China is reportedly weighing plans to take over Bagram Airfield, which once served as the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan, new reports revealed this week.
The Chinese military is currently conducting a feasibility study for a potential takeover of the major airfield, according to a source briefed on the plans by Chinese military officials who then spoke to U.S. News & World Report on condition of anonymity.
Sources familiar with the alleged Chinese military discussions also told India’s Daily Pioneer that Chinese officials held a meeting with top Taliban leaders to discuss the possible takeover of Bagram Airfield.
The feasibility study will consider whether Chinese workers, soldiers and other staff could use Bagram Airfield to advance the interests of the Belt and Road Initiative, a major ongoing Chinese economic development strategy.
China has denied the claims it is considering taking control of Bagram Airfield or that it is inspecting any of the five airbases used by the U.S. during the nearly 20-year mission in Afghanistan. On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said, “I can tell you this is purely fake news.”
U.S. News’ source said the current considerations by Beijing are not for any immediate takeover, but rather for a potential force deployment up to two years from now. The Chinese plans also reportedly entail waiting on the Taliban to secure control in Afghanistan, moving forward with the blessings of such a Taliban government rather than taking the airfield by unilateral force.
While taking control of Bagram Airfield could further China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the move could also serve a symbolic purpose, dealing a blow to U.S. prestige after the U.S. military gave up the airfield after almost 20 years of fighting for control of Afghanistan. Any abandoned U.S. equipment could also hold value for China.
“Given their past experience, the Chinese must be eager to get their hands on whatever the U.S. has left at the base,” Yun Sun, the director of the China Program at the Stimson Center think tank, told U.S. News.
According to U.S. News, China already sent a video crew to Bagram Airfield shortly after U.S. forces left the base in July.
While China has denied plans to take the airfield, U.S. News reported such a takeover is in line with established Chinese practices to quietly expand its military presence beyond China’s borders. For example, China has reportedly secured control of about a third of the Ream Naval Base in Cambodia.
China has also sent radio, radar and military equipment to an archipelago controlled by the ruling military junta in Myanmar. Beijing denies its activity in Myanmar doesn’t amount to a military presence, even though the equipment it has sent and the training to use it all originate from China.
Another factor supporting China’s potential takeover of Bagram Airfield is its already cordial relations with the Taliban. Last week, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said China “will be our main partner” in rebuilding Afghanistan, and a partnership with China “represents a great opportunity for us because it is ready to invest in our country and support reconstruction efforts.”