Fixing an American mess: China, Iran, Pakistan link up to secure Afghanistan
F.M. Shakil, The Cradle, June 13, 2023 —
Beijing, Tehran, and Islamabad know that their mutual goal of ‘peaceful development’ and expanded Asian trade routes will be unattainable without solving the terrorism dilemma in neighboring Afghanistan.
Last week, Beijing hosted the first-ever tripartite security dialogue between Iran, Pakistan, and China. The gathering took place against the backdrop of recent border skirmishes between Iran and Afghanistan, and the Taliban government’s reluctance to crack down on militant groups operating within its borders.
While Pakistani officials insist that the dialogue is intended to address local security issues and not act as an “an Afghan affairs watchdog” to fill the void left by the 2021 US troop withdrawal, geopolitical analysts say the talks will shape a new regional security and trade paradigm involving China, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
Trilateral threats of terrorism
A Pakistani Foreign Office source tells The Cradle that the surge in terrorist attacks in Afghanistan has raised great concern among neighboring countries, including Pakistan, Iran, and China:
“The perpetration of violent acts is predominantly attributed to the regional affiliate of the Islamic State, namely the Islamic State Khorasan, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and Jaish al-Adl group.”
In response, says the source, the three nations have increased their diplomatic engagement with the Taliban leadership, aiming to tackle the security challenges and promote stability in Afghanistan.
While security may be top of the agenda, Andrew Korybko, a Moscow-based geopolitical analyst, offers a different take. The Chinese-Iranian trade route is expected to pass through Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, a move that may unsettle arch-rival India. The trilateral talks with Iran and Pakistan give Beijing an opportunity to achieve this long-term outcome.
The timing could not be better. Islamabad and Tehran have discovered a variety of synergies as of late, which has boosted trade between the neighbors. This progressive improvement of Iranian-Pakistani relations corresponds with the deterioration of their respective relations with the Taliban.
Pakistan has threatened military action against Kabul over its harboring of TTP militants, while clashes along the Afghan-Iranian border have escalated over a longtime water dispute.
“Iranian-Pakistani relations improved dramatically last month when their leaders jointly inaugurated the Mand-Pishin border market and committed to pursuing additional joint projects. This development followed the mid-March Iranian-Saudi rapprochement mediated by China, which resolved Saudi-allied Pakistan’s security dilemma and gave it a space to pursue more balanced relations with Iran,” explains Korybko.
China, in contrast, has maintained friendly and economic-focused relations with the Taliban, and maybe the ideal intermediary to broker security and trade solutions. A key priority for Beijing will be to prevent any unforeseen cross-border militancy from jeopardizing the Iranian-Pakistani rapprochement, as both nations are key to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
As part of their strategic partnership agreement for 2021, China reportedly pledged a $400 billion investment in Iran over the next 25 years, while Pakistan hosts the flagship project of the BRI, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
It is in this complex security context that the first-ever trilateral anti-terrorist parley between China, Iran, and Pakistan took place last week.
Iran-Pakistan border security
Last month, at least five Iranian security personnel were killed when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) halted an armed terrorist cell near the Pakistani border in the Saravan area of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan Province. Later Iran claimed that the perpetrator fled to Pakistani soil.
Similarly, Pakistan’s army has also suffered casualties over the years along the volatile border with Afghanistan. Both Iran and Pakistan have accused each other of harboring militants along their controlled borders, leading to a history of attacks on their respective security forces.
China, with its significant stake in the Balochistan region, particularly the strategically located seaport in Gwadar, has a vested interest in restoring peace to protect its investments. Encouraging Iran and Pakistan to collaborate against militants hiding out in the border region is crucial for China’s ambitions.
Mansur Khan Mahsud, head of the Islamabad-based FATA Research Centre (FRC) think tank, tells The Cradle that the security talks in Beijing were a step toward China’s goal of creating a peaceful regional business environment to extend its ambitious BRI along Central Asia, West Asia, and Africa.
“China has several challenges as a new player in regional affairs. Although the US exit left a huge gap that needed to be filled, the US and its allies, who stayed in the game long and used regional politics to further their own interests, still had covert forces on the ground that could influence several Taliban strongholds to vitiate the trade-centric Beijing’s ambitions.”
Discord sown among Iran, Pakistan, and the Taliban government by pro-US forces has become evident. Pakistan narrowly avoided a war with the Taliban over the TTP issue, while Iran has faced serious border clashes and casualties over water rights.
Mahsud further questions the suspicious nature of the US’s abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan. He suggests that the Pentagon’s sudden realization of the burden on the US economy after decades of engagement raises doubts about the motivations behind the hasty exit.
“Afghanistan’s economy is still functioning well compared to its more industrialized neighbor, Pakistan, despite having a poor industrial base and receiving little to no international assistance,” he says, adding that it means Afghanistan is getting huge funds from somewhere. “The question is, who is funding the Taliban and exactly for what purpose?”
Quadrilateral security mechanism
Given that there can be no reliable trade expansion without security, Beijing has actively employed a similar mechanism with Pakistan and Afghanistan since late 2018. In May of this year, the foreign ministers of China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan convened in Islamabad, where they jointly pledged their efforts to implement Xi Jinping’s Global Development, Global Security, and Global Civilization Initiatives.
The three top diplomats also stressed the importance of current initiatives like CASA-1000, TAPI, and Trans-Afghan Railways at the meeting, emphasizing their potential to improve regional connectivity and foster economic growth and prosperity in the area.
In April, foreign ministers of Iran, Russia, China, and Pakistan held four-way talks in the Uzbek city of Samarkand and discussed issues and concerns relating to Afghanistan.
To promote trilateral cooperation under the BRI and jointly expand the CPEC to Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and Afghanistan have reiterated their commitment and expressed their determination to make use of Afghanistan’s potential as a hub for regional connectivity in a joint statement following the trilateral conversation.
According to a 2016 Asia Foundation report on security cooperation in the Heart of Asia region, China appears to be one of the region’s most promising agents for promoting regional stability and advancement. It is also a big supporter of regional players, including Afghanistan, thanks to its positive involvement in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the trilateral pact between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China. Iran is set to become a fully-fledged member of the SCO in the month ahead when the next summit convenes.
Moreover, China’s global involvement has been steadily expanding, notwithstanding accusations from certain western media outlets that its primary objectives revolve solely around economic interests. Beijing’s active participation in various trilateral or quadrilateral stability and security summits centered on Afghanistan has propelled it into a new role within the region. The report suggests that China’s influence within these frameworks could further grow and expand through its engagement in the Heart of Asia Process.
The report also highlights that while significant variations exist among the participating nations, the trilateral framework as a whole, and specifically the Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan trilateral system, have frequently been perceived as potential solutions to the region’s most pressing challenges.
Since 2009, in parallel with negotiations within the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), the trilateral interactions among Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran have aimed at enhancing collaboration across political, security, socioeconomic, and cultural domains.
However, the trilateral nature of this group is somewhat undermined by the prevalence of bilateral engagements among the member nations. The report concludes that the Afghan government predominantly interacts directly with Pakistan and Iran instead of fully utilizing the trilateral forum.
As China continues to ascend in the global arena, emerging as a key mediator in geopolitical conflicts, its active engagement within the trilateral architecture reflects its commitment to regional stability and security. This, in turn, has the potential to cultivate an environment that nurtures peace, progress, and prosperity across Asia.