During the past few weeks, the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan have visited China. Less than a month after his installation as Hamid Karzai's successor, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai went on a four-day trip to Beijing at the end of October — his first foreign trip — and secured $245 million in aid over the next three years as well as training for 3,000 Afghan officials spread over five years. Less than two weeks later, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spent three days in the Chinese capital and got Beijing to pledge some $42 billion worth of investments, mainly in the power and energy sectors.
China's financial commitment to Afghanistan is minor compared to what Beijing has promised Pakistan (although Beijing has its eyes on what a U.S. geological survey said amounts to $3 trillion in untapped mineral and energy resources in Afghanistan). Additionally, the extent to which China will make good on its promises to invest in Pakistan is unclear. Both Islamabad and Kabul face sizable jihadist insurgencies and political instability; in mid-September, Chinese President Xi Jinping had to cancel his visit to Pakistan in the wake of large twin sit-ins organized by the movements led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and cleric-politician Tahir-ul-Qadri.
China's Strategic Interests
Nevertheless, Afghanistan and Pakistan are of geopolitical significance for China. Pakistan is a key ally in the Indian Ocean Basin, and Afghanistan is critical to Beijing's plans to further its economic interests involving Central Asia. Before it can leverage either country, China needs to ensure that the Pakistani and Afghan security problems return to tolerable levels.
Beijing's immediate concern is that both countries are sanctuaries for ethnic Uighur Islamist militant forces that represent a major security threat to the Chinese government. China is also concerned about the broader security environment in the region that enables terrorism and extremist networks to proliferate on its doorstep. The threat of further destabilization, especially in China's restive Xinjiang region, further explains why both the Afghan president and the Pakistani prime minister vowed to help China fight the East Turkistan Islamic Movement. Anti-China jihadist forces have become a greater concern for Beijing, given how the NATO drawdown from Afghanistan could affect security in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
China has to make sure that the Afghan and Pakistani states are strong enough to contain the resurgence of violent Islamist non-state actors attempting to exploit the post-NATO security vacuum. Beijing's strategy is to work with Islamabad, which is far stronger politically than Kabul and holds the key to dealing with jihadists in the region, which is based in the cross-border Pashtun lands. However, the Pakistani political economy has weakened to dangerous levels since 2007 and needs shoring up. China's fear is that if the Pakistani state deteriorates further, Afghanistan and Pakistan could closely resemble the current Syrian-Iraqi battlefield in the near future.
For these reasons, China is committing far more financial resources in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, largely to revive the country's power and energy sector. This could help revitalize Pakistan's economy, which in turn would prevent further unrest and help Islamabad counter the jihadist threat within its borders. If Pakistan does not regain its political and economic balance on the home front, then it cannot possibly be useful in managing Afghanistan. Indeed, the Chinese have been worried about the Pakistanis' ability to deny Uighur jihadists a sanctuary. However, the six-month-old Operation Zarb-e-Azb offensive in North Waziristan — which is slowly becoming a nationwide campaign — has increased Beijing's confidence.
Beijing will proceed slowly in its work with Pakistan, considering that Islamabad has far to go before China will feel comfortable about increasing its investments. Pakistan knows this, which is why Sharif specifically mentioned during his trip to Beijing that his government is fully committed to making sure that Uighur Islamist militants do not threaten China. He also assured his Chinese hosts that Islamabad would make every effort possible to protect Chinese individuals and interests in Pakistan.
Pakistan is in dire need of foreign investment. Because U.S. and Western investors have shied away from the country, Islamabad is relying heavily on the Chinese, who generally have a much higher tolerance for risk and see Islamabad as key to securing China's interests in South Asia. Although China is not a substitute for the West, it is the only other great power that Pakistan can rely on as an ally.
The Sharif government has a strong domestic political incentive to encourage China's investment in the Pakistani energy sector. Sharif came to power pledging that he would significantly reduce the electricity shortages that have caused rolling blackouts across the country and have undermined commerce. His party has a pro-business reputation to uphold, and demonstrating that it can perform is even more important now that opposition figures Khan and Qadri have managed to weaken Sharif's government.
Beyond the domestic political and economic interests, Islamabad needs Beijing to help strengthen its relationship with Kabul. India has had far stronger ties with the Afghan government, given Islamabad's historical ties to the Taliban. In the past several years, during which Pakistan has had to deal with its own Taliban insurgency, its efforts to move away from the Afghan Taliban and build ties with Kabul have increased. New Delhi's close relationship with the Karzai regime and other stakeholders within the Afghan state, coupled with a lack of trust between Islamabad and Kabul, has prevented the Pakistanis from making much headway.
As Ghani Ahmadzai and Afghan CEO Abdullah Abdullah take the helm in Kabul, Afghanistan's new leaders see value in working with the Chinese. Moreover, amid an apparent cooling of ties with India after the election of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Pakistan hopes that with China's help it will be able to decrease or offset India's influence in Afghanistan and deal with the jihadist threat more effectively in concert with the Afghan government and its security forces. However, those entities rely completely on outside support and investment. To this end, Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, visited Kabul on Nov. 6 — a trip that has made Islamabad optimistic about relations with Afghanistan. Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar flew to Kabul on Nov. 10, two days after he was appointed as director-general of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. The Afghan president is expected to visit Islamabad soon as well.
A great deal of change is underway in Afghanistan. NATO forces are due to complete their drawdown in about a month and a half, leaving a residual force of 12,000 mostly U.S. military personnel. Less than two months ago, the country got its first new president since the founding of the post-Taliban government in 2002. A new power-sharing agreement is in place for the post-Karzai era, with Abdullah — Ghani Ahmadzai's main opponent in the presidential election — being appointed as CEO.
These changing circumstances have altered the Afghans' strategic outlook. For the longest time, Kabul tried to use its close ties to New Delhi to shape Islamabad's behavior. In recent years, Afghanistan has realized that this approach has offered limited gains. While Afghanistan shares a long border with Pakistan, it has no land connection with India, making New Delhi both unable and unwilling to go beyond a limited involvement in the country.
Here is where China offers far better purchase, given how important relations with the Chinese are to the Pakistanis. With Beijing deeply concerned about how post-NATO Afghanistan could threaten its security, Kabul is trying to get China to press Pakistan into cooperating against the Taliban. Beijing certainly can help, but the main driver for this process is that the Taliban have gone from a foreign policy tool to a national security threat for the Pakistanis.
This situation has been emerging for many years, but lately Pakistan has actively targeted the Afghan Taliban's sanctuary in North Waziristan as part of Operation Zarb-e-Azb. Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, a senior commander for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, noted in a Pentagon-hosted video briefing from Kabul that Pakistan's offensive in North Waziristan has disrupted and splintered the Haqqani wing of the Afghan Taliban movement active in eastern Afghanistan. The cross-border Taliban phenomenon cannot be managed through a mix of military means and negotiations without bilateral cooperation between Kabul and Islamabad.
What Lies Ahead?
The regional arrangement required to prevent the Afghan-Pakistani border region from turning into a base for an alleged caliphate or emirate that undermines both governments and threatens regional security is taking shape. Neither Chinese investment that will re-energize the Pakistani state nor Afghan-Pakistani cooperation is a given. However, these two factors are the critical ingredients that can help create a bulwark to prevent the region from becoming worse than it was before 9/11.