The Samarkand declaration, describing Central Asia as the “core” of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), also reflects on the challenges and aspirations common to South Asia. This includes stabilising Afghanistan. The US strategy too recognises that a “secure and stable” Central Asia would contribute “directly” to the US’s counterterrorism efforts and a “secure and stable” Afghanistan should be a top priority for the region. Facing serious divisions within, the China-led SCO does not have an ostensible anti-US tilt. However, competition between the US and China around the Indo-Pacific has eclipsed the competition — panning across an arc of Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This “arc” is also crucial to Chinese security interests.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban is battling multiple challenges to security and stability. The killing of al Qaeda (AQ) amir Ayman al Zawahiri in a US drone strike in Kabul has created fresh doubts about the Taliban’s intentions as well as capacity to go after terror networks. With the Ukraine war continuing, Russia has fewer resources to spare for security situations across Central Asia. China does not seem “ready” to provide a security umbrella to Central Asia or Afghanistan. But it is closely coordinating moves with Pakistan across this arc and beyond, where China has ambitions of becoming the pre-eminent Asiatic power and use it to weaken competition from the US across the Indian Ocean region.
However, Pakistan’s forces are facing direct attacks in tribal areas, including in Peshawar and the Swat Valley that had once come under the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Recently, local TTP fighters of Gilgit-Baltistan held a minister and several others hostage to negotiate the release of their fighters. The Baloch Liberation Army too is taking army personnel hostage and negotiating the release of Baloch cadres. The Taliban-mediated talks between the TTP and the Pakistan army have also failed.
In June 2021, the UN Security Council report documented the presence of 8,000 to 10,000 foreign fighters in Afghanistan, mostly affiliated with the Taliban and hailing from the north Caucasus region of Russia, Pakistan and China’s Xinjiang province. The report said such groups included hundreds of fighters of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and Central Asian groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Islamic Jihad Union. Historically, such groups had operated freely in the tribal belt of Pakistan until the army initiated operations against them. This crackdown started with raids on Lal Masjid in Islamabad in July 2007, the trigger for which was the abduction of seven Chinese staff from a Chinese massage parlour by a “vice and virtue” group of Jamia Hafsa seminary. Since then, Chinese interests in Pakistan have often been targeted by the “bad” Taliban as well as Baloch groups, both of which have upped the ante since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Pakistan “delivered” the Taliban to the US for the Doha talks. And the Taliban used the opportunity to reach out to the larger world, including Central Asia and China. As a result, the ETIM and Central Asian terror groups seem to be maintaining tactical silence in Afghanistan. The Doha Agreement signalled that the Taliban was all set to become a part of the government. Thus, wary of the departure of US troops from Afghanistan, China started engaging deeply with the Taliban, including receiving Mullah Baradar as a state guest in July 2021. However, China’s direct influence in Afghanistan remains limited.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has continued expanding its proxy game across the arc and beyond, while using diplomacy as the perfect smokescreen. China, in alliance with Pakistan, is trying to “reverse stretch” other states in the region with proxy violence and border engagements — the belligerence on Indian borders within two months of the signing of the US-Taliban agreement in February 2020 is an example. Moreover, the rising levels of proxy violence across Af-Pak and aggressive propaganda of “new age” proxies commanded by the Pakistan deep state, among them the al Qaeda and Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), are serious threats. Recently, the ISKP unleashed propaganda that hard sell “extremism” as a viable ideology and promotes lone-wolf acts of terrorism.
The joint China-Pakistan moves include consistent hardening of the LAC with India and putting a technical hold on UN designations of Pakistan-backed terror operatives, including the mastermind of the Mumbai attack, Sajid Mir. The recent docking of Chinese-built Pakistani frigate PNS Taimur at the Colombo port and China’s spy ship Yuan Wang 5 at Hambantota port appears to be aimed at spreading their footprints in the Indian Ocean region.
US-China competition in the region has a nuclear dimension because of the presence of three nuclear weapon states. China started helping Pakistan develop its military and nuclear muscle mainly to offset threats arising from strong Indo-Soviet cooperation. Through the Cold War decades, China and Pakistan cooperated with the West and did not attract deep “scrutiny” of their nuclear weapon programmes. While it may take China a while to build nuclear parity with the US, it has already built Pakistan as an “all-weather” nuclear state. The latest “bonhomie” between the US and Pakistan appears to be a “calibrated” US response to “engage with a dangerous” Pakistan as well as to challenge Chinese moves involving Pakistan. However, unlike the on-and-off US-Pakistan engagements, China-Pakistan cooperation spans the entire gamut of security and geopolitical areas and is sustained by the supremacy of the army in Pakistan.