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Eric C. Anderson Headshot

Demand China Commit Military Forces to the War in Afghanistan

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Establishing a stable regime in Afghanistan is a global imperative. However, responsibility for accomplishing this feat does not solely rest on Washington or Europe's shoulders. In addition to committing additional Western troops and treasure, Washington and the European Union need to insist China join the fray--with boots on the ground and a significant financial contribution. Beijing has spent the last ten years trying to sell China as a responsible member of the international community, now is the time to prove she is indeed ready to completely assume the duties associated with that title.

I can already see the Sinophiles reaching for their keyboards. Yes, I realize Beijing is a major contributor to United Nation's peace keeping operations. As the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute observed in February 2009, "China [is] the fourteenth largest contributor to UN peacekeeping operations, providing more troops, police and observers to UN operations than three other permanent members of the UN Security Council: Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States." Furthermore, Beijing has demonstrated a willingness to participate in international law enforcement by dispatching warships to help deter piracy off the Horn of Africa.

These developments come as no surprise to long-time China watchers. In December 2004, Chinese President Hu Jintao announced a new set of strategic guidelines for the People's Liberation Army (PLA) that included safeguarding China's expanding national interests and helping ensure world peace. While I have been accused of being a "Panda Hugger," I am not delusional. Hu's new military strategic guidelines--the "Historic Missions"--are hardly altruistic; rather they are one more element of Beijing's effort to sustain China's economic development. And the PLA leadership is quite aware of the exponential mission creep associated with Hu's directives.

How do we know this? In Beijing's most recent white paper on military modernization, "China's National Defense in 2008," the PLA is specifically tasked with "counter-terrorism, stability maintenance, emergency rescue and international peacekeeping." The document goes on to argue, "Military operations other than war [are] an important form of applying national military forces," and then contends the PLA must "make and execute plans for the development of military operations other than war capabilities." Anyone familiar with U.S. military doctrine will immediately note the marked similarity between this guidance and documents in current circulation throughout the Pentagon. For those of you lucky enough to have escaped endless lectures on U.S. military doctrine suffice it to say the PLA is being asked to develop capabilities our forces routinely employ in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A close reading of Chinese military press reports reveals the PLA is busily training to meet these objectives. Over the last year, Jiefangjun Bao--the official newspaper of the PLA General Political Department--has published a number of stories that indicate the Chinese military is striving to realize Hu's Historic Missions. More specifically, the PLA has been ordered to focus on developing skill sets required for expanding its geographic range, conducting counter-terrorism missions, and participating in bi- and multilateral partnerships.

Washington--nay, the rest of the world--should now call on Beijing to begin employing this capability in Afghanistan. And not just in paltry offers to train Afghanis in mine-clearing or police work. Beijing's existing "contribution" to the campaign in Afghanistan is simply unacceptable. What I am proposing is a wholesale commitment of combat forces, somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000 uniformed personnel. Beijing can certainly afford this expenditure of manpower and national treasure. The PLA has 1.7 million uniformed troops, and China is expected to close 2009 with a 9% increase in her gross domestic product....to say nothing of Beijing's $2.3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. Oh, and the Chinese leadership can "sell" the deployment as a defense of future economic development--in 2007 China Metallurgical Group won the rights to develop a massive copper field in Afghanistan for $3.5 billion, and China's energy interests are also likely to pursue access to Afghanistan's oil, gas, and iron resources.

Yes, yes, I am quite aware of the outcry such a move will elicit from American Sinophobes. I suspect Admiral Willard--the commander of U.S. forces in Asia--will be leading the charge. Why? Admiral Willard is apparently convinced Beijing is up to no good...and must be watched like a hawk. In October 2009, the Admiral told reporters, "In the past decade or so, China has exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability and capacity, every year. They've grown at an unprecedented rate in those capabilities. And, they've developed some asymmetric capabilities that are concerning to the region, some anti-access capabilities and so on." Now I understand the Admiral is charged with defending our national interests and thus should be prone to worry, but I also hope the White House is more pragmatic about how we should deal with Beijing.

Keeping that thought in mind, let's consider what 20,000 Chinese troops in Afghanistan will do for international efforts to stabilize the region. First, the Chinese military presence would help diminish the need for additional American troops by providing the military presence General McChrystal has declared essential for success in Afghanistan. Second, the PLA deployment might help secure greater cooperation from Pakistan. Islamabad's assistance in the Afghan campaign is absolutely essential when it comes to establishing a stable regime in Kabul. While Pakistan is nominal a U.S. ally, the Pakistani military and Islamabad's intelligence service are suspected of illicitly aiding the Taliban. China's relationship with Pakistan--a pivotal component of Beijing's efforts to contain New Delhi--might help bring an end to this counterproductive behavior. In fact, I would bet 20,000 PLA troops in harm's way might actually convince Beijing that it is time to knock heads together in Islamabad.

What else will 20,000 PLA troops in Afghanistan do for us? Well, it will put an end to Beijing's "free ride" in the war on terrorism. Trust me, China's leadership is well aware of the fact it has been reaping the benefits of our efforts in Afghanistan. Consider for a moment the comments a Chinese scholar made to the China Daily on 3 December 2009. Speaking with a reporter, Qi Huaigao, a professor at Shanghai's esteemed Fudan University, observed an increased U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan would help Beijing combat domestic terrorist groups, diminish drug smuggling, and "forge a safer environment along [China's] western border." My bet is 20,000 Chinese troops could accomplish the same mission at a far lower cost to the U.S. taxpayer.

Finally, a significant Chinese military deployment to Afghanistan will help foster closer ties between Beijing and Washington. The military-to-military relationships that would naturally emerge from such a commitment of forces will undoubtedly enhance Admiral Willard's communication with his counterparts...and could thereby serve to diminish the potential for conflict between the United States and China. The political relations resulting from such a commitment of Chinese forces are also not to be lightly dismissed. Washington needs to hone its relationship with Beijing. This is true on the diplomatic and economic fronts. (And just think of the potential domestic political benefits. The Obama administration could credibly argue China's commitment of forces helped preserve American blood and treasure--even the most ardent conservative should see value in such a development.)

If China's leadership is serious about assuming the mantel of a responsible international actor they must be willing to pay the associated cost. This cost comes in many forms--diplomatic, economic, and military might. The international community should now insist Beijing comes realize this expense by deploying elements of the PLA to Afghanistan and contributing to the financial burden associated with accomplishing an essential mission--political stability in the cross-roads of Asia.