Why is the Pentagon Focusing on China?

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In early January 2018, Secretary of Defense James Mattis introduced a new National Defense Strategy that cited China and Russia as the most significant threats to international security.

As an extension of an earlier Pentagon report accusing China of military expansionism in Djibouti and Pakistan, the NSS condemns China’s infringing upon the South China Sea. To this end, China is accused of “predatory economics and propaganda.” The Pentagon claims that China is trying to export its “authoritarian” model to other nations.

The accusation is mostly unsatisfactory given that China has always been involved in territorial disputes and nothing of note has happened recently. These accusations do not directly align with possible strategies that China may use in the South China Sea. As such, this article will try to explain the Pentagon’s stern position against China.

The Pentagon describes China as a strategic competitor who is attempting to secure Indo-Pacific regional hegemony, but offers no contextual proof to explain why. Instead, it describes an “increasingly complex security environment” that is defined by the “challenges from adversaries in every operating domain” and the “impact on current readiness from the longest stretch of armed conflict in our Nation’s history.” This is a clear allusion to the War in Afghanistan, where the NSS implores the US to “consolidate” its gains. With inter-state strategic competition being the focus of national security, it is clear that China is playing a role in the war.

China’s presence in Afghanistan grew as it became more concerned with counter-terrorism in 2017. Classically, China used to maintain the security of Western provinces like Xinjiang domestically, but Beijing has found recourse in bettering its relationship with countries in the Central Asian region to better ensure the fact. In late December 2017, Vice Chairman of Central Military Commission Xu Qiliang held a meeting with Afghan Minister of Defense Tariq Shah Bahrami, where there was unanimous agreement to construct a base in Badakhshan, Northern Afghanistan, a province that shares a 91 kilometer border with China. Both countries agreed that they should capitalize on “good momentum” to reconstruct Afghanistan and further peace development. The impetus to establish a military presence was due to the increased Taliban interest in Northern Afghanistan, specifically around Kunduz. The Taliban also exert some influence in Xinjiang. The East Turkistan Nationalist Movement, a Uyghur nationalist movement, influenced somewhat by the Taliban, could be a source of instability in Xinjiang.

China’s renewed relationship with Afghanistan undermines the United States’ position as the Central Asian country’s dominant ally.

Further attempts to undermine U.S. influence are exemplified by the fact that, in late 2017, Beijing hosted the first trilateral meeting with Khawaja Asif, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan, and Salahuddin Rabbani, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan. This meeting was planned by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who urged that peace on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border ensures regional stability. To this end, China may entice countries by attracting them with economic incentives. The “predatory economics” accusation is particularly applicable in this context.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced, also in December 2017, that China is willing to incorporate Afghanistan into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor on the condition that all three countries enjoy “mutual benefits.” Kabul would largely benefit from the CPEC partnership, but it will have to improve its relationship with Pakistan after ties deteriorated in mid 2017 and possibly even obtain U.S. approval.

The Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship is sensitive in part because the United States’ influences how they interact. If the US legitimizes the claim that Taliban links to Pakistan are conspiring to overthrow the Afghan government, then Kabul feels justified in accusing Islamabad of the same.

When President Trump maintained that Pakistan’s military aid will continue to be delayed, he  again accused Pakistan of hiding terrorists in his first tweet of 2018 (he did so in August 2017 too). Kabul has since accused Islamabad of supporting the Haqqani and Taliban cells, tensing relations. The U.S. has gone so far as to blacklist prominent figures in Afghan politics. While President Trump may be seen as “good” for Afghanistan in that his harsher stance acknowledges the claim that Islamabad has supported terrorists, a rebuke that Kabul is quick to reiterate, his rhetoric is still divisive and compromises security in Central and South Asian countries by virtue of the fact that it encourages conflict.

The United States’ criticism of a longstanding security partner has necessitated change in respective relationships and commitments thereof. Its decision to retract aid causes influence to wane in turn. In the wake of a year of incendiary remarks and threats, a strategic vacuum opens and must be filled.

China is now playing an influential role in the development of Afghanistan and Pakistan.Even though Pakistan has expressed that its relations with the U.S. are repairable, the central bank of Pakistan announced that it would replace the dollar with the yuan to ease bilateral trade with China. Pakistan has also developed an unwillingness to follow U.S. incentive. Current U.S. efforts, such as drone strikes targeting Haqqani terrorists, are being condemned by Pakistani officials as a violation of the country’s sovereignty.

China, of course, has not determined itself as a dominant ally of Pakistan and Afghanistan. But it has had an observable effect on alliances that have served as the bedrock of the War on Terror. This effect is the reason why the Pentagon shifted its focus from stateless terrorist organizations to perceived hegemonic contenders like China.

The NSS has caused fallout on both sides. China’s Defense Ministry has been dismissing reports that it is building a base, maintaining that it conducted “normal” security cooperations with Afghanistan in a way that makes Beijing pursuant to security incentives previously determined by the status quo. The purpose, ultimately, is to prevent its conciliatory approach from being interpreted as confrontational. The Pentagon’s focus on China and not ISIS has made allies question the United States’ commitment to existing security efforts. This has caused China to gain influence as Indo-Pacific countries aim to strengthen regional ties, but most are suspicious of China’s aggressiveness and whether security will come at a cost.

In defining security according to strategic competition and regional influence, the Department of Defense has adopted the cynicism of the Cold war, where the threat of military confrontation is the deterrent for transgression. The problem is, however, that this strategy may create a more fractured environment and nothing like the clear, bipolar division that historically defines the era.

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