assessments

China's Security Ambitions in South and Central Asia

6 MINS READMar 18, 2016 | 09:00 GMT
(AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese soldiers and Pakistani special operations forces take part in a joint counterterrorism drill in Jhelum, Pakistan.
Summary

As China expands its economic reach, it is taking steps to protect its newfound interests abroad. On March 1, Beijing proposed a joint counterterrorism mechanism with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan in an effort to bolster security throughout the region. Though the initiative, if implemented, would not have an immediate impact on regional security or on China's geopolitical standing, it signals Beijing's intention to become more involved in security issues beyond its borders. As it does so, China will find itself shouldering more responsibility for providing and safeguarding stability throughout South and Central Asia — something that may not sit well with rival powers defending their own interests in the region. 

China's economic interests are quickly spreading across the globe, in large part because of its One Belt, One Road initiative. The goal of the initiative, which was launched in 2013, is to build up energy, trade and transit links among Central and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Europe. However, Beijing has begun to realize that many of those interests could easily be undermined by local threats. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, for instance, Taliban and Islamic State militants have ramped up their operations. Meanwhile, a growing number of fighters linked to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement have fled to Afghanistan in the wake of a Pakistani military operation that targeted the group. Many of these militants have surfaced near Afghanistan's northeastern border with China, a particularly troubling development for Beijing, which is concerned about the group staging attacks in China's restive Xinjiang province

China's latest counterterrorism project is meant to address the growing threat militancy poses to its South and Central Asian interests, as well as to its security at home. So far, Beijing has not disclosed the details of the proposed mechanism's structure, scope or funding, and Afghanistan is the only country that has voiced its support for the idea. However, this probably will not be the case for long. Others have shown great interest in stabilizing Afghanistan to prevent terrorist groups and refugees from flowing across its borders into the wider region. Perhaps more important, all four of the mechanism's potential members want to ensure that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — Beijing's $45 billion investment package for infrastructure, energy and transit projects linking Pakistan to China — is realized.  

Beijing's most recent proposal is not the only one of its kind, as China has been taking steps to ensure the security of its other economic ventures as well. On Feb. 29, for example, Tajikistan and China talked about establishing a joint counterterrorism center in Dushanbe. China has also taken a more active role in Afghanistan's peace and reconciliation process, pledging nearly $500 million in aid to the country's security sector. Moreover, Beijing has signed a deal with Pakistan for a 10,000-strong Pakistani force to guard the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. And it has increased its counterterrorism efforts in Central Asia under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

That said, there is one aspect of China's newest counterterrorism project that is unique: It creates a multilateral security framework in which China is the leading actor. That the mechanism would not fall under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's authority or take place in China's traditionally preferred bilateral setting speaks volumes about Beijing's determination to take its involvement in the region to the next level. It also suggests that China is becoming more assertive and more comfortable with the idea of providing security to other stakeholders, which it has largely shied away from in the past. China's emphasis on Afghanistan's stability, in particular, reflects a realization on Beijing's part that the country's development, security and integration with the rest of the region will play an important role in the success of the One Belt, One Road initiative.

Roadblocks to Implementation

But proposing a counterterrorism mechanism is not the same as establishing one. Many institutional obstacles and geopolitical constraints could impede China's efforts to see its proposal through. For one thing, the project — like many of Beijing's previous security initiatives — will be a learning experience; it will not become an effective institution overnight. Because of this, its members would probably start by sharing intelligence and enhancing cross-border counterterrorism capabilities, rather than increasing their direct involvement in joint counterterrorism operations. Given time, though, the group could boost coordination in border areas in support of counterterrorism operations led by Afghanistan and Pakistan.   

Pakistan's commitment to the mechanism, should it become a member, would also be crucial to the project's success. Pakistan has traditionally relied on militants to achieve its objectives in the region, though it has rarely admitted to providing sanctuary or support to them within its own borders. However, certain developments suggest that Islamabad may be shifting its strategy. Pakistan's top general recently admitted to problems that have arisen because of Pakistan's support of militant organizations. Furthermore, Pakistan understands that China's pledge of $45 billion for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is contingent upon its contribution to regional stability as a whole. It has already initiated and expanded its campaign against militant groups, partly in response to China's request and in order to secure Beijing's economic assets in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, other foreign powers in the region would have mixed feelings about China's more assertive posture. On one hand, Russia, India and the United States would welcome the security gains that could come from additional counterterrorism operations. The common perception of China as a free rider that pursues its own economic goals while others bear the burden of providing security would also be weakened. But on the other hand, these countries would view China's intentions with suspicion, interpreting the initiative as an attempt by Beijing to increase its own influence at their expense. This is particularly true in light of China's heightened security role elsewhere in the world as Beijing builds a naval base in Djibouti, engages in anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa, boosts its participation in U.N. peacekeeping ventures and increases its military presence in the South China Sea.

Russia, for its part, would see China's expanding security role in Tajikistan as a direct threat to its own position in the region, which has already been undermined by Beijing's growing economic footprint. India would also be apprehensive of Beijing's enhanced cooperation with hostile neighbor, Pakistan. New Delhi has long sought to deny Islamabad the strategic depth that greater influence in Afghanistan and Tajikistan would bring, the very thing China and Pakistan would be pursuing through their cooperation. Additionally, India does not want Pakistan to be able to use its burgeoning partnership with China to block New Delhi's access to Central Asia. And the United States would be uneasy at the prospect of China dominating Central and South Asian security in the long term.

Whether or not China's mechanism materializes, the proposal itself marks an important shift in Beijing's international role. China's military presence is growing to match its economic activities overseas, and its leaders are becoming much more assertive in its near abroad. As China commits itself to the One Belt, One Road program, it will have to provide the stabilizing force needed to ensure its success — a responsibility that comes with the great power status that Beijing so covets.

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