From End-Game to Great Game: China and Indo-Pakistani Rivalry in Afghanistan

Geography is destiny,” Napoleon famously observed. As Afghanistan fades fast from diplomatic radars in most Western capitals, things are heating up for Kabul’s regional neighbors, as they jostle for influence in ways that seem to bear out the gnomic remark. Earlier this month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing to sign a joint declaration to establish a ‘framework’ for strategic partnership between the two countries. Though largely ignored by Western media, this development might well portend the beginnings of a scramble for influence in Central Asia reminiscent of 19th century geopolitical competition between the great powers of the region. Back then, the rivals were Great Britain and Russia who attempted to exert influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Today, the relative balance of power between India and Pakistan is shaping Chinese perceptions in this 21st century Tournament of Shadows.

The announcement by Kabul and Beijing to seek a strategic partnership comes just months after virtually all of the major troop-contributing nations—the United States, the United Kingdom, France and others—declared their intention to end combat missions and withdraw the vast majority of their troops within the next two years. Nature abhors a vacuum and the timing suggests that as the era of US hegemony in Afghanistan draws to a close, regional players are about to jump in more forcefully.

Until now, Beijing has been content to be something of a ‘free-rider,’ standing back while the US-backed International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) does the heavy lifting when it comes to providing security. Meanwhile, China’s state-run businesses have reaped an economic whirlwind, capturing prizes like the the concession to develop the world’s largest unexploited copper fields at the Aynak mine. Since winning the concession, 1500 Afghan National Police officers have guarded the mine, while 2000 US soldiers have provided overarching stability in Logar Province where Aynak is located.

From the viewpoint of Washington, China’s influence in Afghanistan is hardly pernicious when compared to the reported actions of some of the other regional actors in the country, notably Iran and Pakistan. Moreover, Chinese investments in places like Aynak are among the most important drivers for Afghanistan’s long-term economic prosperity. But make no mistake: China’s Afghan policy reflects interests that are far broader than just Afghanistan alone.

When analysts talk about China’s intentions in Afghanistan, they typically mention Beijing’s desires to neutralize the Uyghur separatists from Xinjiang Province who once found sanctuary in Afghanistan while it was under Taliban rule. They point to China’s interest in curtailing the proliferation of drugs derived from Afghanistan’s poppy crop. They also mention Beijing’s ambitions to build energy corridors to Central Asia that will reduce its dependence on the narrow Strait of Malacca shipping lane through which the vast majority of its petroleum imports transit, making the country exceptionally vulnerable to naval interdiction in the event of a conflict with a certain superpower.

But, to really understand the promises and pitfalls of China’s Afghan policy, we need to take into account the broader geopolitical chessboard. Take China’s interests in extracting Afghanistan’s rich untapped reserves resources. The country has sizable deposits of iron ore, gold, silver, uranium, lithium, and natural gas. All of this fits into a broader Chinese policy to develop a regional transportation corridor that involves building rail connections that go through Afghanistan’s neighbors, especially Pakistan. Indeed, Beijing’s intention is to link Kashgar on its western frontier with Central Asia via the Karakoram and, ultimately, Pakistan’s Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea, which China has helped finance, build and operate. Designs for regional energy corridors help explain why Beijing is likely to see Afghanistan through a broader strategic lens. It’s also in this context that the triangular relationship between China, India and Pakistan begins to come into focus.

Ever since Beijing and Delhi fought a border war in 1962, China has provided Pakistan with major military and economic assistance, including the transfer of nuclear technology. All this can be understood in classic realist terms: despite their diametrically opposed governing ideologies, Islamabad and Beijing have built an enduring ‘all-weather friendship’ fundamentally based on using each other as strategic hedges against Delhi. From the viewpoint of Beijing, supporting Pakistani designs to use Afghanistan for ‘strategic depth’ helps divert India from focusing on competing with China.

Not that this strategy isn’t without clear risks. Pakistan’s strategy of supporting violent Islamic militants in the region backfired when such groups began to contest the writ of the Pakistani state. Indeed, mounting reports suggest that the Uyghur separatists comprising the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) who once operated from Afghanistan are now based across the Durand Line in Pakistan and near the Chinese border.

Still, the Sino-Pakistani alliance continues to bedevil Indian strategists at the highest echelons of power, many of whom see an overarching Chinese agenda of containing India. In an interview earlier this month, India’s recently retired Chief of Army Staff, V.K. Singh, warned that China and Pakistan are working in concert to “outflank” India in Afghanistan.

For its part, Delhi has invested handsomely in Afghanistan, having pledged over US$1.3 billion for reconstruction and development over the past decade and constructing infrastructure projects that bypass Gwadar port. For example, Indian aid figured prominently into the construction of the highway between Zaranj and Delaram that will connect western Afghanistan to the Iranian port of Chabahar. Combine this with Delhi’s longstanding ties with the Marxist regime in Kabul during the Soviet occupation as well as its assistance to the Northern Alliance during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, and the contours of another proxy war in Afghanistan are not difficult to imagine were things to really deteriorate between India and Pakistan.

In a recent commentary, the learned Ashley J. Tellis remarks:

 Irrespective of how the coming security transition in Afghanistan pans out, one country is on a surprising course to a major strategic defeat: Pakistan. Every foreseeable ending to the Afghan war today—continued conflict with the Taliban, restoration of Taliban control in the southern and eastern provinces, or a nationwide civil war—portends nothing but serious perils for Islamabad. But judging from Pakistan’s behavior, it appears as if this fact has eluded the generals in Rawalpindi.

Although China has greater ambitions than simply using Afghanistan as another arena to put India on the defensive, it’s unclear how far Beijing will go to upset Pakistani decision-makers in their own attempts to do so. Given Pakistan’s still formidable leverage in defining the terms of any Afghan settlement and the overarching centrality of the Sino-Pakistani relationship to both Islamabad and Beijing, it’s premature to follow Tellis in predicting “Pakistan’s impending defeat” in the country.

China’s geopolitical wagon in Central Asia remains hitched to Pakistan. While geography doesn’t act on politics in a deterministic fashion, we ignore Napoleon at our peril: the calculations that drive Sino-Pakistani cooperation remain intact and the the infrastructural investments that both countries have made in Central Asia continue to promote competition with India rather than cooperation.

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