But as coalition forces have pulled back, security has eroded, leaving ripe conditions for militants — be it the Taliban, al-Qaida or Uyghurs — to move in. The top American commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, last month called the 15-year war a stalemate, raising the possibility that the U.S. and its allies could once more expand their footprint. Long term, however, the goal is to extract. "Beijing," Gady said, "has expressed repeated concern over the diminished Western foot print in Afghanistan."
Border security and broader stability are of prime concern to China, said Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor of U.S.-East Asia relations at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. So its "law enforcement actions inside Afghanistan in cooperation with Pakistan, as the U.S. draws down, serve Beijing's interests quite well." The U.S. is dependent on this assistance, he said. "Hence, there's no compelling reason for China not to resort to military force in its unstable western neighbor."
Chinese Gen. Li Zuocheng, left, and U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley review an honor guard at the Bayi Building in Beijing, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
It's a unique dilemma for Washington. On the one hand, China's assistance in war-torn Afghanistan is seen as helpful. All the saber rattling in the South China Sea — to include China's militarization of several man-made islands — is not.
So the U.S. appears willing to cooperate where it can, and confront where it must. "A stable Afghanistan is in the interest of both the United States and China," Gady said. "I assume there must be a tacit understanding that China's involvement in Afghanistan is welcome up to a point."
China's financial interests revolve around Afghanistan’s abundance of natural resources and minerals, and its access to Central Asian markets. Beijing sees Afghanistan as a vital link for its "One Belt, One Road" initiative, an economic policy that seeks to connect Eurasia to China.
"China," Gady said, "has been seen as a 'free rider' — gaining economic benefits by exploiting the country’s natural resources while not contributing to the political and military solution of the conflict. So it is not surprising that as Western engagement in the country diminishes, China gradually steps in to fill the void to secure its interests."
In 2015, after the Taliban reclaimed Kunduz, a strategic city in northern Afghanistan, Beijing agreed to cooperate with Kabul. It pledged $73 million to support Afghanistan fledgling security forces. Afghan border police also are being trained in China, and the Chinese government is providing military hardware, including bullet proof jackets, demining equipment and armored police vehicles.
Lee does not view this as a softening stance between Beijing and Washington. There are too many other disagreements, he noted. Beyond the South China Sea, the U.S. wants China to do more to keep North Korea in check and to lay off South Korea, which intends to deploy a self-defense anti-ballistic missile system.
And the notion of Chinese forces pushing deeper into Afghanistan, beyond the border region, strikes Gady as unlikely — at least in the near term, while the U.S. and its allies are there in significant numbers. "China's security footprint," he said, "will remain small and insignificant in comparison."
Shawn Snow is a Military Times staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief. On Twitter:
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.