AUGUST 6, 2020
China and Pakistan have begun an unprecedented intelligence-sharing arrangement in an attempt to secure Beijing’s influence in Afghanistan at the expense of the American government, U.S. News has learned.
The new relationship is the culmination of a series of previously unreported moves, designed to help China exploit its economic investments in Afghanistan while also stifling outcry over its persecution of the Uighur minority Muslim population near China’s western border with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The timing of the new relationship has become deeply consequential as President Donald Trump intensifies his designs to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan after 20 years of war. It has created new concerns among American intelligence officials, who believe China will capitalize on ongoing problems in the administration’s effort to secure a peace deal with the Taliban and that Beijing will further expand its influence into other contested parts of the region.
“The reality is now dawning within the intelligence community,” says a source familiar with a U.S. assessment who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We are now leaving Afghanistan, but who are we leaving it to?”
In a seemingly unprecedented move, China has granted the Pakistani Defense Ministry access to one of the most secretive gatherings within its military infrastructure as a show of good faith. Little is known about the Joint Staff Department within China’s elite Central Military Commission, including who attends, but access has historically been limited only to senior Chinese leaders. However, as a part of Beijing’s realization it needs Pakistan’s experience in neighboring Afghanistan as well as Islamabad’s connections to the insurgent groups operating there who will determine the war-torn country’s fate, it has invited a Pakistani general to sit in on its highly restricted meetings as an observer.
Working together, China and Pakistan have secured pledges from Taliban leaders not to provide safe haven or support to their fellow Muslim Uighurs from neighboring western China who have become a central concern of Beijing’s. The arrangement far exceeds any accommodation the Afghan insurgent network has ever afforded the U.S. with regard to Washington’s concerns about al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan.
These revelations are a part of a new U.S. intelligence assessment detailed for U.S. News with wide-reaching implications, including granting China a strategic – and deadly – advantage in other regional aspirations, principally its ongoing border dispute with India, Pakistan’s chief rival.
Neither the Pakistani nor the Chinese governments responded to requests for comment about the arrangement or how it could affect future relations with the U.S.
Current U.S. government officials and analysts who spoke with U.S. News described how closely Pakistan fits into China’s ambitions for its southern and western border regions, and that shifting priorities in Beijing necessitate more cooperation than before with a limited number of outside countries.
“If the Chinese are bringing Pakistan more ‘behind the curtain,’ in terms of intelligence and military cooperation, it will be tailored to their common interests like confronting India over territorial disputes,” says Vikram Singh, a former top official at the Pentagon for South and Southeast Asian affairs, now senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Asia Center. “Pakistan’s leadership has really backed China on Uighur internment, even though Pakistanis are upset by the repression of Muslims in Xinjiang.”
And the idea of new intelligence sharing is not unprecedented. The New York Times reported earlier this month that China and Iran created a new military and economic pact, to include new forms of collaboration on intelligence.
Though Pakistan’s alliance with China is not new, the latest developments represent a dramatic escalation of the partnership in recent years. And they follow tensions with the Obama and Trump administrations that spiked in 2018 when long-standing American concerns tumbled into public view, centering on Islamabad’s support for the same terrorist networks that the U.S. was trying to defeat in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistan at the time pledged to cease intelligence sharing with the U.S., and Washington said it would cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Pakistan.
At that time, Chinese President Xi Jinping felt mounting pressure regarding the economic investments China had made in Afghanistan in prior years – principally in mineral wealth costing billions of dollars but left largely inaccessible due to the ongoing violence there. Beijing also faced surging condemnation globally for its attempts to clamp down on the Uighurs, native to the part of Xinjiang province in western China that Beijing considers a threat to its unilateral control of the vast nation.
Uighur extremists have previously looked to the Taliban in Afghanistan as a potential source of support for an insurgent campaign against Beijing. China’s latest moves have all but ensured that will not take place. And they follow other military adventures there – Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, told a small group of reporters in December shortly after visiting the region that China has deployed a battalion of troops across its border into a narrow sliver of land connecting to Afghanistan’s extreme northeast as a part of an experiment in working with local forces to determine if future direct partnerships are possible.
Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have marginally improved in recent years, not in the least due to Islamabad’s participation in U.S.-led negotiations with the Taliban over a shaky peace deal. However, U.S. intelligence now assesses that Pakistan believes it can manipulate its relationship with the Americans in a way it cannot with its gargantuan northern neighbor.
Indeed, China’s partnership with Pakistan is not limited to enticing it into cooperation. Beijing has also gained significant economic leverage over Pakistan through its Belt and Road Initiative, including projects to create new transportation networks through the country to its southerly coast, known as the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which Beijing sorely needs to maintain shipping access to its economic interests in and around the Indian Ocean.
China also benefits from Pakistan’s insights on other regional concerns. U.S. intelligence officials noticed that Chinese forces had a greater understanding than before into Indian troop positions and movements ahead of the deadly border clash on June 15. The officials believe Pakistan’s military leadership likely shared their intelligence assessments of the Indian army’s disposition with their Chinese counterparts. This comes as China has used its influential position within the U.N. to support Pakistan’s claims on the contested region of Kashmir amid new forcefulness from India.
The arrangement appears to have also worked in muzzling Pakistan over China’s more provocative actions in recent months. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has shown particular discipline in not criticizing China about its treatment of the Uighurs – a notable achievement in that Pakistan is a principally Muslim nation. The U.S. assessment reflects a belief that his silence serves as a critical component of Beijing’s attempts to appear legitimate in its treatment of that ethnic sect.
In response to a detailed question last year about his silence, Khan hinted at a new understanding with Beijing.
“With the Chinese, we have a special relationship. And – it’s the way China functions – any issues like these we talk to them privately, we don’t make public statements, because that’s how China is,” Khan said during an event organized by the Council on Foreign Relations in September.
Khan referenced the series of bailouts China afforded his country shortly after he became prime minister amid an economic crisis in 2018.
“China came to help when we were right at the rock bottom,” he said.
May marked the 69th anniversary of Pakistan and China’s formal diplomatic ties. A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry described the occasion to say the relationship remains “firm as a rock.”
Courtesy/Source: US News & World Report