What is the Wakhan Corridor and why is China worried about it?
- China has always been wary of narrow, isolated strip of Afghan land high in the mountains becoming a conduit for Uygur militancy in Xinjiang
- The Taliban’s coming to power in Afghanistan has compounded China’s worries of a spillover, given the militant Islamic group’s ties with the ETIM
Where is the Afghan-China border?
The passage, a transnational trade route for centuries under the ancient Silk Road, was used as a buffer in the late 19th century between the eastern end of the Russian empire (present-day Tajikistan) and the western reaches of the British Empire (present-day Pakistan).
That leaves the isolated Afghan strip bound on three sides by China, Tajikistan and Pakistan.
What is it like?
The Wakhan region is known for being inaccessible for most of the year due to its high altitude, extreme weather and lack of roads. It is located in the remote Afghan province of Badakhshan, where three of the world’s major mountain ranges – the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram and the Pamirs – meet to form what is known as the Pamir Knot.
The only access point at the border is at the southeastern end of the corridor, known as the Wakhjir Pass, which sits at nearly 5,000 metres (16,400 feet) above sea level. There is no road on the Afghan side of the pass.
The rest of the border is an inhospitable mountain range.
What does the Wakhan Corridor mean for China?
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At the time, the Taliban already had most of Badakhshan under its control, though it had yet to take over Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Chinese activities near Wakhan
Sources close to the Chinese military told the South China Morning Post in 2018 that China had funded and started building a training camp for Afghan troops in the Wakhan Corridor.
The Chinese embassy in Afghanistan told the Post that “there will be no Chinese military personnel of any kind on Afghan soil at any time”. But China’s defence ministry has said Beijing provided aid and support to its neighbour as part of security cooperation efforts, including counterterrorism operations.
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China announced US$70 million in military aid to Afghanistan in March 2016.
In addition to supporting military capacity in Afghanistan, China is also reported to have built military outposts in Tajikistan near its border with Afghanistan. Beijing denies this.
There have been plans to develop more passes near Wakhan in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project under the belt and road banner, to connect Pakistan to Central Asia.
Ultimately, the aim is for the CPEC to have infrastructure connecting the landlocked central Asian countries all the way to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, on the Arabian Sea.