The China-Pakistan-Taliban-Iran Nexus – Analysis

Sun Tzu, the pioneer of Chinese military thought and author of the famed treatise ‘The Art of War’, has influenced China’s strategy. With the objective of weakening the enemy, Sun Tzu propagated several measures to ensure the outcome of any conflict would be predetermined. “Ultimate excellence lies, not in winning every battle, but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting. The highest form of warfare is to attack (the enemy’s) strategy itself, the next, to attack (his) alliances….”

In the last decade, having gained economic and military muscle, China has followed Sun Tzu’s strategy and is now focussed on alliances – building its own and weakening that of its adversaries.

This became evident with the announcement of the $63 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 2015. CPEC was followed by the 2016 Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) that China inked with Iran, committing $400 billion in investment over 25 years. These were aimed to establish China as a superpower that sought dominance on land and not as a regional maritime power that projected capacity near its shores. Together, the CPEC and the CSP boosted China’s credentials as the only challenger to America in West Asia, even as it displayed intent to move beyond Tibet and its Western borders with India. The CPEC and CSP are part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which hopes to extend itself further to Afghanistan and Russia. The objective is to create a seamless corridor of economic clout translating into disproportionate geopolitical influence.

India’s potential to become a balancing force against China, based on its favourable demographics and rising economy, is a recurring Chinese concern. To address this, China has doubled up its partnership with Pakistan – a strategy that has received a fillip after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

Since late 2018, when the U.S.-Taliban peace talks gained momentum, China’s investment in Pakistan has expanded from being focused only on the economic to the geostrategic. Beijing used Islamabad as a gateway to carve out an enhanced role for itself in war-torn Kabul. It became an integral stakeholder in the decision-making process and used Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban to reduce India’s role. Xi Jinping has long sought a larger play for China in Afghanistan and the installation of a Taliban-led Afghan government meant hostility ties with India and the U.S. Extending the CPEC by building a multi-modal trans-Himalayan corridor via Afghanistan and Nepal is another opportunity for China to undermine its rivals. Consequently, in the new great regional game, despite its generous aid programmes in Afghanistan, India is now strategically disadvantaged by Pakistan’s access, geographical proximity and close ties with the Taliban, and the backing China provides.

Since August, when American forces withdrew from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s links with Taliban have only deepened. It will embolden China’s plans to create a nexus of countries that have a common desire to undermine the rule of law, challenge the status quo and establish a Sino-centric global order. Afghanistan will join this list, along with Pakistan, Iran and Russia, providing enough leverage to China to hurt Indian interests and undercut American influence in the region.

For years, it was believed that China’s singular focus towards achieving the numero uno position in Asia would be via the maritime route, given its obsession with Taiwan and a growing desire to undo colonial subjugation under Japan, or its ‘century of humiliation’. It was assumed that China’s expansive maritime strategy, partly explaining the furious pace of its ship-building industry since early 2010, was a precursor to sea-based hegemonic tendencies. China’s maritime aggression and illegal land grab in the Indo-Pacific has had limited challenges. Now, China hopes its new Asian alliance too will not face global resistance. It will use its BRI program to pump money into Afghanistan and exploit regional fault lines.

The September 24 Quad leaders’ Summit is indicative of the blowback from world powers to China’s over-reach. But it may not be enough. While the four-member mechanism is focused on the Indo-Pacific, China has moved the theatre of contestation to West, South and Central Asia.

China’s sabre-rattling on Taiwan, Xi’s statement that China will not hesitate to use force, is clearly looks like part of a larger strategy. Instead, it is not Taiwan, but China’s carefully-nurtured formation in Central and West Asia that will be instrumental in China’s global power projection. For India, this presents several challenges ranging from economic concerns to heightened security risks. New Delhi’s efforts to eliminate the elaborate terrorist infrastructure that operates in the re-hyphenated Af-Pak region will be severely dented by the new trio of China-Pakistan-Afghanistan. India’s hopes to utilize Afghanistan’s and Iran’s location to connect with the Central Asian markets will recede for now. China will export Iranian energy to the Gwadar port in Pakistan, which will eventually be used for military purposes. Though Iran does not accept Xi Jinping’s China-first global view, the CSP will impact India-Iran trade and India’s energy security.

India needs to recalibrate its China policy keeping in mind its interests in the entire West and Central Asian region. New Delhi must attempt to remain relevant in the present dispensation in Kabul, to ensure that China does not exploit the Pakistan-Taliban nexus. Despite the increasing bipolarity of the world, due to the intensifying rivalry between America and China, India must leverage its deep ties with Russia to become a key stakeholder in Afghanistan.

The purchase of S-400 and the $3 billion deal to lease Russian nuclear powered Akula class submarines is a sign India will keep its options open with Moscow. With 65% of Indian defence equipment being of Russian origin, India will need spare parts and will, therefore, always engage with Moscow.

Taliban’s impact on religious extremism will have a long tail and will therefore, be felt by the entire region. Besides India, religious extremism could stir in Bangladesh, Maldives, Mauritius and Indonesia as Al Qaeda and ISIS hope to gain a space in Asia. New Delhi must take the lead by pushing for a concerted regional response to the same. This will offer a window for broader engagement after these countries have been wooed by Chinese cheques.

Since 2001, Afghanistan has become the focal point of America’s West Asia policy. Two decades later, China is attempting to do the same. For India, the stakes have never been higher.