The South Asia Channel
The Great Wall of AfPak
China is pushing into Afghanistan while ensuring Pakistani cooperation, for the time being.
To say that China is a strategic ally of Pakistan would be an understatement. In 1950, Pakistan was one of the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China. Since then, the two countries have forged very close ties, with Pakistan relying on China not only for military aid, but also for economic assistance. Rising violence in Xinjiang, China, however, is creating conditions that could lead to a fundamental reassessment of China’s relationship with Pakistan and push Beijing to play a more active role in Afghanistan.
In 2007, when then-President Pervez Musharraf ordered a military raid on the infamous Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad, some argued that it was Chinese pressure that ultimately forced the president’s hand. Over the years China has become increasingly concerned with terrorist safe havens in Pakistan and their role in training Uighur militants. While Chinese officials have not publicly reprimanded Islamabad for its inability to tackle militancy within its borders, there is evidence that Chinese patience with Pakistan has worn thin over the years. Chinese agreement to back India on a U.N. anti-terror resolution can be seen as evidence of this shift in policy.
A suicide attack on Feb. 17 in Xinjiang could mark a turning point in how China views its relationship with Pakistan. One could expect that Chinese frustration with Pakistan on terrorism to rise in the next few weeks if the attackers are traced back to the tribal areas of Pakistan. This could lead policymakers in China to view Pakistan as a problematic ally and shift the way they view their strategic alliance with the country.
Further straining relations between the two allies is poor governance in Pakistan, as evidenced by the recent petroleum crisis in the country. On the one hand, Chinese citizens have been targeted in Pakistan, causing delays in Chinese investments in Pakistan. Political issues in Pakistan have caused further delays, and the controversy around the China-Pakistan economic corridor offers some insight into a government that is unable to get things moving. Politics, coupled with the security situation in Balochistan have also placed China’s multi-billion dollar project in Gwadar on shaky grounds.
Protests led by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in Islamabad caused a cancellation of Chinese President Xi Jingping’s visit to Islamabad last year. It is expected that the Chinese premier will attend Pakistan’s National Day Parade in March. If this visit were to materialize, it’s anticipated there will be much symbolism and fanfare in Pakistan, with policymakers touting China as Pakistan’s most important ally. Following the suicide bombing in Xinjiang, terrorism will be on the top of the agenda for the Chinese, while Pakistan will continue to push for increased military and economic assistance. One can expect the Chinese to secretly say what the United States has publicly said to Pakistan time and time again: Do more.
There is also evidence that China is hedging against Pakistan in the region. China and Afghanistan are becoming more aligned due to similar security and economic interests. Since coming to power, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been pushing for reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban in a bid to end the insurgency in the country. Afghan Taliban officials recently made a secret visit to China, and Chinese officials have publicly voiced interest in mediating between the two sides. This comes on the back of increased economic ties between Afghanistan and China, with China agreeing to build a dam in the eastern part of Afghanistan. Such actions demonstrate that Beijing recognizes that increased economic and security ties with Afghanistan are important for Chinese national security interests.
Pakistan has maintained a near monopoly in dealing with the Afghan Taliban since they came to power in the mid-1990s and has viewed Afghanistan as its own backyard. With India already playing a key role in Afghanistan, rising Chinese influence in the country could end Pakistan’s influence. It can be expected that the Afghan government would be keen to use China to keep Pakistan and its security establishment in check. If Pakistan does not show seriousness in dealing with militant groups that are using its soil to target neighboring countries, it could find itself isolated in the region.
This change in underlying conditions and regional dynamics seems to have contributed to a shift in Pakistan’s strategic calculus. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan have had a rapprochement since the deadly attacks in Peshawar last year. Cooperation against militant networks by both sides has increased, and there are ongoing discussions on how to jointly tackle militant groups in the future. In a bid to end the insurgency in Afghanistan, Pakistan is also trying to push Afghan Taliban to enter talks with United States and Afghan officials in Qatar.
Developments in the region point to the fact that Beijing has made a decision to push into Afghanistan while ensuring Pakistani cooperation, for the time being. As the United States disengages from Afghanistan, China will seek to fill the vacuum, and in the process, redefine the security and economic paradigm in the region. The changing dynamics in the region are a test for Pakistan’s foreign and security policy. It remains to be seen whether Pakistan recognizes that regional integration and breaking away from its militant proxies is the only way to avoid isolation from the rest of the region. For the moment, Pakistan seems to be making the right moves, and in the process, succeeding in keeping Beijing on its side.
WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images