By Bhavdeep Modi
On December 19, 2020, it was reported that the Afghan National Directorate for Security (NDS) had exposed a deep espionage ring being operated under the aegis of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Among the arrests made by the NDS were one Li Yangyang and a woman named Sha Hung, who were caught in Kabul with explosives, ammunition, and even drugs like ketamine. This revelation went on to reveal the deep penetration of Chinese espionage agents in Afghanistan, something that has become a cause of concern for the South Asian region.
Now, one might argue that such arrests of spies are a common occurrence in the sphere of geopolitics. While they would not be wrong in positing such an argument, this expose goes much beyond a simple espionage ring. It is upon a closer study that one identifies China’s ominous designs at establishing a regional hegemony.
If various reports and analysis are to be believed, it would be safe to say that China, while indulging in espionage activities and working in tandem with known ‘devils’ in Afghanistan, is something that poses a risk to the region and especially, India. It has been argued that these Chinese spies were in regular contact with leaders from various terrorist outfits like the Haqqani Network (HQN), Taliban, and even Al-Qaeda. In this regard, a recent data leak had also highlighted the extent of Chinese espionage activities around the world. Moreover, the nexus between China and these terrorist organizations also forces one to look at the deeper nexus between China and Pakistan.
China’s Great Game and The Nexus
The ongoing US withdrawal from Kabul after the Afghanistan Peace Deal, 2020 is being closely watched by China. The reduction in US troops is being seen as an opportunity by China which it can exploit. By building its influence in Kabul, it can counter the US influence in the region and at the same time, posit itself as the leader of Asia. And to achieve this, Beijing is working in tandem with Islamabad.
The first issue that demands attention here is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The connectivity tool being used by China to gain influence around the world is something that it has been wanting to extend to Afghanistan as well in the recent past. Kabul offers a unique opportunity to China through which it can extend the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). It’ll help China to attain its dual strategic goals of exploiting Afghanistan’s mineral resources and at the same time, encircle India. Looking at the larger picture, it will also help Xi to realize his ‘China Dream’, at least in the region, if not the world. Thus, Beijing sees Kabul as an empty playground for it to establish its hegemony in Asia and at the least, project itself as a challenger to the US-led World Order.
The second goal that China wants to achieve in Afghanistan has more to do with its domestic policy on Uyghurs. The repression of millions of Uyghurs in the so-called Chinese ‘re-education’ camps is a well-known fact. According to various recent reports, China has been working with terrorist organizations like HQN, Taliban, and Al-Qaeda to track Uyghurs in various sparsely populated areas of Afghanistan. According to Manish Shukla, a defense analyst, Pakistan has been acting as a mediator for China to strike deals with these “devil groups”. Simultaneously, China is allegedly trying to spruce up false Uyghur terrorist groups in Afghanistan. China’s end goal, you might ask. “It is believed the Chinese agents were in Afghanistan to create a false ETIM, hopefully attract some Uyghur expatriates, perform terrorist attacks, and blame the Uyghur community, thus justifying repression in Xinjiang”, reasons Massimo Introvigne.
These two larger goals of China reveal yet another problem for the Indo-Pacific region i.e. the China-Pakistan nexus. China establishing deep espionage networks and playing buddy with terrorist organizations at the behest of Pakistan is something that might very well give teeth to the increasing threat of terrorism across the world. Moreover, this nexus is helping to derail the peace process in Afghanistan. China has reportedly lured the Taliban for investment negotiations, a process of which Pakistan is a part too. At the same time, Pakistan is also sponsoring Islamic State Wilayat Khorasan (ISKP), an ISIS affiliate terrorist organization in Afghanistan. Both China and Pakistan fear the negative implications of the US-Taliban Peace Deal and to prepare for a contingency plan, Pakistan might just be willing to use ISKP as a hedging strategy against the Taliban.
Therefore, both China and Pakistan, either way, are joining hands with globally designated terrorist outfits to achieve their own sinister goals.
The Threat to India and South Asia
The nefarious China-Pakistan nexus in Afghanistan is an issue that directly threatens Indian national security. During the ongoing Intra-Afghan Peace Talks, India assured Kabul of its active involvement in its peace talks with the Taliban. However, India has maintained that it will only be involved in the process through the Afghan government and will not engage with the Taliban, as it views the latter as being a radical fundamentalist terrorist group aided by Pakistan.
With China and Pakistan playing tricks to get an upper hand in Afghanistan post the US withdrawal, India stands at risk. India has undertaken numerous infrastructure development projects and military training projects in Afghanistan, which stand to be threatened if this nexus derails the peace process. Moreover, their collaboration with terrorist outfits like HQN, Taliban, and Al-Qaeda will provide the latter with economic teeth to expand their terrorist activities in India and even the globe. Pakistan recently losing the economic support of Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia and UAE is something that has led it to look for alternatives. For this, they have turned to China and even Turkey in recent times. Whatever the case, India will be at risk.
Thus, India will need to recalibrate its strategy for Afghanistan to mitigate this risk and at the same time, maintain peace in the region. Yesterday, India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval visited Afghanistan to discuss terrorism and building peace in the region with his Afghan counterpart. Afghan Charge D’Affaires Tahir Qadiry stated on Twitter that both advisors also discussed the strengthening of a regional consensus on the Afghan Peace Process. In this game of espionage and deals with the devils, building cooperation with like-minded nations will be a key to India’s countering strategy against the China-Pakistan nexus in Afghanistan.