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China's road to Kabul runs through Islamabad

On the eve of his visit to Pakistan, Chinese President Xi Jinping wrote an editorial in both Chinese and Pakistani newspapers emphasizing the unique and matchless bond between the two nations.

     The tone of the article starts off with sentimental early childhood memories of Pakistan and moves swiftly into economic, diplomatic and security strategies.

     "When I was young, I heard many stories about Pakistan and our country; to name a few I learnt that the beautiful country of Pakistan opened an air corridor for China to reach out to the world and supported China in restoring its lawful seat in the U.N.," Xi wrote.

     The recently concluded trip by Xi was a public announcement of a Pakistan-China alliance focused on diplomacy and security, given uncertainty in the Middle East and beyond. The 50 year military relationship between the two countries has been muted, apart from joint exercises and war games between their air forces.

     China has been careful to avoid involvement in Pakistan's domestic political chaos. Unlike the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, the two other constants in Pakistan's evolution, China does not meddle with the shenanigans of Pakistan's political sagas. This is what sets China apart from the Saudis and Americans.

     Xi's visit was all the more significant because prior to Xi's arrival, Pakistan Army Chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, visited China twice this year to set the tone for the visit. Gen. Sharif has been in charge of handling China since public uproar erupted against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government, because of concerns about Pakistan's deteriorating security situation, as well as economic and energy crises.

     Sharif's first two years as prime minister have been accompanied by a steady rise in sectarian violence, energy shortages as well as diplomatic rows with close allies such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. So what do Gen. Sharif's visits to China mean in terms of practical changes? For the first time, we are witnessing a more public show of the Pakistan-China military relationship. As China sees great unease in the streets of Pakistan vis-a-vis Sharif, it has slowly choreographed a more prominent alignment with Pakistan's generals.

Welcome Xi

An April 20 advertisement supplement in a Pakistani newspaper, Dawn News, had two very striking ads, which were accompanied by welcome messages from the Pakistan Air Force's Aeronautical Complex and from Lt. Gen. Syed Wajid Hussain, chairman of Heavy Industries Taxila.

     This public welcome and the announcement by Pakistan's top general in charge of the military's heavy manufacturing industry make the growing closeness of the security partnership obvious.

     Xi's editorial discussed how Pakistan created an air corridor for China in the early days of the communist republic. For China's leadership today, the significance of this early help is not lost. When most of the international community was shunning China in the 1950s and 1960s, Pakistan reached out, helping with everything from diplomatic meetings to commercial and security arrangements.

     Now, 50 years on, the roles are reversed. As Pakistan drifts from one problem to the next and the international community appears weary of Pakistan, China has stepped in to give India's northern neighbor a much-needed military lifeline.

     It is often said that three A's define Pakistan -- Allah, America and the Army. In practical terms, this has meant an energy pipeline through Saudi Arabia, and a military and security alliance with the U.S. Since its creation in 1947, Pakistan has been firmly in the sphere of U.S. influence, first being a member of the Central Treaty Organziation, a now-defunct security pact between Middle Eastern nations and Britain, and then one of the leading nonmember allies of NATO.

     The Saudi-U.S.-Pakistan security triangle was fully realized during the 1980s, when it was with U.S. weapons and Saudi money that Pakistan-trained Afghans drove the Soviet army from their country. However this same circle began to come undone during the 2001 war in Afghanistan when the U.S. led its NATO allies in an invasion of the country to fight a primarily Saudi-financed jihad.

     U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan led to Saudi unease. Fallout from tensions between Iran, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. worsened the situation. Complicating matters further, militants from the Arab world and Afghanistan poured into Pakistan after 2001, sparking violence that has claimed 40,000 lives. 

     The U.S. has also become more concerned about the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, and over the last decade have made various attempts to curtail Pakistan's powerful military by encouraging an overhaul of its security forces. Pakistan's recent refusal to take part in a Saudi-led campaign in Yemen drew a ferocious backlash from Riyadh and other Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. All this provides China the perfect opportunity to try and fill the shoes of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

Renewed interest

China views its Uighur population with suspicion. While Turkey and Arab countries have given Muslim separatists tacit approval to fight the Chinese, Pakistan has always stood staunchly with Beijing.

     Gen. Sharif has taken the lead in bringing the fight to China's enemy, including along Afghanistan's narrow Wakhan Corridor on the Tajik-Afghan border. For China, Afghanistan has also provided an opportunity to take its foreign policy beyond the economic corridor. Over the last two decades, China has expanded its foreign influence through global aid and trade. However, it is in Afghanistan that one can argue the world has seen the birth of Chinese diplomatic muscle. How is this so?

     As the U.S. withdrew from Iraq and reduced its forces in Afghanistan to some 10,000 troops, China saw an increasingly volatile Middle East as a threat to the world. The rise of the Islamic State group in four Afghan provinces also changes the dynamics of the country. The Afghan Taliban has courted and negotiated with the Chinese government in a bid to reassure its impartiality regarding China's restive Uighur Muslim population. China 10 years ago would never have spoken to a non-state actor in a neighboring country. However, China has been compelled to act given the current chaos.

     China is also looking carefully at Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, as instability in Afghanistan historically overflows into Central Asia.

Holding all the cards

After more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, NATO has finally come to the conclusion that it is only Pakistan that holds all the cards. When the invasion of Afghanistan was launched in late 2001, Pakistan was at pains to explain to the Americans that the Taliban were not the same as al-Qaida.

     The U.S. and NATO have now come to the negotiating table with the Taliban through the auspices of Pakistan. The Taliban office in Doha did not work out. Pakistan had advised China that the Qatari overtures to the Taliban would come to no avail. Since the coming of Gen. Raheel Sharif, the Pakistan Army has made a doctrinal shift in helping NATO and the Afghan government. This has also coincided with the coming of a new Afghan leadership under Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abudllah Abdullah.

     Gen. Raheel Sharif has upped the military and intelligence cooperation, Peshawar and Quetta Corps Commanders are now in weekly contact with Southern and Western commands of the Afghan Army. Raheel Sharif has also instructed Director General of Military Operations, Maj. Gen. Amir Riaz and the powerful Inter-Service Intelligence Chief Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar to work with the Afghan intelligence on all fronts. Afghanistan had for the last decade said that without Pakistani cooperation there could be no stability in Afghanistan.

     Now the Pakistan Army are also coordinating Afghan security operations with the Chinese security services. The Indians have also complained that Chinese military and security officials have been spotted in Gilgit and Kashmir, which is too close for comfort for the Indians. Western observers have long argued that the Afghan endgame is linked to Kashmir and the newly created province of Gilgit-Baltistan. China with its own Kashmir problem with India as well as coordinating the counter insurgency against the Uighurs, needs to be sure which groups are operating out of Afghanistan.

     In the 1990s, it was easier to analyze Afghanistan, on one side was the Taliban and the others were under Ahmad Shah Massoud and the Northern Alliance. However, post 2001 the power structure has changed, there is a new breed of war lords both northern and southern, and they are more flexible in working with Pakistan and the ISI. Pakistan has opened up several university and hospital projects in the North and improved their relationships with the ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks.

     China is still new to understanding Afghanistan and Chinese diplomats can often be seen in Islamabad at the Pakistan-China Institute and the Institute of Regional Studies attending workshops as they try to understand the myriad alliances that hold Afghanistan together. The different power groups now emerging in Afghanistan consist of drug mafias, Islamic groups and black market smugglers that pose threats to China.

Drugs and insurgencies

China has one of the world's strictest counter narcotics programs and is aware that Iran and Pakistan have both suffered at the hands of Afghan drug mafias with the two largest drug addicted populations in the world. The insurgency that has emerged both in China and Pakistan has strong links to Central Asia drug cartels mixed with religious ideologies. 

     It is no coincidence that China has also provided its latest attack helicopters free of cost to the Pakistan Army to test their operational feasibility. Gilgit and Chitral at the same time pose threats to China in terms of the emerging sectarian violence there and groups claiming that China is clamping down on Muslim religious activities in China, requiring taking the fight across the border. China sees Pakistan's understanding of Afghanistan as critical to securing its Western flank against not just Afghan but Uzbek instability as well. 

     China knows that the Middle East will see more trouble if Iran and Saudi Arabia draw swords. Pakistan's stance on Yemen has shown that it, and its military, no longer see Saudi Arabia as the essential partner. China has pounced swiftly to calm Pakistani fears of any encirclement or insecurity. However, this might also reflect China's own unease with the shifting paradigm in the Middle East. China is slowly but surely making its presence felt in places the U.S. considers its sphere of influence, the Persian Gulf and West Asia.

Kamal Alam is a fellow for Middle East regional defense and security issues at the Institute for Statecraft.

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