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Why is China Silent over the Pakistan–Afghanistan Conflict?

Even after a lapse of three weeks, China did not issue a statement on escalating tensions between Islamabad and Kabul following Pakistan’s air strikes inside Afghanistan. Why the silence from Beijing?

Tensions mount: police officers attend the funeral of colleagues killed in an attack by the Pakistani Taliban

On 18 March, Pakistan conducted airstrikes inside Afghanistan targeting the hideouts of the outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or Pakistani Taliban, a terrorist group operating from Afghanistan with more freedom under the Taliban regime. The strikes that killed eight people came a day after President Asif Ali Zardari vowed retaliation following the killing of seven Pakistani soldiers in the 16 March attack by a faction of the TTP in the country’s northwestern tribal area bordering Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s air raids on targets in Afghanistan further raised Kabul-Islamabad tensions, which have been on the rise since the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021 mainly due to the TTP’s cross border attacks using Afghan territory. Denouncing the strikes as a violation of Afghanistan’s territorial integrity, the Afghan Taliban immediately retaliated by opening fire on Pakistani military outposts along the Afghanistan border. As a long-term retaliatory strategy, the Taliban could back the TTP to destabilise Pakistan by carrying out a string of terrorist attacks across the South Asian country.

Though China is the largest foreign investor in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and it could be the country most affected by an open conflict between the two neighbours, it has been silent over the 18 March airstrikes by Pakistan targeting TTP sanctuaries in Afghanistan's eastern provinces of Paktika and Khost.

So far, Beijing has been relying on Pakistan for formulating its Afghan policy. While Pakistan is distancing itself from the Taliban, China is moving closer to the group and even taking steps to recognise their rule.

It was Pakistan that played a crucial role in bringing China and the Taliban closer together. Islamabad covertly brokered all China–Taliban peace consultations through backdoor channels, long before the peace negotiations between the US and the Taliban went ahead in 2020 in Doha. In October 2018, the late Maulana Sami Ul Haq – a Pakistani leader of an Islamist political party and a stalwart supporter of the Afghan Taliban – asked China to play a greater role in the Afghan peace negotiations. Popularly known as the ‘Father of the Taliban’, the Maulana invited Beijing to play the role of arbitrator to the Afghan conflict.

Beijing's main concern is the threat to its internal security from Uighur militants, who could receive inspiration and support from a hostile Taliban regime in its neighbourhood

At the time of the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan following the US withdrawal in 2021, both China and Pakistan urged the Taliban to launch a crackdown on Uighur militants and the TTP, which has a presence in Afghanistan and has been involved in launching attacks on both Pakistani and Chinese targets in Pakistan. Presently, however, China and Pakistan do not seem to be on the same page over Taliban policy vis-a-vis the TTP. The Taliban hold the TTP card and are now using it against Pakistan, but not against China. Beijing did not press the Taliban on a crackdown against the TTP, which Pakistan has repeatedly been urging Kabul to conduct for the past two years. China's main concern has been the threat from Uighur militants, over which it has received assurances from the Taliban.

Surprisingly, the TTP has not attacked Chinese targets in Pakistan in the past two years, though the group has increased its attacks on Pakistan’s security forces. Does the whole game of selective terrorism revolve around the Taliban rulers in Kabul? Have China and the Taliban developed some kind of ‘secret understanding' on the TTP? Have the Taliban conveyed a message to the TTP not to attack Chinese targets in Pakistan?

The Taliban have referred to the TTP as Pakistan's internal issue, and China's silence over the TTP’s war on Pakistan reflects an endorsement of the Taliban's position on the TTP. Though Pakistan and the Taliban have exchanged harsh words and fire across the border over the TTP issue in the past two years, China has continued to deepen its ties with the Taliban government. Moreover, China has refrained from criticising the Taliban for harbouring TTP militants in Afghanistan.

There is another side of the picture, too. China's silence over Pakistan’s strikes inside Afghanistan might be part of its ‘carrot and stick’ policy towards the Taliban. China, which shares a small border with Afghanistan, cannot afford to antagonise the Taliban in its neighbourhood owing to security concerns. China has been less concerned about political reforms, women’s rights abuses or the ban on girls' education under the Taliban government. It is more concerned about the threat to its internal security from Uighur militants, who could receive inspiration and support from a hostile Taliban regime in its neighbourhood.

Beijing has increased its stakes in Afghanistan as part of its policy of engaging the Taliban. China has the cash and the clout to play a greater role in the globally isolated and abandoned country. It struck deal after deal with the de facto Taliban rulers for the exploitation of Afghanistan's vast mineral and energy resources after the US withdrawal in 2021. Just three months after signing a $540 million deal last year with the Taliban government for oil extraction from the Amu Darya basin in northern Afghanistan, China offered an investment of $10 billion to mine the country's vast lithium deposits.

China would be the real loser in an Afghanistan–Pakistan conflict if it fails to de-escalate their border tensions, which might ruin its ambitious plans worth billions of dollars to extend CPEC to Afghanistan and beyond

China recognised former Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi as an official envoy to Beijing in an official ceremony held on 30 January. China's recognition of the Taliban envoy is in line with its policy of engaging the Taliban, as compared to the West’s policy of isolating the group over its checks on women's rights and freedoms.

Beijing has played its ‘Afghan card’ more cautiously since the US withdrawal in 2021. However, by recognising the Taliban envoy, China has lessened the group’s global isolation, securing it a major diplomatic win.

For Islamabad, the Afghan endgame has turned into a zero-sum game. China cannot afford to leave a frustrated Pakistan to the US, which has supported Islamabad's stand on the TTP, asking the Taliban to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a 'safe haven' for the terrorist group. There have been calls from some circles in Pakistan to join the US in bombing terrorist hideouts in Afghanistan. A former Pakistani minister in the provincial government offered the US drone bases to target militant sanctuaries in Afghanistan following a deadly attack on Pakistan security forces that killed 23 Pakistani soldiers in December 2023. Such an evolving scenario would be unacceptable to China.

China is highly concerned about the Taliban's policy of harbouring the TTP, which is ideologically closer to Taliban. The presence of TTP hideouts in Afghanistan’s border areas with Pakistan poses the biggest security challenge to China's plan to extend the $62 billion China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship project of its Belt and Road Initiative, to Afghanistan. That is why China has set security and improved ties with neighbours as the key conditions for the Taliban government to receive full diplomatic recognition from Beijing. It is highly unlikely that Pakistan carried out airstrikes targeting sanctuaries of the TTP without taking China into its confidence.

China can use its leverage over both countries to press them to resolve their issues peacefully, as neither can afford to ignore Beijing's calls for restraint. In fact, China would be the real loser in an Afghanistan–Pakistan conflict if it fails to de-escalate their border tensions, which might ruin its ambitious plans worth billions of dollars to extend CPEC to Afghanistan and beyond. Afghanistan is ideally located to serve as a trade hub connecting the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe. China sees Afghanistan as a strategic base to spread its influence across the world.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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