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HomeAfghanistanThe Afghan Debacle Should Prompt China to Revise its South Asian Policy

The Afghan Debacle Should Prompt China to Revise its South Asian Policy

This piece was first published by Russia in London. Opinions do not represent those of RUSI.

EXPERT POINT OF VIEW – While China has already attempted to rebalance its relationship between India and Pakistan, recent developments in Afghanistan should give it new impetus to do so. Any future cold war between the United States and China would be totally different from the previous version for several reasons, the most obvious of which is the economic and financial interdependence between the two countries. However, a similarity could survive in the form of proxy conflicts such as those seen in Angola, Afghanistan and Nicaragua in the 1980s.

A proxy conflict in South Asia would be extremely dangerous both because of the many geopolitical cracks opposing parties would seek to exploit and the fact that India and Pakistan now have nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles. In the previous Cold War, neither New Delhi nor Islamabad had credibly deployable nuclear weapons, and although India clearly leaned toward the Soviet Union and Pakistan toward the West, it did not There had been no proxy war in the subcontinent, only further northwest in Afghanistan.

Relations between India and Pakistan are already dangerous enough not to be dragged into another cold war. The 2019 episode of Balakot brought the two countries to the brink of war and was defused more by luck than good judgment. Since then, China has become an active participant through its hostile operations along its disputed border with India in the Himalayas and, more recently, by appearing to endorse Pakistan’s preference for an exclusively Taliban government in Afghanistan.

I was told in confidence that China questioned the wisdom of Pakistan’s judgment in August just as Ashraf Ghani’s government collapsed but, more importantly, did not insist. Beijing may have calculated that the Pakistani military could not have forced the Taliban to form an inclusive administration, and that influential corps commanders in Pakistan could even have resisted Chinese pressure at such a defining moment.

After the US withdrawal, Beijing will surely now recognize that it needs its own policy on Afghanistan; it can no longer outsource decisions to Pakistan. There are too many issues at stake, including the threat from Uyghur militants, Chinese investments in the mining sector and the possible future Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects.

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Beijing will also know that the Indian government is furious at its loss of agency in Afghanistan after 20 years of political and economic investment there. After what looks (at first glance) like a resounding victory for Pakistan, India will inevitably want to make Islamabad pay the price. New Delhi has no shortage of options. She will no doubt see opportunities in the growing dissent in Balochistan (and Gwadar in particular) against the BRI, and in the growing disenchantment of the Pashtuns of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the North West Frontier Province) and in the huge city. Karachi port where the Pashtuns make up about 20% of the population. India will also push its maximalist stance on Kashmir through which Gilgit-Baltistan (through which several BRI projects cross) is claimed to be part of India.

China can also think about the cost / benefit ratio of its activity along the Indian coast. northern border. In the long run, China has a lot to lose by stirring up a region that offers India (and potentially the United States) a direct route via Aksai Chin to the two less satisfied regions; Tibet and Xinjiang. One could argue that in the new era of hybrid warfare and imaginative cyber operations, direct access to territory is less essential for a disruption campaign. May be. But China would be wise not to throw stones in such a largely glazed area.

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All this prompts China to review its strategy in South Asia with a view to a certain rebalancing between India and Pakistan. Continuation of the current policy will return Afghanistan to its pre-2001 status of an economic and social desert. He could see Pakistan increasingly undermined by radical Islamist groups operating from Afghanistan, tribal border regions and within cities of the Punjab and Sind. He will see a frustrated India taking less and less flexible positions on regional issues and on China’s access to its huge markets. And access to Himalayan waters will become the dominant theme in the region.

It is often forgotten that China attempted to rebalance its relations between India and Pakistan in 1996 in a remarkable speech delivered on 2sd December by President Jiang Zemin in Islamabad. After a number of standard paragraphs on the “deep friendship” between China and Pakistan, Jiang then turned to the importance of “South Asia” to Beijing, then, in front of a growing audience. dismayed, began to praise “the multidimensional exchanges and cooperation between China and various countries in Southeast Asia.” India’s name never left his lips, but it was clear to all that China intended to rebalance its Indian and Pakistani relations.

To capture the ambition behind the speech, two passages are worth repeating; “China and the countries of South Asia are all members of the developing world who are dedicated… to developing their economies and improving the living conditions of their people. They all need a peaceful and stable international environment and, in particular, an enabling environment. “

And “China will support, as always, regional cooperation in South Asia, support the proposal and initiative for the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in South Asia and a zone of peace in the Indian Ocean, and will support all efforts aimed at serving peace, stability and development in the South. Asian region.

India’s nuclear tests just 18 months later killed off the rebalancing in its infancy, but the feelings are arguably truer today than in 1996. If Pakistan and Afghanistan are to survive, they must open their borders with India and become transit routes to Central Asia. Now that the United States has left the scene, only China can facilitate such ambitions. The alternative is more terrorism and instability in an area where there are far too many nuclear weapons. Even without a new Cold War, Beijing’s current trajectory is too dangerous.

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