Friday, August 26, 2016
China has quietly decided to exercise leadership in plugging the roots of instability in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, following Washington’s diminishing role in the region, and compulsions of its One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, says a senior Chinese researcher.
China’s decision to turn proactive along the turbulent AfPak-Central Asia corridor was anchored earlier this month. Top military commanders from China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan met in Urumqi, capital of China’s Xinjiang province on August 3, to form a “Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism in Counter Terrorism.”
In an exclusive interview with The Hindu, Hu Shisheng, Director of the Institute of South and Southeast Asian and Oceanian Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said: “The background to this is that we found that those in Xinjiang who seek independence and who even want to go outside to join the battlefield with ISIS and other terrorists, choose this route between China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and even Pakistan to the training grounds in West Asia. Consequently, in recent years China has dramatically enhanced its military assistance to Tajikistan. Recently, we decided to increase this kind of military cooperation with Afghanistan. We want to plug this flow between Xinjiang and Tajikistan and Tajikistan and Afghanistan.”
Dr. Hu stressed that the urgency of establishing the new military “quadrilateral mechanism,” followed the disruption of another quadrilateral dialogue on seeking a political reconciliation in Afghanistan, involving China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States. “That mechanism has become dysfunctional more or less after the killing in a drone attack of Akhtar Mansour, the Afghan Taliban leader, in Baluchistan while he was returning from Iran. This has totally disrupted the whole process. Besides relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan were going rapidly downhill.”
The Chinese scholar highlighted that the new military mechanism of the quartet was “open-ended”, and would develop in tune with the rapidly evolving situation.
‘Scope of military involvement’
Asked to comment on the anticipated scope of China’s military involvement in Afghanistan, Dr. Hu said: “We have already started with the training. As for weapons supply, that has also begun. As for sending what the westerners call military advisors, the special envoys that have been appointed can more or less share that kind of role. But regarding sending troops — I am not so sure of that — as it would mark a dramatic shift from our past policies. But of course if the situation goes totally out of control and United Nations demands that they need some regional countries to contribute, then China might oblige. But China, in the near future cannot follow the U.S. and NATO model.”
Dr. Hu underscored that China was seeking a political solution to the Afghan crisis to promote the OBOR initiative, and on grounds of enhancing its national security.
“Osama killing a benchmark”
“The killing of Osama bin Laden was a benchmark, as it marked the Obama administration’s policy to scale down American presence in Afghanistan. Ever since, China has given more and more importance to its bilateral ties with Afghanistan. China has to plug the resulting vacuum because no one else would. This is necessary to secure OBOR. Then there are compulsions of safeguarding the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Xinjiang’s stability is another big concern,” Dr. Hu said.
He added: “China has to find some way to achieve political reconciliation. Of course this is through Pakistan’s facilitation, but also unilaterally, as was evident when China recently invited some of the representatives from the Doha office of the Afghan Taliban.”
Modi reference to Baluchistan
The Chinese researcher asserted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s references to Baluchistan during his Independence Day speech had caused a “major disturbance at least among Chinese academics,” because of its possible regional fallout. “It signals a watershed moment in India’s policy towards Pakistan in the future. We cannot figure out what could be its result and consequences, but my personal hunch is that it could be disastrous for the whole region; for all the relations — especially between Pakistan and India, China and India, especially among the three countries. That is the real concern.”
Dr. Hu signaled that China had deepened its stakes in restoring stability in Pakistan, and the CPEC was a step in that direction. “I think the focus is now on CPEC. So whatever efforts, policies, approaches that can insure that CPEC can be a success story, China and Pakistan will do that, including how to deal with Afghanistan, and address the relationship between the civil and military establishments within Pakistan.”
The scholar added: “The intensity of the relationship between China and Pakistan has increased dramatically. Even the anti-terror cooperation has transformed into a new level.”
Asked as to why China did not consult India in advance before starting the CPEC which passed through what India calls Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), Dr. Hu said: “We are focusing on projects which are not
in the disputed area. You can see the blueprint; there is not one single impressive project in the disputed area. We know quite clearly the costs and sensitivities involved.”
But the Chinese scholar pointed out that domestic security considerations were driving Beijing not to pursue an entirely hands-off approach towards the “disputed territory.”
China faces a dilemma
“China will be facing spillover of all kinds of evil forces which will have disastrous consequences. But once you get involved in the stability of the disputed area, India says you are getting involved in disputed issues. So China really faces a dilemma here.”
Dr. Hu lauded the establishment of the high level dialogue mechanism, between India’s Foreign Secretary and China’s Vice Foreign Minister, during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to India earlier this month. “The significance of the mechanism is that the officials will talk about all sensitive issues, in a very candid and frank manner. Do not bother the top leaders about these kinds of sensitive issues. It will only bring greater embarrassment.”
“For Pakistan’s stability”
Dr. Hu pointed out that the strategic objective of China’s pursuit of the CPEC was not to avoid the oceanic trade route through the Malacca Straits, but to impart economic and political stability to Pakistan, with an eye on promoting OBOR. “Our real purpose is that by undertaking construction of industrial parks, the Gwadar port construction and establishing inter-linkages within Pakistan, we would be able to transform the internal structure of Pakistan, and even shift some of China’s industrial overcapacity into Pakistan.”
Acknowledges Pak dichotomy
Dr. Hu acknowledged the dichotomous nature of the Pakistani state by referring to the dealings between Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani with his interlocutors in Islamabad. “My personal understanding is that [Mr.] Ashraf Ghani had put all the eggs in the Pakistani basket, under the belief that Pakistan has the capacity and the resources to force Taliban to the negotiating table. But he neglected one very
important aspect, that Pakistan is not a unified decision-making machine.” He added: “So if Mr. Ghani engages with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, then Mr. Sharif may not have the resources and capacity to
exert pressure, for example on the ISI.”
By Syed Kamran Hashmi
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Once voted back into power, experts thought Mian Nawaz Sharif with his decades of experience would emerge as a different politician: focused, mature and prepared for institutional reforms the country so badly needs. That he would, at least, this time rely upon people empowering them at the grassroots level not only to protect himself but also the democratic process from being derailed.