China's Af-Pak Gameplans: Signals to incoming US Administration?
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Issue Courtesy: South Asia Monitor | Date : 23 Nov , 2016

China’s President Xi Jinping is seeking an early meeting with US President-elect Donald Trump. In his congratulatory message to Trump, Xi mentioned China’s keenness to move forward on a ‘new type of relationship’ with the US. Xi has also said that if US under Trump joins the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), it would be good.

Having concentrated power unto himself at par with — if not higher than — Mao Zedong, Xi is essentially playing at the businessman in Trump, concurrent to announcing creation of a multi-billion dollar investment fund for  Central and Eastern Europe through an investment of $50 billion. But at the same time, Xi is acutely aware that Trump is likely to exert economic pressure on China.

Xi is also fully aware of Trump’s views on terrorism. In a media interview in September 2015, Trump had said that the US should use India’s help to deal with Pakistan if it becomes ‘unstable’ in the future, albeit qualifying that North Korea was a more immediate threat than Pakistan because it was already “a rogue group with nukes”.

This may be pre-election rhetoric but Xi will use all his charm and strategic pressure points for Trump to continue with the same benevolent posture that the outgoing Barack Obama administration maintained towards Pakistan.

Xi would be confident that the ‘H.R.6069, the Pakistan State Sponsor of Terrorism Designation Act’, introduced in the US Congress on September 20, 2016 would likely not go through, but Trump is likely to take a harder stance than Obama to Pakistan’s double game; with all the evidence and admissions by Lt Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha, former Director-General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence; former President Pervez Musharraf and Michael Hayden, former CIA Director expressing frustration over Pakistan’s inaction against terrorist groups, particularly against al-Qaida, Taliban, LeT and the Haqqani network.

Over the years, the China-Pakistan sub-conventional nexus has fully matured and is giving strategic dividends. China has deep links with Taliban. Recently even a Qatar-based Taliban delegation visited Beijing complaining of Taliban casualties in the Helmand region of Afghanistan because of US forces.

Pakistan has adequate grip on both Taliban through Sirajuddin Haqqani, chief of Haqqani Network. ISIS in Af-Pak is the creation of Pakistan’s ISI and, most importantly, all Pakistani proxies also are Chinese proxies. Since the strategic lodgement by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and initiation of the $46 billion Chinese investment in the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Pakistan-sponsored terror attacks in Afghanistan and Jammu & Kashmir have shot up exponentially, with China manoeuvering the strings from the background.

The Taliban capture of parts of Kunduz last September-October and the present Taliban offensive in Kunduz helped US interests to exert pressure on Russia through Central Asia. Russia was forced to increase its military presence in Tajikistan. Such attacks also pressure the Afghan government to acquiesce more to China-Pakistan.

The CPEC being China’s strategic highway to the Indian Ocean with Gwadar coming up as PLA Navy’s future SSBN base, no other county is as indispensable to China than Pakistan; far more vital than her other protégé North Korea. This is why China will continue to shield Pakistan’s misdeeds, terrorism and protect Pakistan-based terrorist organisations and radical-terrorist leaders like Masood Azhar.

The Pakistani objective of carving out more Afghan territory as strategic depth (implying influence at sub-conventional level) is in sync with China’s strategic designs. Pakistan’s growing hostility towards India suits China similarly. India may say that there is adequate space for both India and China to grow economically but China goes strictly by what former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in his book ‘The Grand Chess Board’ published in 1997: “China and India are destined by geography to be rivals. With venerable cultures and vast populations, they are likely to compete with each other for resources and influence.”

China makes no bones about her desire for US and NATO forces to quit Afghanistan. In fact, both China and Pakistan have been working consistently towards this as members of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) on Afghanistan — the other two members being the US and Afghanistan. That is why the façade of bringing Taliban to the negotiating table even as Pakistan accuses the US of having killed Mullah Akhtar Mansour because he was prepared to come overground and join the reconciliation process.

In March this year, China proposed a joint counter-terrorism mechanism with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan; showcasing her efforts to bolster security in the region. This was perhaps to inject the idea that China can be central to counter-terrorism in the region ‘in lieu’ of the US. Strangely, China did not include Uzbekistan in this proposed counter-terrorism mechanism despite the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) fully aligned with the ISI and active in the Af-Pak region.

But talking of peace and development has not prevented China from using sub-conventional muscle through Pakistan to extract heavy price in terms of lives in Afghanistan, including of Americans, NATO forces and westerners.

Therefore, terror attacks like on the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul killing 12 people; on the German Consulate at Mazar-i-Sharif, capital of Balkh Province in northern Afghanistan killing six people and wounding more than 120 including 19 women and 38 children; and suicide attack at Bagram airfield killing four Americans, wounding 16 other US service personnel and one Polish soldier participating in the NATO mission are likely to increase aimed at making the presence of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan more costly. 

With Trump’s pre-election ambivalence to Obama’s ‘Pivot Asia’ policy, China would hope that US-NATO forces quit Afghanistan giving her free strategic space in Af-Pak; linking up with the Indian Ocean, Iran and increasing her influence in Central Asia. China will also be hoping against any US-Russia rapprochement. 

At the same time, both China and Pakistan understand that playing the ‘victim of terror’ card is essential for Pakistan since it not only evokes sympathy but helps deflect attention from the proxy wars waged on Afghanistan and India — directly by Pakistan and indirectly by China using her historical stratagem of ‘kill with borrowed knife’. 

Therefore, there are repeated terror attacks in Balochistan like on the police training academy at Quetta killing 59 people and critically wounding 120; and bomb blasts at the shrine of Sufi saint Shah Noorani, some 750 kms south of Quetta  killing 52 people and wounding 105, many critically.

Such attacks aid Islamabad’s designs to subdue the Baluch population and eliminate maximum non-Sunnis in the country. Terror attacks against Baluchis suit China very well too as it desists Baluch insurgents from any feeble attempts to disrupt the CPEC which anyway is guarded by the Pakistani army.

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China may even offer to ‘go slow’ in Western Pacific to persuade the US in lieu of more strategic space to China in South Asia. To what extent Xi will succeed in dealing with Donald Trump only time will tell but from the face of it for the US to abandon Afghanistan would be catastrophic for Afghanistan and the entire region. Such a move would also cease US influence in the region altogether.

During the Pentagon Press Briefing in July this year, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter had said: “The United States will continue to provide military support to Afghan security forces to make sure that they were successful”, while General Joseph Dunford, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff added: “I don’t think anybody would suggest that our work is complete in Afghanistan, nor will that work be complete anytime in the near future. And our continued presence into 2017 and financial support by NATO, as approved at Warsaw (NATO summit earlier this month), will continue out to 2020.”

Afghanistan actually needs international commitment and presence of US-NATO troops far beyond 2020.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army.

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