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China-Pakistan Engagement vis-à-vis Afghanistan: Contrasting Priorities

On 7 July 2020, the third iteration of the China-Afghanistan Trilateral vice Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue was held. Conducted via video conferencing, the three countries were represented by China’s Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui, Afghanistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Mirwais Nab, and Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary, Sohail Mahmood. Like the previous iterations of trilateral level dialogues among the three countries, the joint statement issued post this Dialogue too focused on a range of issues such as security, the prospects of peace building in Afghanistan, Belt and Road Initiative (BRi) related projects etc. Additionally, given the prevailing circumstances, there was also a focus on COVID-19 related responses.

While the contents of the trilateral joint statement issued in July 2020 (as in the case of previous ones), such as trilateral cooperation on security, peace, economy etc, are pretty standard, the implementation level is where this (essentially) China-led grouping’s prospects will face its real test. For instance, Chinese and Pakistani interests do overlap but the methods each opts to achieve the same, and its effects, do not. For instance, China’s primary concern regarding terrorism in Afghanistan pertains to security of the restive Xinjiang Province. Not only does Xinjiang share a short 96-km border with Afghanistan along the latter’s mountainous Badakshan province, it is also home to China’s Uighur minority community who practice the Islamic faith. Security of Xinjiang province is directly relevant for China’s “March West” strategy involving BRI and related projects in Central Asian Republics (CAR). In this regard, countering jihadi terrorism is a key priority for Beijing.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s intensifying support for jihadi outfits in the region, many of which have foreign fighters and are based in Pakistan (most notably the Afghan Taliban on a bilateral level seems to be an attempt to ensure Pakistan making sure that the jihadi terrorism it supports does not seep into Xinjiang and/or endanger any BRI projects (current or planned). From Kabul’s vantage point, China is the only country that is likely to be able to keep Pakistan in check. From Pakistan’s vantage point, this trilateral is useful for both optics, as well as to remain relevant in any Afghanistan-China dialogue.

However, in the context of the US-backed talks with the Taliban, China is concerned about jihadi groups such as the Taliban, coming to power in Afghanistan, whereas Pakistan’s objective is to install a Taliban government that will be remotely controlled from Pakistan. The Taliban has not been anti-China so far. In fact, Beijing has maintained direct communication channels with the group since the 1990s when the group was in power in Afghanistan, and Beijing has hosted the group for talks on more than one occasion. But China does not possess leverage over the Taliban, especially not direct, and it is Pakistan that holds such leverage. Thus, a Taliban government in Kabul would essentially mean a fundamentalist Islamist theocracy in control of a strategic territory, with Beijing having limited control over developments. Combined with the US’s increasing inroads in Central Asia (especially with the US’s new February 2020 Central Asia Strategy), and the thawing US-Taliban relationship, this does not portend well for Chinese objectives.

On the other hand, Pakistan views installing such a government in Afghanistan as the only way to ensure its own security along its Western frontiers, and therefore, it is unlikely to roll back its attempts. While economic interests could, perhaps to a degree, enable overcoming this conundrum, the extent to which it has the potential to calibrate these opposing priorities is debatable. As such, at present, the trilateral relationship is unlikely to deliver any substantial outcome. Yet, the equations could change if Beijing opts to take on a more prominent role vis-a-vis Afghanistan in the coming weeks.

View expressed in this article are of the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Pajhwok’s editorial policy.

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