The China-Pakistan-Taliban Dynamic: What It Means for the US and India

September 23, 2021 Updated: September 30, 2021

News Analysis

China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran have maintained their embassies in Afghanistan. Taliban representatives also met with those governments, as well as the government of Turkmenistan, before assuming power. India and the United States, by contrast, closed their embassies and recalled their diplomats.

At a recent meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, both Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, called on the international community to engage with the Taliban, particularly on the subject of antiterrorism. It is estimated that there are between 8,000 and 10,000 foreign terrorists in Afghanistan, roughly 6,000 of whom are from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.

The so-called Iron Brotherhood—the relationship between China and Pakistan—has been strengthened by the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan as the two countries find that their policies on the Taliban running Afghanistan broadly align.

Both Pakistan and the Chinese regime welcome the Taliban into power as they hope that the Taliban can help curb terrorism in their respective countries and because a Taliban takeover will complicate decision making for India and the United States. Pakistan applauded the U.S. withdrawal because it meant an end to India’s influence in Kabul.

China and India have had several border clashes, which have resulted in a year-long standoff in the Himalayas. India got on well with the previous Afghanistan government. The Taliban, on the other hand, is likely to become India’s adversary, particularly if it aligns with China. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) engagement with the Taliban will ensure that India has no influence in Kabul.

Epoch Times Photo
An Indian Air Force Hercules military transport plane prepares to land at an airbase in Leh, the joint capital of the union territory of Ladakh bordering China, on Sept. 8, 2020. (Mohd Arhaan Archer/AFP via Getty Images)

The United States has been fighting the Taliban for the better part of two decades and is expected to remain at odds with the terrorist organization. At the same time, the relationship between Beijing and Washington continues to be adversarial in terms of economics, trade, and national defense. Consequently, the CCP and Pakistan strengthening ties with the Taliban has put the United States in a difficult position.

Pakistan sees an opportunity to expand its geo-economic interests, connecting Central Asia with the Arabian Sea at Gwadar Port. These hopes hinge on the assumption that the Taliban could stabilize Afghanistan and that the Taliban could and would prevent terrorist attacks from being launched from Afghanistan into Pakistan, China, and Central Asia. But so far, the U.S. pullout has emboldened terrorists across the region as they see this as a major victory. The Syria-based chapter of the Turkestan Islamic Party issued a congratulatory statement when the Taliban took Kabul.

Although the Taliban has promised to clamp down on foreign terrorists, it has not given any indication of how to do that.

Terrorist attacks on Chinese targets in China are rare, but the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is an obvious, soft target. CPEC projects have come under attack in the past, either because the Pakistan Taliban resented China’s presence in Pakistan or as reprisals for the CCP’s repression against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Gwadar Port, Pakistan
Pakistani naval personnel stands guard near a ship carrying containers at Gwadar Port, Pakistan, on Oct. 4, 2017. (Amelie Herenstein/AFP via Getty Images)

The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan, has increased its attacks in Pakistan, killing seven Pakistani soldiers near the Afghanistan border and in a separate incident, killing 13 civilians on a bus, as well as claiming responsibility for a suicide attack in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan. Consequently, the TTP has been identified as one of the greatest threats to stability in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has offered a pardon to TTP members if they promise not to get involved in terrorist activities, but the offer has been rejected. He has since expressed his hope that the Taliban would help convince TTP members to drop their armed insurgency. Meanwhile, there are reports that TTP fighters were released from Afghanistan prisons when the Taliban took over the country.

The Taliban has said that it would like to join CPEC. While this may seem like a win-win situation, it would require providing additional investment and taking more risks by Beijing. It is possible the Taliban will cooperate with the Chinese regime, in some limited way, preventing terrorist attacks, in exchange for recognition and financial support. But it is unclear if the Taliban would have the power or the willingness to do that.

One motivation for the Taliban to make good on its antiterrorist promises to Beijing is that it is hoping China will extract the $1 trillion to $3 trillion of minerals—including lithium for electric car batteries—that are sitting idle under the earth in Afghanistan. Economic support from China has become even more important for Afghanistan as international financial institutions have frozen bank accounts and other overseas assets, and international donors have stopped sending money.

As there will most likely be no money from the West, the Taliban knows that China may be its only major source of funding. But this does not guarantee the safety of Chinese investments. In the past, Taliban promises of protection for Chinese projects proved ineffective. Meanwhile, in addition to attacks by the Taliban, Chinese investments will be vulnerable to attacks by other militant groups—foreign or anti-Taliban groups.

Even under the relative stability of the U.S. involvement, China had made little progress on its existing investments in Afghanistan and had not even begun the extraction of Afghanistan’s rare earth minerals. On the other hand, Beijing may be encouraged to invest in Afghanistan just to extend the country an economic lifeline. The CCP probably does not need a pariah state, another North Korea, on its border.

Aside from terrorism and security concerns, alignment between the CCP and the Taliban could have economic implications for the domination of Central Asian markets and geopolitics. As the influence of Russia slowly diminishes in the region, India hoped to benefit, filling some of the void. In 2016, the CCP briefly established a military base in Tajikistan to conduct counterterrorism operations against ethnic Uyghur separatists. Through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Beijing has increased its engagement with and influence over Central Asia, working to counter independence movements by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement from destabilizing China’s Xinjiang region. Chinese investment in the region has already eclipsed Indian investment, and Beijing hopes to widen the gap.

Chinese soldiers stand at attention during Peace Mission-2016 joint military exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan, on Sept. 19, 2016. The joint antiterrorism drill involves more than 1,100 troops from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and China as members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. (VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese soldiers stand at attention during Peace Mission-2016 joint military exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan, on Sept. 19, 2016.  (Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP/Getty Images)

The CCP’s propaganda machine is exploiting the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as a signal of diminishing U.S. hegemony, military, and geopolitical power. Beijing has warned both Taiwan and India that the United States may no longer be a reliable ally. Former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh similarly said that “Biden had ‘dealt a blow to Indian national security’” and that India-U.S. ties would suffer as a result.

The Times of India, an Indian English-language daily news media, however, has interpreted the U.S. pullout a bit differently, saying that the Taliban has not won a war. It has simply “exploited the flawed policies of a fatigued American president,” rather than the United States itself. Whether Delhi turns away from the United States remains to be seen. India has more than $3 billion in investments in Afghanistan, which it may want to preserve.

It is possible that India and the United States may allow a Taliban-led Afghanistan, as long as it ends regional terrorism. India is also a major economic player. So the Taliban may be willing to engage economically with India as a way of counter-balancing Chinese influence.

President Joe Biden has moved the U.S. foreign policy away from overseas nation-building, instead, focusing on maintaining U.S. primacy, ahead of China and Russia. As such, the United States may be satisfied with a stable Afghanistan and an end to international terrorism, rather than be concerned about Afghanistan’s internal affairs or whether China and Pakistan maintain most of the influence in the country.

In spite of Beijing’s warnings to U.S. allies, there is no reason to believe that the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan signals a lessening of U.S. commitments to its partners and allies, including India. India currently participates in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, one of the primary U.S.-led strategies to contain Beijing.

The task of creating a functioning economy and a stable civil society in Afghanistan will now fall on Pakistan and China, neither of which has much experience in these areas. It is possible that that task will be an expensive and painful one for them, providing the United States and India more room to plan and maneuver.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Antonio Graceffo
Antonio Graceffo
Antonio Graceffo, Ph.D., has spent over 20 years in Asia. He is a graduate of Shanghai University of Sport and holds a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University. Antonio works as an economics professor and China economic analyst, writing for various international media. Some of his China books include "Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion" and "A Short Course on the Chinese Economy."