Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China triangle and its impact on India

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India’s interests are affected by a triangle – The ‘Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China’ Triangle.

What are the power equations and interests among the four nations – India, China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan?

While China always uses Pakistan as a balancer against India to keep Indian ambitions in check, how is the equation related to Afganistan?

In this article, we shall see the complicated bilateral issues between the four South Asian countries.

Afghanistan-Pakistan

The relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been strained since 1947.

The main reason is the difference in perceptions over the Durand line.

The British established the Durand in 1893. However, Afghanistan has refused to accept it as the border between Pakistan.

On 30th September 1947, Afghanistan even opposed the entry of Pakistan to the United Nations, due to the differences over the Durand Line.

Afghanistan’s revanchist designs against Pakistan

  • In 1947, Afghanistan wanted to undo the line but they also wanted Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Pakhtunistan or KP region) and Baluchistan as part of Afghanistan, both of which were forcibly incorporated by Pakistan.
  • Though Pakistan accepts the Durand Line as the border, it feels that Afghanistan can resort to a revanchist design to seek the territory back one day.
  • For a long time, Pakistan has aimed to make Durand Line the border and make Afghanistan accept the same, but Pakistan has met constant failure to do so, even with no success when the Taliban, which was created by Pakistan, remained in power from 1996 to 2001.

Strategy of Pakistan

  • Since 2001, Pakistan has followed a two-point strategy.
  • Firstly, it favours a weak, client style government in Afghanistan. The Pakistani assumption is that such a weak government in Afghanistan can never resort to a revanchist design against Pakistan and seek KP or Baluchistan back for Afghanistan.
  • Secondly, Pakistan does not favour a strong India-Afghanistan relation as it fears that a strong Afghanistan and India relationship will encourage Afghanistan to resort to a revanchist design again.
  • This is why Pakistan maintains a strategic depth against India in Afghanistan.
  • While trying to achieve the two stated objectives, Pakistan has committed many blunders. For example, during the Cold War, they perceived Afghans as Soviet stooges.

Pakistani perception and strategic depth

  • As the state of Pakistan has never looked at Afghanistan as a land of ethnic Afghan people, it has generated tremendous hatred amongst the local Afghans against Pakistan.
  • Today, Pakistan perceives Afghans as Indian stooges.
  • Pakistan still hopes to achieve a pro-Pakistan government in Afghanistan as such a government is a guarantee against the revanchist designs, keeps India away from Afghanistan (strategic depth) and also provides a fertile ground for Pakistan to channelize their Madrassa products to train them for Jihad.
  • Pakistan has followed a policy of arming and supporting dissidents in Afghanistan who are opposed to the West sponsored democratic government in Afghanistan since 2001.

Pakistan and Taliban

  • As Pakistan has understood, over a period of time, that they cannot forcibly bring Taliban (Pakistani trump card) into Afghanistan, they have adopted the tactic of bringing the Taliban as a political player in the future of Afghanistan.
  • The recent troop withdrawal by the US in Afghanistan announced by Trump and negotiations with the Taliban led by Zalmay Khalilzad are an attempt by Pakistan to politically accommodate the Taliban into Afghanistan after the US leaves Afghanistan.

Why is the Taliban a threat to Pakistan?

  • Pakistan fails to understand that even if the Taliban comes to power again in Afghanistan, it will be a threat to Pakistan itself, as it will try to impose its own version of Islam, which will threaten Pakistan, as Pakistan does not have a strong Islamic identity.
  • Also, the Taliban is bound to reassert the demand for Pakhtunistan, which will be the nemesis for Pakistan.
  • If the Taliban comes back, it will only lead to Talibanization of Pakistan, which will not only be detrimental for its own future but will also reverse the strategic depth policy Pakistan practices.

Pakistani conundrum

  • The entire situation is thus quite ironical. At one place Pakistan itself is a revanchist state that wants to alter the territorial boundaries in Kashmir.
  • On the other hand, it is itself a victim of a larger revanchist design by Afghanistan where it may lose a substantial territory.
  • This is a conundrum Pakistan will continue to face in its future. Pakistan is unable to learn from history that no one can subjugate the Afghans.
  • The British (after The Great Game), USSR (during the Cold War) and the US (in its Global War on Terror) realized that Afghans cannot be easily subjugated. For the US, Afghanistan was their 21st century Vietnam. However, Pakistan, still hopes that a pro-Pakistan government in Afghanistan will toe the line to Pakistan. This is nothing but a chimaera.

China-Pakistan

  • The China-Pakistan relations are often described as ‘higher than Himalayas’ and of being ‘Iron brothers‘.
  • It is a unique friendship that exists between a god-fearing Pakistan and the godless state of China. Pakistan looks at China as a pole star with respect to its security and China looks at Pakistan as a hub with respect to its South Asia policy.
  • The beauty of the relationship is that it is sacrosanct irrespective of a civilian or a military regime in Pakistan.

Chinese interests in Pakistan

China has three interests in Pakistan.

  1. Firstly, there is a mutuality between Pakistan and China with respect to undercutting India.
  2. Secondly, the prevention of radical Islam from Afghanistan and Pakistan into the Xinjiang province of China to create a stir amongst the Uyghur Muslims.
  3. Thirdly, Pakistan is a gateway for China to Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Pakistani concept of borrowed power with China and impact on India

For Pakistan, China fits into the concept of borrowed power, to undercut India.

China also serves the interests of Pakistan, be it regionally constraining India or globally vetoing decisions that are harmful to Pakistan that range from blocking India at the Nuclear Suppliers Group membership to preventing the rise of India as a regional power.

China has a very important relationship with Pakistan in the dimension of defence.

It has provided Pakistan with nuclear support, ballistic missiles and conventional weapons.

This support to Pakistan is perceived by China as a low-cost option, which delivers high results.

Firstly, it keeps India bogged down with Pakistan to prevent its healing due to the Pakistani strategy of bleeding India by causing death by a thousand cuts.

Secondly, it always puts pressure on India for the possibility of a two-front war in the future.

If military cooperation is at the heart of the China-Pakistan axis, then nuclear cooperation is at the heart of this military axis.

Conclusion

With the recent rise of a new game-changer called CPEC, it is a high possibility that Pakistan will soon end up being a new colony of China.

Whatever it may be, China will always use Pakistan as a balancer against India to keep Indian ambitions in check.