The China-Pakistan-Afghanistan triangle | By Huma Baqai


The China-Pakistan-Afghanistan triangle

CHINA may not be a very vocal player in the situation unfolding in Afghanistan; nevertheless, it is an important one.

It has a lot at stake in Afghanistan. Chinese stakes in Afghanistan are not limited to the potential for it to become a safe haven for militant groups targeting China, its economic and political stakes in the South Asian region and beyond have grown considerably.

Beijing is also conscious of the negative spillover in Pakistan which would have a direct impact on CPEC.

The Chinese government has long sought to reach agreements with the Taliban largely focused on the question of their ties with Uyghur groups and the recent meeting between Mullah Barader and Wang Yi in Tianjin was unusually publicized but the two sides have been interacting with each other for decades now.

Having said this China still does not tend to perceive Afghanistan through the prism of opportunities, it is almost entirely about managing threats and ensuring the security of One Belt One Road initiative.

Since 9/11 the US military presence in Afghanistan has presented a dilemma for China. Beijing by instinct perceives American troops in Chinese backyard as a strategic threat.

However, China is also convinced that it has benefited from the security umbrella that the United States has provided there specially in curtailing anti-China terrorist groups.

Thus, in principle China does not have a problem with US withdrawal but is extremely weary of the power vacuum that may ensue and destabilize the entire region.

Beijing is conscious of what happened to Britain, the (former) Soviet Union and the US in Afghanistan and thus does not want to get entangled directly into Afghan conflict.

More interestingly, America’s unending wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East are seen by many in China as a window of opportunity for it to build its strength, while Washington was distracted and in a state of utter strategic confusion spending trillions of dollars initiating one war after another. Today China is in a position to make the US rethink its foreign policy thrust.

The Biden Administration’s Interim Security Strategic Guidance released in March 2021 asserts that China is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.

Biden followed President Trump’s policy of pressuring China, and cold shouldering it. Many are of the opinion that the policy has backfired.

The US increasingly finds itself in need of China’s support and coordination on various fronts, including issues like Iran, Afghanistan, climate change and international trade regimes.

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price is on record saying US China relationship is fundamentally competitive at the core, there are elements of this relationship that are adversarial, but there are also going to be elements where interests align.

This so-called competition, cooperation and confrontation approach of the US dealing with China will have repercussions for Afghanistan.

Previously, Beijing had viewed the US and Soviet military presence in Afghanistan as a geopolitical threat, but it had gradually grown to see it as the lesser of two evils.

Ridding China’s backyard of Islamic militancy and elimination of militants on China’s hit-list ranked above the fear of US’ presence in Afghanistan.

The risk of entanglement in Afghanistan is a huge concern for China. Beijing does not want to involve itself too deeply in Afghanistan as it is concerned about the strategic trap that has weakened the other great powers.

China is more inclined “to work with all stakeholders of Afghanistan, including Pakistan, Taliban, Afghan government and the US, to make concerted efforts to promote peace talks and mediation.”

At the same time, China is likely to continue relying on Pakistan to conduct its Afghan policy, and in managing responses to the situation on the ground.

On the other hand, Pakistan is in the middle of redefining its relationship with the Biden Administration, nevertheless at this point in time it seems that Pakistan is most likely to support China, if Washington and Beijing are unable to settle their differences on Afghan affairs.

The blame game and public humiliation used as a tool of foreign policy by the United States against Pakistan is not helping the situation.

China’s and Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan are not entirely identical but are broadly in sync, however, a growing convergence is expected that can lead to deeper engagement in the future between the two, post-complete American withdrawal. China is convinced that Pakistan has a key role to play in the stabilization of Afghanistan.

While advancing its own interests in Afghanistan, China knows it cannot ignore Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan and will have to accommodate its interests as well.

The list of challenges China will have to face due to its Afghanistan commitment is long and concerning, from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) possible alliance with Uyghur and Baloch separatists, the disjointed Afghan peace process, to the seemingly inflexible Pakistan-Afghanistan discord.

The China-India-Pakistan triangle is another major regional fault-line that can impact the prospects for stability in Afghanistan.

Through its OBOR initiative China hopes to eradicate the menace of terrorism from the region as terrorist activities can become an obstacle to the operations of OBOR initiative; a testament to this is the Agreement on the Coordination Mechanism on Counterterrorism by Afghanistan-China-Pakistan-Tajikistan Armed Forces and the Protocol on Counterterrorism Information Coordination Center by Afghanistan-China-Pakistan-Tajikistan Armed Forces.

In addition, China’s deepening involvement in Afghanistan is closely tied to the country’s economic aspirations.

Afghanistan has a competitive advantage over its neighbors as it lies at the crossroads of Central Asia and South Asia, and its geographically strategic location makes it a possible regional hub for trade and transit.

China aims to link its own markets with South Asia, Central Asia and West Asia through Afghanistan.

Chinese economic and political interests in Afghanistan have grown considerably since it became a major player in the super-power competition.

The security situation in Afghanistan is spiraling out of control and in the light of the current developments Beijing needs to rethink its Afghanistan policy in order to protect its interests in the region.

With the aim of achieving great power status, Beijing maybe pushed to assume a more assertive role in Afghanistan in the coming future.

There are also talks about the possibility of China deploying a peacekeeping force into Afghanistan for coping with the worsening security situation.

China needs to learn a lesson from history and not repeat the mistakes of the US and Soviet Union, in order to avoid stepping into a hellish quagmire.

China can take on a more active political role in Afghanistan to deal with the fallout of US withdrawal; without being completely sucked in. The China-Pakistan convergence may do the magic.

The extended Troika that includes US, Russia, China and Pakistan are actively seeking to develop a regional consensus on Afghan conflict.

The 31st August deadline for the completion of the withdrawal of US forces is fast approaching and the prospects of reduction in violence are diminishing.

The Taliban have captured nine provincial capitals. As per EU official Taliban are now controlling 65% of Afghanistan.

If anything the Taliban have become more aggressive and have leverage to economically strangulate the Afghan government.

The only way forward perhaps is strong regional pressure on the Taliban to let go of violence and return to a negotiated {political} solution.

Three regional countries Russia, China and Pakistan have decent relations with the Taliban and could collectively put requisite pressure on them to reduce violence and opt for a political solution. Pakistan cannot and should not be expected to do this alone.

—The author is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.

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