was the encirclement and stifling of India, a subcontinent with an ancient civilisation that would not succumb to the strategic overlordship of either Chinese or Muslim political civilisations. In Can the Chinese Army Win the Next War? the PLA defined India as “the greatest potential threat” for the PRC itself because the implementation of China’s Asian strategy threatened India’s vital interests and thus might lead to a military clash. The PLA stressed that they “see India as a potential adversary mainly because India’s strategic focus remains on the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia.” Hence, the PRC is adamant on negating this trend. 

Meanwhile, since mid 1991, the PLA High Command anticipated an overall worsening situation in the post-Cold War world. A December 1991 strategic study predicted “the marked escalation of regional turmoil and conflicts”. The PLA anticipated that “the basic military situation of ‘frequent small engagements but no major wars’ will continue” and that “the world will be even more turbulent and less peaceful.” In January 1992, the PLA was convinced that “wars and armed conflicts [would] continue to ‘run amok’ in some countries and regions” of immense importance for the PRC and its allies. Hence, in mid 1993, Jiang Zemin issued new military strategic guidelines instructing the PLA to prepare for fighting and “winning local wars under modern, especially high-technology conditions”. There followed a series of military and regional studies about modalities for implementation, particularly in and around Asia. 

One of the first key themes was the centrality of the Trans-Asian Axis – a term loosely used by the PLA to describe the system of military and security alliances involving China, North Korea, Pakistan and Iran in order to better control and/or influence Central Asia and the Greater Middle East. Beijing resolved that an assertive China and an Iran-led Islamist world would undermine Pax-Americana while exploiting Russia’s weakness and inward reoccupation. Practically, the consolidation of the Trans-Asian Axis relied on China and Persia, the historic allies of the Silk Route lore, with Pakistan serving as the lynchpin between the PRC’s traditional alliance system and the Muslim world. 

In early 1994, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s office articulated Pakistan’s perceived role in the Trans-Asian Axis as proposed by Beijing. Islamabad stressed that “if there can be a new alliance or bloc, then it should include Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, the Islamic countries of Central Asia, and Turkey. That will be a natural alliance . . . The Muslim countries, having common religious, historical, cultural and economic values and interests, should join a single platform and form a regional bloc. If China can be included in the present alliance, then there is no reason why US hegemony in the world could not be resisted.” Pakistan would be the lynchpin, given the unique and special bilateral relations. “The history of cooperation and friendship between Pakistan and China is enviable. The PRC has now offered to cooperate liberally with Pakistan to meet its weaponry needs. Pakistani tanks and missiles are also being manufactured in China. China did not even care for the US pressure in this regard. No one will object to China’s inclusion in the alliance of Muslim countries as China has not been seen to carry out aggression against any neighbouring country, nor has it claimed the territory of its neighbours.”

In the late 1990s, Beijing defined the “Vancouver-to-Vladivostok [V-to-V] bloc” – which unifies the predominantly White/Caucasian Judeo-Christian industrialised north – as the principal strategic challenge aspiring to contain the ascent of China. With that, Russia was deemed an enemy rather than a potential ally. Beijing worried that the situation in Central Asia was “a repeat of the 19th century ‘fierce rivalry’ among the great powers for Central Asia, and a way to turn Central Asian countries into the United States’ ‘chess pieces’”, from which China was being left out. For Beijing, this surge was reminiscent not only of the Russian–British Great Game but primarily of the West’s 19th-century imperial surge into the Orient during which Imperial China was contained, humiliated and broken.

In late 1998, one of China’s leading experts on grand strategy at the Heart of Asia, argued that “China, which has quickly risen after the Cold War, and its great potential with regard to the energy resources in the Middle East and Central Asia, have inevitably become the object of attention in the West’s strategy.” Consequently, he explained, “the strategic consideration in the West’s modern diplomacy is to ensure its absolute monopoly and control over important regions of international energy resources (which naturally include the Middle East and Central Asia first and foremost). Therefore, to build an isolation belt, like Tibet, between the Middle East–Central Asia region and China complies with their strategic interests.” It was imperative for China to proactively forestall these designs.

Throughout, there was a palpable sense of imminent crisis and war among the key members of the Trans-Asian Axis. Starting in early 1999, several of these key players openly declared their expectations of a future war against their neighbours and strategic foes. China and Pakistan tested the West’s tolerance of the changing strategic posture by having Pakistan launch the Kargil war in northern Kashmir. Not only was the Pakistani decision an integral part of the PRC-inspired strategy, but the most senior officers of the Pakistani army led by Army Chief Musharraf went to Beijing for consultations on the eve of the Kargil war. The Washington-led pressure on New Delhi – the victim of invasion – to compromise lest the nuclear escalation Islamabad was threatening be put to the test convinced Beijing the assertive strategy was correct. This conviction was further reinforced in December 2001, when Washington once again coerced New Delhi into self-restraint following the ISI-sponsored attack on the Indian Parliament that came perilously close to assassinating the entire cabinet. Washington’s behaviour toward New Delhi confirmed Beijing’s overall perception of the evolving strategic posture in the Heart of Asia.

The turn of the 21st century saw a dramatic change in Beijing’s self-confidence regarding China’s assertive ascent as a continental and global Hegemon. The key driving force behind this grand strategy was General Chi Haotian, Chief of the General Staff in 1987–1992 and Minister of Defence in 1993–2003. In 2003–2004, at the peak of his power, he delivered a series of secret lectures to the High Command outlining the PRC’s grand strategy for a global surge. 

Chi’s main point was that there was a historic transformation of China’s global posture. He argued that “if we refer to the 19th century as the British Century, and the 20th century as the American Century, then the 21st century will be the Chinese Century . . . We must greet the arrival of the Chinese Century by raising high the banner of national revitalisation.” To become a global power, the PRC must reassert itself politically and militarily. There was an urgent imperative to surge and take control over the energy and mineral resources crucial to its economic development, as well as the worldwide transportation routes. Chi went as far as anticipating such global struggle could escalate to a fateful war against the United States that would involve the use of chemical and biological – but not nuclear – weapons against continental America. 

Chi argued that becoming a leading world power necessitated a profound shift in the PRC’s involvement in world affairs. “What is a world power? A nation employing hegemony is a world power! . . . All problems in China . . . in the end are all problems involving the fight for Chinese hegemony.” However, the war for the ascent of China as a global Hegemon need not be a conventional war. Rather, Chi envisaged China benefiting from the aggregate impact of seemingly unrelated “incidents” and “crises” worldwide with China getting involved only in the final decisive phases. Such multi-faceted war was inevitable and a precondition for the global historic ascent of China. “Marxism pointed out that violence is the midwife for the birth of the new society. Therefore war is the midwife for the birth of China’s century. As war approaches, I am full of hope for our next generation.” The key element of the post-Chi Chinese grand strategy was the conviction that the West had no staying power, strategic-military resolve, nor ability to withstand prolonged attrition. 

Meanwhile, since the mid 1990s, a dominant element of the Chinese contingency planning was a limited war with the US over Taiwan. At the beginning of the 21st century, China focused on both nuclear and nonnuclear contingency plans for such a war that would inevitably evolve into a Sino-US fateful war for the control of the Pacific Basin and East Asia. In autumn 2000, Beijing was resigned to the inevitable destruction of its main economic power base in south-east China in any future war. Hence, Beijing determined that the PRC would be able to prevail in any such war if China had in place the mechanism for economic resurrection. Ultimately, the outcome of the war with the US would be decided by the ability to withstand long-term attrition and tolerate mounting losses, which had always been China’s strongest points. These contingency plans would have a decisive impact on the PRC’s grand strategy toward the Heart of Asia. 

Beijing therefore resolved that in order to survive any future war China must embark on a crash building of a “behind the Urals” alternate national infrastructure in the remote western parts of the country. According to a late 2000 secret programme study, “the top leadership harboured a more in-depth strategic idea in making up their minds to engage in large-scale development of west China, namely, they want to break through US containment and build China into a country with strategic emphasis on its western regions.” Therefore, the PRC would have to “improve China’s economic structure and the environment of west China, and build ideal homes for 500 million people in these regions.” The study stressed that the imperative of the PRC’s “consideration for the westward switch of its strategic emphasis is to contend for the core of Asia. Xinjiang is the heart of the Asian continent. The Tibet and Qinghai plateaus are China’s ‘Golan Heights,’ without which China’s land territory will diminish 40 percent. Even without mentioning their abundant resources, their geographical locations alone are important enough for China to protect these two strategic heights with all-out efforts.” 

The study emphasised the grand ramifications of the strategic shift. “After China completes the westward switch of its strategic emphasis, the impact will expand to the Black Sea in the west and the Indian Ocean in the south. These are exactly the strategic hinterlands of Russia and India,” the study pointed out. “It can be predicted that the large-scale development of west China will have a far-reaching impact on the entire region. China’s relations with its two strong neighbours – India and Russia – will become very tense and unstable.” The study stressed that, given the ambitious ramifications of this strategic evolution for both India and Russia, a face-off with both countries was all but inevitable. “Unquestionably, geographically speaking, China’s western regions average 3,000 to 4,000 metres above sea level, overlooking the northwest Asian plateau and the Indian Peninsula, both of which [are] the backyards of Russia and India . . . For India and Russia, this is very terrible. By then, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, which rely heavily on Russia, as well as India’s neighbours Bangladesh and Burma, might possibly incline toward China. Thus, China’s build-up in its western regions will be like a serious disease in the vital organs of India and Russia.” 

For China, the study argued, the main “advantage of switching the strategic emphasis to western regions is to gain the initiative in contending with the United States. Dealing with the United States in new regions can help China get away from US containment and make the US encirclement line longer.” Ultimately, conducting the westward surge “will enable China to break through the US encirclement line. In Chinese history, dynasties that successfully exercised control over Xinjiang and other western regions flourished and prospered, and dynasties that lost these regions finally met their doom. This is the strategic value of developing China’s western regions. This is also the more in-depth reason why the central authorities are using so huge resources to build ‘another China’ in western regions, whereas other political and economic objectives only serve as a foil.” 

The decision to focus westward was not an easy one. Back in summer 2000, Beijing seriously considered the vast and resource-rich Xinjiang the emerging major theatre in the PRC’s struggle against the US-led West. Beijing feared most the possible launch of US-led military operations against the PRC in Xinjiang under conditions short of a formal war. Beijing’s primary concern was a US-led NATO “Kosovo-type” onslaught aimed to empower Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and tear it away from China. Senior Chinese officials justified the PRC’s mounting crackdown of the Uighurs in Xinjiang as a strategic imperative because “a nationalist separatist movement in Xinjiang could raise the spectre of an intervention by the United States like that in Kosovo, where NATO forces came to the aid of a persecuted Muslim minority.” 

Therefore, the PLA embarked on a major build-up optimised to pre-empting US preparations by striking deep into Central Asia. In summer 2000, the Xinjiang Military District tested the new capabilities in a protracted war-like divisional exercise in the plateaus on the Kalakunlun Shan at an average altitude of over 5,000 metres. PLA columns penetrated thousands of kilometres into enemy territory and attacked the main dispositions. “The training opened a new page in the history of training of our armed forces,” claimed senior officers. The PLA analysts emphasised the final deep-penetration surge. “In order to increase the capability to win a modern local war on plateaus, a certain armoured regiment moved forward over 500 km in separate companies and reached the Kalakunlun Shan. For the first time, the armoured troops went collectively up the mountain and showed their might there.” 

Special attention was paid to ambushes against enemy helicopters and aircraft. The exercise ended with the PLA striking an enemy intervention force preparing to attack China. “When the fighting entered the decisive stage, our armoured troops, which had driven through snowy mountains, icy paths, marshland, and obstacles, suddenly pounced on the ‘enemy troops’, which were para-dropped.” Analysing this phase of the exercise, the PLA analysts emphasised that “the participation in organic units of the armoured troops in the training for the troops to adapt themselves to conditions of plateaus will increase the mobility of operations on plateaus in future, quicken the rhythm of war, and intensify the fierceness of war.” 

The Chinese apprehension markedly intensified in the first decade of the 21st century. While Beijing could understand the US and allied incursion into Afghanistan in October 2001, the enduring presence of US and NATO forces after spring 2002 – ostensibly in order to sustain a pro-Western government in Kabul – rekindled all the strategic fears of encirclement that existed during the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. This time, however, the US and NATO presence constituted a direct and palpable threat to the PRC’s ability to wage and endure a major war with the US over the fate of the Pacific Basin and East Asia. Moreover, Beijing is convinced that, Washington’s rhetorical commitment to Kabul notwithstanding, the sole purpose of the US and NATO presence in Afghanistan is to forestall the ascent of China as a global power. 

In the mid 2000s, as the Bush administration kept stressing the United States’ right to unilaterally going to war, Beijing became increasingly apprehensive about the consequences of the escalating US face-off with China. Beijing worried anew about the possibility of a crisis over the growing Chinese assertiveness and ascent, particularly in relation to Taiwan or the Heart of Asia, escalating into US bombing campaigns against south-east China. Beijing was also convinced that Washington was cognisant of the growing importance of the “behind the Urals” in Xinjiang to China’s ability to prevail in such a war. Hence, given the immense strategic value of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the PRC’s intelligence community were incredulous that the US would just walk away from such a crucial region once “the al Qaeda threat” has been removed. 

In the late 2000s, the PRC committed to a still-unfolding strategic surge at the Heart of Asia in a quest for both grand-strategic posture as well as privileged access to the hydrocarbon reserves and their transporting routes to China. The sense of urgency was motivated by Beijing’s grim realisation that in 2007 China became a net importer of hydrocarbons after almost two decades of self-sufficiency. Energy security thus becomes an issue of paramount significance. Beijing is now focused on two distinct hydrocarbons supply routes, each with its own strategic requirements. The first is by sea to the economic hub in south-eastern China, and the second on land to Xinjiang. 

In December 2009, Beijing consolidated its first strategic victory in the new energy struggle. Chairman Hu Jintao embarked on a triumphant trip in energy-rich Central Asia. In Ashgabat, he chaired an energy summit with the leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. As part of the summit, the four presidents inaugurated a new 1,200-milelong pipeline connecting the Turkmen gas fields with China’s Xinjiang. Construction of the pipeline was completed largely on schedule towards the end of 2012, although according to the April/May 2013 progress report the pipeline was still being tested with small quantities of low-pressure gas. In his speech, Hu stressed that the opening of these pipelines constituted the beginning of a “long-term comprehensive strategic relationship” between the PRC and the states of Central Asia. 

Meanwhile, the evolution of the Chinese economy and patterns of industrialisation necessitates the expediting of the shipment of Central Asia’s hydrocarbons via the Indian Ocean in order to reach quickly the industrial zones of south-east China. Strategically, this requires the PRC to control the same pipeline routes southward via Afghanistan and Pakistan that it was accusing the US of conspiring to obtain back in the 1990s. Hence, Beijing’s first priority is to restore stability in Pakistan – “our Israel”, in the words of a very senior Chinese official – while diminishing US influence. The PRC supports and encourages the restoration of the traditional army–Islamist alliance in Islamabad. The PRC also wants to reduce the level of violence in Afghanistan in order to expedite the withdrawal of the US–NATO forces. Having sponsored a negotiated agreement with the Taliban, Pakistan will then emerge as the dominant power in Afghanistan, and the PRC would be able to build the pipelines from Central Asia to Gwadar on Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast. The PRC considers the construction of pipelines from the Persian Gulf to Shah-Bahar and Gwadar as the optimal long-term solution to violating the Western sanctions on Iranian energy exports. 

In order to implement the massive build-up of the alternate strategic-industrial infrastructure, as well as to sustain operations at times of war and post-war resurrection, Beijing committed to independent energy supplies for the “behind the Urals” endeavour. Hence, the quintessence of Beijing’s assertive strategy throughout the Heart of Asia now dominates the region’s energy resources, while preventing all real and potential foes from either having access to the energy reserves or the ability to threaten China’s access. Through the Trans-Asian Axis, Beijing dominates the energy resources of the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Far East, as well as controlling the on-land energy supplies to East Asia through the Pan-Asia Continental Oil Bridge. Meanwhile, the Chinese naval build-up and surge is poised for entry into the oil-rich South China Sea and, via Burma, for control of the Strait of Malacca, the main commercial sea lane to East Asia for both oil and exported goods. Beijing is convinced, and not without reason, that the dominance over the flow of energy into East Asia could be transformed into regional hegemony. 

Cognisant that its surge westward was profoundly altering the geostrategic and geo-economic posture in Central Asia, China resolved to undermine the inherently pro-Russia political order in Central Asia by using the spread of Pakistan-sponsored jihadism and narco-criminality from Afghanistan and Pakistan as its primary instrument. With Russia on the defensive, there grew the local need for Chinese economic and political support and, consequently, consent to the diversion of hydrocarbons away from the West. 

Concurrently, China intensified its surge through the Indian Ocean by exploiting the international effort to fight the pirates off the Horn of Africa. Significantly, once completed, this Chinese surge westwards will link up with the growing Chinese strategic-economic presence in West and Central Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, Chinese intelligence is using Iran’s jihadist proxies, particularly within the Hizballah-affiliated Lebanese-Shi’ite community, for a myriad of covert operations. The Chinese objective is to consolidate strategic hegemony in order to dominate their access to and control over the regions’ vast hydrocarbon and mineral resources, as well as their safe transport to China via East Africa and the Indian Ocean sea lanes of communication.

 This global pincer surge westwards comes on top of intensifying Chinese efforts to strategically encircle and stifle India, as well as undermine its stability through Pakistan- and Chinese-sponsored terrorism and subversion. The transformation of Pakistan into the regional power – a strategic development that necessitates control over the bulk of Afghanistan territory – is the most important facet of implementing Chinese ascent in the Heart of Asia. 

In looking for the challenges ahead, Beijing and its allies consider the Georgia crisis in summer 2008 a milestone event because it exposed both the strategic weakness and inaction of Washington – the driving force behind Tbilisi’s reckless gambit – and the decisive assertiveness of Moscow that reacted and acted as a superpower. In addition, Beijing remained most furious at Washington for exploiting China’s time of glory, the Beijing Olympic Games, as a strategic diversion for the US anti-Russian provocation. 

Consequently, Beijing is convinced that there emerged for China a narrow window of historic opportunities between two milestones. The first milestone is the continued US self-debilitation, now aggravated by the economic crisis in which the US is economically beholden to China and thus reluctant to act decisively. The second milestone is the evolving ascent of the European Union–Russian Federation (EU–RF) bloc. Since the EU–RF “common Eurasian house” strategic posture would not go away, it became imperative for Beijing to cajole and coerce Washington to abandon its war efforts by proving them to be unwinnable and futile, while facilitating an acceptable and honourable exit. Iran has already done so for the Iraq war, and Pakistan is near completion for the war in Afghanistan. 

In January 2010, Beijing crossed a major doctrinal threshold, and formally adopted the right to establish overseas military bases and conduct offensive military operations into enemy territory. “Setting up overseas military bases is not an idea we have to shun; on the contrary, it is our right. It is baseless to say that we will not set up any military bases in future because we have never sent troops abroad. As for the military aspect, we should be able to conduct a retaliatory attack within the country or at the neighbouring area of our potential enemies. We should also be able to put pressure on the overseas interests of potential enemies. With further development, China will be in great demand of military protection,” the foreign policy statement read. Chinese officials identified Pakistan as the first site for such bases, enabling China “to exert pressure on India as well as counter American influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” 

The PRC immediately intensified the construction of a host of military installations and strategic infrastructure throughout Pakistan. In summer 2010, China deployed 7,000–11,000 PLA troops to the Gilgit-Baltistan region (the Federally Administered Northern Areas or FANA) and effectively took control of the area. They expanded the transportation infrastructure in order to attain road and rail access to the Persian Gulf through Pakistan. The PLA is also constructing a gas pipeline from Iran to China that will cross the Karakoram through Gilgit. Part of the project is 22 tunnels in secret locations, from which the Pakistanis are barred, and which might be used for missile storage sites. In early 2012, China had already spent $400 million on the modernisation and paving of the 800-mile-long Karakoram Highway from Kashgar to Islamabad. 

In spring 2011, Pakistan formally asked China to build a naval base for Pakistan in Gwadar and maintain a regular People’s Liberation Army presence there in dedicated facilities optimised for PLA vessels. The base would come on top of the vast energy and commercial port facilities already run by the Chinese. Beijing acceded to Islamabad’s request to take over all operations at Gwadar port. In autumn 2011, Beijing expressed interest in military bases in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and in the FANA on the border with Xinjiang. China wishes to have a significant military presence in Pakistan. The formal excuse for the Chinese presence is fighting the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM)/Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) Uighur jihadist networks that strike into Xinjiang from camps in Pakistan. However, the size of bases and forces suggest interest in surge-capacity mainly into Afghanistan in order to defend the Chinese development projects. Indeed, Beijing has already committed some $3–5 billion to a myriad of infrastructure and economic development projects in Afghanistan, starting after the completion of the withdrawal of the US–NATO forces. 

The Chinese are mainly interested in Afghanistan’s strategic transportation infrastructure and the ability to build oil and gas pipelines between Central Asia and Pakistan. Practically, the ISI can restore control over these routes quite quickly and effectively. That will be achieved by the ISI’s reaching out and openly associating with their allies and protégés – that is, the tribal and jihadist forces now spearheading the war against the US–NATO forces – as well as ceasing the war against the tribal and jihadist forces inside Pakistan. Such an initiative will significantly reduce the level of anti-US and anti-NATO violence in Afghanistan, but will also seal the fate of the Karzai regime as an ostensibly pro-US entity. It has always been Islamabad’s strategic position that such deals and cooperation are preferable to the perpetual unwinnable fighting to which the US is coercing the region. Now, Chinese patronage, motivated by geo-strategic and geo-economic considerations, provides the Pakistanis with the formal excuse and political protection to change their policy drastically. 

All the while, China and its allies – mainly Iran and Pakistan – have intensified their own strategic surges in pursuit of both their own regional self-interests and furthering the Chinese global grand-strategic plan. The deployment of Chinese and Iranian fighters in autumn 2010 to a joint exercise in Turkey – where they substituted for the disinvited US, Israeli and NATO air forces – epitomises the profound transformation of the regional strategic-military posture. No less important was the spring 2010 official visit of two PLA Navy vessels to the Persian Gulf, for the first time since c. 1400. 

Meanwhile, the Chinese demand for oil increased at a record pace in 2010, jumping by 7.1 percent compared to the same period in 2009. In late 2010, oil imports accounted for 55 percent of available supplies for the economic-industrial market. There was also an increased demand for natural gas. By late 2010, imports soared to approximately 15.3 billion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas – a 30 percent increase relative to the same period in 2009. Significantly, the underlying cause of this increased demand is sustained economic growth. This increase also means increased reliance on oil and gas imports, making the security of oil and gas supplies an issue of paramount importance for Beijing. 

Moreover, forecasts prepared for the US Defence Department in late 2010 predict that China will import almost two-thirds of its oil by 2015 and four-fifths by 2030. The change in LNG consumption will be even more dramatic. In late 2010, oil met nearly 20 percent of the total energy consumption, while gas accounted for 3 percent. According to Chinese projections, gas will constitute 10 percent of their energy use by 2020. And while China is expanding drilling in the South China Sea, there is no substitute for growing volumes of imports and strategic storage of hydrocarbons. 

Furthermore, in late 2010 Beijing committed to the accelerated construction of the second phase of its strategic petroleum reserve, a key element of the “behind the Urals” alternate national infrastructure. When completed in late 2011, the national reserve was holding around 45 million tons of crude oil. The first phase of the strategic petroleum reserve was completed in 2009, holding some additional 26 million barrels. Beijing stressed that this storage of oil “aims to ensure the availability of supplies during extraordinary circumstances”, that is, the possible future war with the US in which the economic-industrial basin in south-east China will be destroyed. 

In autumn 2011, the spectre of such a war rose tremendously when President Obama announced that US national security would “pivot” toward Asia. Secretary of Defence Panetta described the US shift toward the Pacific as a “rebalancing” of forces in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the Pentagon insisted that the battle concept was not solely directed at China, Washington made no secret that the Chinese military build-up and strategic ascent were considered the primary threats to US interests. 

Yun Sun, a well-connected Chinese scholar visiting Washington, warned that Beijing considers the Obama “pivot” as “an effort to confront and contain China” that will undermine overall Sino-US cooperation. “China is increasingly anxious and concerned about US strategic intentions toward China and the China-related utility of its military alliances in East Asia . . . The announcement of the US pivot to Asia has intensified these suspicions and concerns.” The United States’ “perceived meddling in South China Sea disputes and its increasing deployments in the Asia Pacific are seen as specific steps to counter China’s rise.” 

In December 2011, the PLA High Command concluded that over time the new US doctrine would inevitably lead to a Sino-US war. Rear Admiral Yang Yi noted that Air-Sea Battle was “a US plot to seize the strategic initiative for a future military competition by building advanced weapons such as unmanned aircraft, electronic warfare missiles, cyber warfare weapons, and directed energy arms.” Yi warned that the pivot’s main threat is in drastically changing the global posture and correlation of forces. “More ominously, the US uses the Air-Sea Battle combat theory to re-establish a military alliance that is reminiscent of the Cold War.” 

That month, Major General Peng Guangqian, a prominent PLA strategist with a large following amongst the political elite, delivered a secret lecture to senior officers. Peng warned that official Beijing was failing to see the impending crisis and war with the US. “The United States has been exhausting all its resources to establish a strategic containment system specifically targeting China,” Peng explained. “The contradictions between China and the United States are structural, not to be changed by any individual, whether it is G.H.W. Bush, G.W. Bush or Barack Obama, it will not make a difference to these contradictions.” US strategy amounts to an all-out endeavour to encircle China. “Some people keep saying that we have friends all over the world. But I have used a magnifying glass trying to find some friendly countries on a world map. And I kept looking and looking, but failed to find any except a containment circle around us longer than the Great Wall of China!” Peng accused Chinese politicians of believing their own propaganda when formulating Beijing’s policy. “The reason why China does not have an especially strong sense of crisis is that we chant ‘peace and harmony’ everywhere in the world, which was originally intended for the world to hear, but such chanting has left us kidding ourselves and paralysed. Now no one is willing to think about war.” However, Peng stressed, the PLA is convinced that “war with the United States [is] imminent.” 

The real Afghanistan question looms in this context. 

The US and allies entered Afghanistan in October 2001 in pursuit of jihadist networks. After the shock of 9/11, the entire world, including China and Pakistan, was giving America the benefit of the doubt. However, the elimination of the jihadists in Afghanistan was largely accomplished by early spring 2002, with the majority receiving shelter in Pakistan. Rather than demand that Pakistan permit the US to destroy these jihadists, Washington focused instead on “building democracy” in Afghanistan. For China, this meant that the United States and NATO had strategic anti-China aspirations, including cajoling Pakistan out of the Chinese embrace. As Chinese grand strategy evolved, the US and NATO remained committed to pacifying and building Afghanistan, and their relations with Central Asia states really focused on supporting the Afghan mission. But the Chinese never believed this, and in any case Beijing would not risk taking their word on such crucial issues. And so, the Pakistanis had the US and NATO sink deeper and deeper into the Afghan quagmire so that they could not address the real strategic challenge – the ascent of China the Hegemon and its key allies, starting with Pakistan. 

Chinese grand strategy is characterised by historic long-term and broad vistas. Implementation is characterised by minuscule yet irreversible steps. The West often misses the nuanced manoeuvres and undertakings until it is too late. In these dynamics, Pakistan is China’s instrument of choice and closest ally. Facilitating and assisting Pakistan’s ascent and consolidation of control over much of Afghanistan not only strengthens Pakistan, but also improves China’s own energy supplies while securing access to the energy resources in Central Asia and Iran. In this context, the US–NATO presence in the region is a major irritant that has to be defeated and banished. And so the Chinese have been bolstering their presence in South Asia, in the process empowering Pakistan to take over Afghanistan. 

Alas, just when US–NATO presence in Afghanistan and the Heart of Asia becomes crucial given the grand strategic significance of China the Hegemon, the US–NATO forces are vacating because their governments gave up on winning skirmishes against the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban. 


On 22 September 2012 China made the first major step toward consolidating its hold over post-intervention Afghanistan. Zhou Yongkang, the ninth-ranking member of the Politburo and China’s security boss, made a surprise four-hour visit to Kabul. The visit “is in line with the fundamental interests of the two nations for China and Afghanistan to strengthen a strategic and cooperative partnership which is also conducive to regional peace, stability and development,” Zhou explained. He added that Beijing “fully respects the right of the Afghan people to choose their own path of development and will actively participate in Afghanistan’s reconstruction” after the withdrawal of US and NATO forces. Zhou signed several security and economic agreements with Karzai. Most important is the security agreement that aims to “protect the security of China’s own projects” in Afghanistan. China also signed agreements to help “train, fund and equip Afghan police” as well as develop Afghanistan natural resources. Significantly, Zhou stopped in Kabul on his way to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, where he signed long-term deals for the supply of natural gas, some of which is likely to be transported by pipeline across Afghanistan to the Chinese-controlled Pakistani port of Gwadar. “Zhou’s visit shows China is seriously planning its Afghan strategy for the days after 2014,” Wang Lian, a professor with the School of International Studies at the Peking University in Beijing, told Bloomberg News. “Almost every great power in history, when they were rising, was deeply involved in Afghanistan, and China will not be an exception.” 

Official Beijing emphasised the importance of Zhou’s visit to Kabul. Chinese officials noted that “the last visit [to Kabul by a senior Chinese official] was made by late Chinese leader Liu Shaoqi in 1966 when he was the President of China.” Official Beijing stressed the long-term character of China’s policy. “It is generally agreed that the deterioration of the Afghan domestic situation will benefit nobody; for China, the stability of its north western bordering regions will be directly influenced and overseas Chinese in the region will face greater security problems. Historically, Afghanistan has been a nightmare for many big powers. As a neighbour of Afghanistan, China has a keen interest in the security of this region. How to help Afghanistan walk out of the shadow of long-term wartime chaos poses a big challenge to China’s diplomacy.” The Chinese officials stressed that as a result of Zhou’s visit, “China has a good opportunity to boost its global image and fulfil its international obligations. While many Western strategists stick to their mentality of dominating world politics, China is making pragmatic moves to safeguard the interests of not only itself but also the whole region.” 


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