RHODE ISLAND: In January, rumours swirled around policy and security circles that China intended to build a military base in the Little Pamirs, a remote mountainous section of the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan that forms a narrow wedge bordering China, Tajikistan, and Pakistan.
A journey to the Little Pamirs takes six days on horseback; vehicles can get a little closer to the area via a small bridge on the Tajik side of the border.
Chinese officials denied that they are building a base, but on the ground, and in back channel chats, many asserted that not only was this the plan but it had already been in the works since 2016. Some said Chinese troops had been stationed in the region for over a year already.
In recent weeks, this chatter once again has risen to the fore, with Chinese officials continuing to deny that Chinese troops will be stationed in Afghanistan, while the Chinese press reports that a battalion will be stationed in the Little Pamirs on a costly new base that is part of Beijing’s broader strategy to fight terrorism in the region.
In reality, Chinese military and security involvement is not new in the area. Aside from the alleged troops in the region in 2016, during a little-known conflict near the Wakhan Corridor along the Afghan border in Khorog, Tajikistan in 2014, Chinese weapons, which had been sold to the Tajik security forces were used in the killing of two local leaders.
During this conflict, all the foreign workers were evacuated, except for me and a few Chinese tourists.
In addition to the conflict in 2014, there are rumours in the press of Tajik state troops returning to Khorog in the coming weeks, including with Chinese and Russian security assistance.
China’s interest in the area extends beyond weapons sales, even offering free university education to children of elite families living along the Wakhan Corridor starting from 2016.
The question is, why this area? What is its strategic importance? How did it come to border so many countries in this remote outpost?
STRATEGIC LOCATION RICH IN MINERAL WEALTH
The people of the Wakhan Corridor live in some of the highest mountains in the world that form steep slopes cut by the Panj River. Local inhabitants speak a number of dialects of the Wakhi language, which is separate and distinct from 11 other Eastern Pamiri languages.
Linking Central Asia to China’s Xin Xiang Province, the region has a rich cultural history, marked by the religious fingerprints of Zoroastrianism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.
Ruins of the legendary Silk Road sprinkle through the Wakhan, as do stories of renowned travellers said to have passed through the rugged terrain, from Marco Polo to Alexander the Great, though the latter more likely ended his exploration of the region in Balkh, Afghanistan.
During the Great Game era of the 19th century, before it was split across several countries, the Wakhan Corridor functioned as an independent buffer zone between the Russian and British empires, with self-governed statelets that spanned the River Panj.
In 1893, as regional rivalries intensified, the great powers divided the territory at the river, separating families that had lived as unified communities for centuries.
For several decades, the people along the river continued to cross the border freely until the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (as a part of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic) was formed under the Soviet Union in 1924, making the split permanent.
The Tajik SSR officially separated from the Uzbek SSR in 1929. After World War II, as Cold War tensions rose, the border hardened, and people crossing without authorisation risked being shot or detained.
Throughout the period of the Great Game (and before) China also fought for territory in the Wakhan Corridor, and recently won back a small stretch of land in the far northeastern corner of Tajikistan that had been under dispute since the mid-1800s (between Tsarist Russia and China).
This section, rumoured to be rich in mineral wealth, was ceded to the Chinese by the Tajik government in 2011 as payment for debts the Tajik government owed to China for construction of several roads and bridges.
The Tajiks living in the villages in these areas were forced to relocate to even more austere locations, lacking in water or arable land for farming or livestock.
KEY CROSSING POINT TO CHINA ECONOMIC GROWTH
In recent years the four countries bounding the Wakhan Corridor have begun to envision possibilities for revitalising the area, restoring its historical role as a transnational trade route.
Doing so, however, depends on improving security conditions by thwarting narcotics traffickers and extremist groups that seek to exploit vulnerable populations in this remote locale.
Ostensibly seeking to address such challenges, in the past few months reports have surfaced that China has imprisoned over a million Uighurs, part of the larger associated population who live along the Chinese side of the border.
The Chinese government fears that this population is getting help from their associated Kyrgyz-Pamiris on the Afghan side of the border.
It is hard to say how much of the Chinese crackdown is addressing legitimate security concerns or if this is being used as an excuse to violently subdue a population that is living along a strategic military and economic location for the country.
As China works to advance its expansive and expensive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the area at the tip of the Wakhan Corridor in the Little Pamirs will become a key crossing point for its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The port of Gwadar in Pakistan marks the beginning of this corridor, and the tip of the Wakhan marks entry point for CPEC into China.
A Chinese base in this location not only cements Chinese participation in the fight against terrorism, but also serves Beijing’s long-term goal of gaining a permanent foothold and control over the regional economy and security through building military installations and funding infrastructure projects.
The question is, will this bring stability to a potentially volatile, although historically peaceful, Wakhan Corridor, or will the development of a military base and presence of troops invite an insecurity that has otherwise been absent?
Dr Suzanne Levi-Sanchez is assistant professor of national security affairs department at the US Naval War College where she teaches Security Strategies with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. This commentary first appeared on Lowy Institute's blog The Interpreter.