China rebuffed U.S. request to open route for Afghanistan war supplies, cables show

The Obama administration quietly tried to persuade China to open a major supply route to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, according to diplomatic cables, but Beijing rebuffed the idea as military relations with Washington soured.

In February 2009, the State Department directed the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to make a formal proposal to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to permit the overland transit of supplies to U.S. and NATO troops, cables obtained by the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks show.

The route would have followed railroads in China before crossing into Kazakhstan, where it would have linked up with supply lines that traverse Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, according to a Feb. 10, 2009, cable from Washington signed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. China shares a small border with Afghanistan, but the stretch is remote and lacks adequate transit links.

The cable noted that China had “expressed interest in cooperating with the U.S. for delivery of non-lethal aid to Afghanistan” as far back as 2006. It also said the Pentagon was seeking only to move “non-lethal” items such as food, tents, blankets and construction material through China. Private commercial carriers would have been used, and no U.S. military personnel would have been present along the route.

The decision by Washington to seek help from Beijing underscored the degree to which the Pentagon wanted to reduce its reliance on an uncertain partner, Pakistan, to funnel most of its war supplies to Afghanistan. The cable noted that a new Chinese route would “provide an efficient and effective alternative to increasingly unstable Pakistani land routes, and could potentially cost less” than new supply lines crossing from Europe to Central Asia.

A cable sent in response three days later by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reported that China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had agreed to consider the idea but was noncommittal. Deng Hongbo, deputy director of the ministry’s Department of North American and Oceanian Affairs, “welcomed the proposal and promised the Chinese side would study the idea and respond as soon as possible,” the cable stated.

China kept mum about the overture for months. Then in June 2009, a Chinese official raised Washington’s hopes during a meeting with a U.S. diplomat in Kazakhstan.

The Chinese official dined with Richard E. Hoagland, then the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, at a revolving restaurant on the top of a high-rise hotel in Astana, the capital. The official, who preferred to meet in public places because he believed his own embassy was “thoroughly bugged,” said the Chinese government was “actively researching” the U.S. supply route proposal, according to a U.S. cable.

The official confided, however, that China’s Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry were divided on the subject and said it would be hard for some officials to swallow the idea of giving active support to a NATO military operation.

“My own personal opinion,” the official told Hoagland, “is that we will do the right thing and cooperate with NATO and the U.S. government.”

But the Pentagon’s hopes for cooperation were dashed several months later. China suspended military relations with the United States in January 2010 to protest the sale of $6 billion in weapons to Taiwan.

Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.
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