With the withdrawal of the United States and the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, regional developments will maximize the interests of Pakistan and China and the natural process of a new order will move toward the influential regional coalition of Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria with more contribution from Pakistan and China. Pakistan has strategically guided developments in order to consolidate its key role in Afghanistan as its strategic depth via Taliban domination.
Pakistan’s growing influence in Afghanistan and the strengthening of a multilateral regional coalition in the political, economic, and security spheres in the future and its impact on developments in the Middle East suggest that all events, contrary to agreements reached between the Taliban and Washington, are under pressure and influence of China and Iran as Afghanistan neighbors which will severely undermine the interests of the United States.
The misunderstanding of Saudi Arabia and the United States about developments in the region over the past two decades has paved the way for Pakistani policymakers to gradually free Islamabad from the constraints of a foreign policy dictated by Washington and Riyadh.
The rift between Pakistan and Riyadh widened as the Pakistani National Assembly in 2015 barred the military from joining a Saudi-led coalition to fight Iran’s allied Houthi rebels in Operation Storm and took no sides in the Yemen war. This posed a serious challenge to Saudi-Pakistani relations and it intensified when Saudi Arabia did not support Pakistan after India’s decision to abolish the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir in the summer of 2019.
Rising tensions between the two countries led to diplomatic disputes and Saudi economic-financial sanctions against Pakistan, which was an unprecedented event in relations between the two countries. Saudi Arabia forced Pakistan to repay part of the loan ahead of schedule after cutting off its financial aid. A demand that Islamabad could not fulfill.
Biden’s time is a golden opportunity for Pakistan because Trump’s regional approach was to reduce Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan although it did not correspond to the realities of the region. Pakistan was under great political and economic pressure during the Trump presidency and in the run-up to the election of a new Prime Minister, Trump cut off US military and financial assistance to Pakistan for supporting terrorism. The 2 billion dollars cut dealt a major blow to Pakistan’s weak economy but failed to disrupt Pakistan’s regional plans. Eventually, Trump realized that Afghanistan’s strategic importance to Pakistan was much more than $ 2 billion, and ultimately decided to mediate between the Taliban and Pakistan to maintain the US and Islamabad’s position in the region.
Washington’s positive attitude towards Islamabad in changing Afghanistan’s sovereignty by bringing the Taliban to power was also a good opportunity for Beijing. China held the second round of strategic talks with Islamabad in August 2020 and fully supported the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Afghanistan. China also called for the development of bilateral relations with Pakistan based on mutual interests and efforts to create a better security environment and a more constructive role for both sides in the region.
China’s first goal in supporting Pakistan was to reduce its dependence on US and Saudi financial aid. Obviously, the foreign policy measures of Riyadh and Washington to use coercive economic and political tools were not necessarily in line with China’s regional interests. Another goal of Beijing was to increase interaction between Pakistan and Iran, especially within the framework of CPEC / BRI. Beijing expects increased Iran-Pakistan engagement to help improve the security situation in Baluchistan, which is essential for the success of CPEC. China is trying to persuade Islamabad and Tehran to find common ground or common interests in Afghanistan in order to adopt a common strategy of stabilization, which is a kind of regional deterrent to the United States.
At the same time, by strengthening its position as the main source of funding in the world, Beijing can gain more influence in the economy of Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey, and increase the political dynamism of the region in the interests of China. For China, the consequence of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a reduction in strategic regional pressure. China can now be more influential from western China to Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, as well as the Mediterranean Sea, where some of its ports have been purchased. Especially for Beijing, working with a democracy or a religious dictatorship in Afghanistan or a dictatorial regime in Syria is no different.
China’s only major concern right now is a power vacuum in Afghanistan that could lead to the revival of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and Uyghur-affiliated jihadist groups. Thus, for Beijing, the Taliban is the only group that can intensify or curb extremist movements against countries in the region. Therefore, China will work not only with the Taliban but also with Pakistan and Iran to maintain stability on its borders and secure its long-term interests. China has a history of working with the Taliban. Also in the 1990s, Beijing often contacted the growing Taliban through Pakistani intermediaries and monitored Uighur fighters trying to join al-Qaeda.
China had shown its open arms to the Taliban before they took control of Afghanistan and even invited some Taliban leaders to meet with the foreign minister in Beijing in late July this year. During the meeting, the Taliban pledged to serve China’s interests in Afghanistan and not to support any anti-China extremist group.
China can also address Iran’s concerns about Afghanistan’s instability. Iran and China have always faced obstacles in Afghanistan in the “One Road – One Belt” project. Chinese strategists have long looked to Afghanistan for large-scale projects. Afghanistan now provides a channel for China and Iran to cut off the US-allied Pacific and Strait of Malacca, allowing China to bypass Central Asian countries in which Russia has retained its influence. China has now promised large investments in energy and infrastructure projects, including the construction of a road network in Afghanistan, which also gives the Taliban international legitimacy. Thus, the future order of the Middle East and Eurasia region indicates the departure of the United States and the entry of China.
The main factor leading to the reversal of Islamabad’s foreign policy is the need for an independent economic growth program without the US and Saudi Arabia’s funding if Pakistan is to play a constructive role in the region. China, which was the only option for financing Pakistan, came to the rescue of Islamabad and in the process of changing the United States’ approach to Afghanistan accelerated the process of convergence with Pakistan.
Islamabad’s tendency in promoting relations with Ankara was also so successful as it met with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s full support for Pakistan’s position on Kashmir and brought the two countries’ regional policies closer together. Pakistan has always taken a neutral position in the conflict between Tehran and Riyadh, and at times tried to mediate, but was met with Saudi reluctance.
Overall, Islamabad redefined its role in the face of international developments and sought to make the most of its geoeconomics and geostrategic position and gain a wider room for maneuver in the region through reduction of dependence on Riyadh and Washington.
Continuous improvement of Islamabad-Tehran relations by strengthening Sino-Iran interactions, Tehran’s participation in BRI initiative, Sino-Iran comprehensive strategic partnership, and Pakistan-Turkey-Iraq connection via Iran land route clearly reduces the US, Saudi, and UAE influence in the region. Pakistan, with its non-Arab alliance with Iran and Turkey, can even hope for support from China and Russia.
At present, Pakistan’s goal is to form a regional alliance that can contain India and opens new avenues for cooperation in regional affairs. Stability in Afghanistan and its border areas, especially Baluchistan, energy supply, infrastructure development, and economic growth without the US and Saudi influence are among the priorities of the Islamabad government.
Islamabad, in search of new ways, can play a role in the regional bloc consisting of Turkey, Russia, China, and Iran. A bloc capable of upgrading Pakistan’s integrated position in the region. The Beijing-Islamabad-Tehran-Ankara link, based on the larger One Road-Belt China project, is undoubtedly far more valuable to Pakistan than following the traditional pattern of appeasement of Washington and Riyadh.
*Timothy Hopper is an international relations graduate of American University