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China and Pakistan See Eye to Eye on the Taliban—Almost

10 0 0
20.09.2021

As the dust settles on the Taliban’s reconquest of Afghanistan, regional neighbors are adjusting their policies to take the new geostrategic reality into account. Among these countries are the self-proclaimed “iron brothers”—China and Pakistan. The good news for Beijing and Islamabad is that their respective policies on Taliban-run Afghanistan broadly align. But one particularly touchy and important area of policy—countering security threats from terrorists, separatists, and those labeled as such, especially by China—could become a notable sore point in an otherwise close Chinese-Pakistani relationship. In fact, if the Taliban abandon their much-repeated promise not to allow Afghanistan to serve as a platform for international terrorism once again, China and Pakistan’s decades-long “all-weather partnership” will be tested more than at any time in its history. And it seems entirely plausible that the Taliban will change their mind on terrorism—or turn out unable to control it.

China and Pakistan have both welcomed the Taliban back to power. They will have a friendly partner in Afghanistan who can complicate decision-making for India, a mutual adversary. Since last summer, China and India have been engaged in a military standoff over their disputed border in the Himalayas. Trust between Beijing and New Delhi is virtually nonexistent, and the last thing India needs is another front to worry about. The U.S.-supported former Afghan government was a good friend of India, whereas the Pakistan-supported Taliban—especially if they align with China as well—are likely to become India’s adversaries or even bitter enemies.

A friendly China-Afghanistan relationship will also have significant implications for India’s economic and security interests in Central Asia. In this region, China already dominates economically and is gradually replacing Russia—a long-standing Indian partner—militarily there as well. Around 2016, Beijing unofficially established a base in Tajikistan, a neighbor of Afghanistan that has been a key security partner for India. China’s presence in Tajikistan is designed to conduct its version of counterterrorism activities, i.e., preventing ethnic Uyghurs organized in the East Turkistan Islamic Movement from destabilizing China’s Xinjiang region from across the border. In addition, through the multilateral Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), co-led by China and Russia, Beijing has increasingly solidified its security ties with Central Asian countries to New Delhi’s detriment. At last week’s SCO summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged the other members to guide Afghanistan, an observer in the group, to a smooth political transition. Pakistan, another member, argued that Afghanistan cannot be “controlled from outside”—in a clear shot not only at the United States but also India, which Islamabad believed was too close to the former Afghan government. It will be interesting to see if Beijing eventually lobbies to elevate Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to full membership. Although India has joined the SCO as well, China clearly has the inside track on engaging with Central Asian nations, and this gap is set to only widen. Of course, Beijing’s plans for Afghanistan are much........

© Foreign Policy


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