The Chinese influence, which is now extending into Afghanistan through iron-brother Pakistan, has ensured that even die-hard terror groups like the Taliban keep quiet on the Chinese campaign to culturally, ethnically and ideologically change the Uyghurs-the people of East Turkistan province, renamed Xinjiang by China.
With the Americans under President Donald Trump clear about withdrawing from Afghanistan, possibly by year-end itself, China has sensed opportunity to fill up the vacuum. The Doha agreement between the Americans and the Taliban, minus the Afghan government, was a catalyst for China to jump into the Af-Pak region.
For China, reaching out to the Taliban has many strategic advantages. For one it will be able to extend its sphere of influence in South Asia and the Middle East. Secondly, and equally important, it will ensure that the teeming Islamic terror organizations in the region do not make efforts to reach out to Xinjiang and breed terror or an independence movement there.
To ensure that the Taliban takes the Chinese offer seriously, it made an offer to the group through Pakistan to extend the super-sized China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)-the marquee project of the BRI-to Afghanistan. The Chinese offer to the Taliban is to make highways and connect all Afghan cities to each other. Other offers include energy projects to develop Afghanistan while the Taliban has to promise peace in return.
China is also eyeing Afghanistan’s considerable mineral riches. Chinese companies had won contracts to mine copper and explore oil but could not do so due to the internal strife in the country. China would be keenly looking at re-working on the contracts.
Afghanistan’s geographical location as a connecting point between South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East too is tempting for China to step in.
With so much to gain, thanks to the Pakistani influence, China has not overlooked its relations with the Afghan government. Besides talking to the Taliban, it has been engaging with the Afghan government as well. China has been able to persuade the government over a border agreement to allow Chinese troops to patrol the border in the Wakhan region with a view to ensuring that no cross-border movement takes place between the independence-seeking Uyghurs and the militants that flourish on Afghan soil.
Sporadic news reports have come out over China trying to set up a military base in the northern parts of Afghanistan, again with a view to keeping a check on Xinjiang.
The US presence in Afghanistan was a military one-to keep terrorism at bay, and also nurture democratic forces in the country and society. With China, democracy is not going to be a bother. Its interest will be confined to keeping militancy out of Xinjiang and getting away with the ethnic cleansing of Muslims while demolishing their religion and culture. The other interests will be to extend CPEC into Afghanistan, open up trade routes to Central Asia and the Middle East and lastly, get space for its boots on Afghan ground.
All of this is possible once the Americans bid adieu. To ensure this, Pakistan is pulling out all stops to bring the Taliban and China to the negotiating table. A few months back, China had invited Afghanistan to join the BRI, and partake in its benefits just as Pakistan and Nepal had done.
West to Afghanistan lies Iran, which is developing closer relations with China due to the unending American pressure over its support for terrorism and nuclear issues. With a depleting economy and much financial strife, Iran signed a massive deal with China for oil, after which it also invited the Chinese to invest in rail networks linking the Chabahar port-which ironically India had built.
For China, netting Afghanistan will mean a large swathe of contiguous area in the form of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran with access to many ports in Pakistan and Iran, allowing it to bypass South East Asia for its oil supplies.
For India, Chinese presence in Afghanistan will be an added headache considering that the duo of Pakistan and China have not left any table unturned-terrorism, cross-border infiltration, shelling, supporting terror networks in various regions, salami-slicing and even creating a war-like situation-to marginalize India. For most part, it has been effective as well.
The implications for India are enormous. Looking at this complex matrix, it slowly opened up to talks with the Taliban. The group’s spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen, invited Indian participation in the intra-Afghan peace talks during a web-session with an Indian think tank. Significantly, Shaheen added that the group will not interfere in India’s internal issues including Kashmir. Experts interpret this as realization among the Taliban that India’s presence in Afghanistan has been benign and based entirely on development and reconstruction; therefore, India cannot be kept out of the talks. In fact, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar even addressed the first face-to-face intra-Afghan talks that eventually took place in Doha last month, stressing upon all parties to find an all-Afghan solution.
Afghanistan has remained an unpredictable place. It is a quagmire. Once the Americans move out, things will change rapidly-something which the common Afghan fears. Despite the intra-Afghan peace talks, violence and bloodshed have continued unabated violating the spirit of the talks.
At another level, all Afghan governments in the last two decades have maintained positive relations with India. Despite the overtures by China in Afghanistan, it would not be easy to dislodge India from the landlocked country. With the current low in the relations between the two Asian giants, India has to look at China in the eye and take it on. Or, be read to accept irrelevance in the South Asian region, and consequently the world.