21.05.2023 Author: Vladimir Terehov

The PRC is becoming increasingly active in the region of Central and South Asia

The PRC is becoming increasingly active in the region of Central and South Asia

At this point in the “Great World Game,” everything that is happening in Central and South Asia (CSA) is playing an increasingly important role. CSA here will mean a vast territory, with at least a dozen countries located on it today. From Kazakhstan in the north to Sri Lanka in the south and from Nepal in the east to Iran in the west.

All of them differ sharply from each other in the size of the territories, the population, the level of economic development and, consequently, the significance in the very “game.” For instance, it comprises India, which currently stands as one of the prominent global forces, possessing nuclear weapons in particular. As does, by the way, another significant regional player, Pakistan.

Throughout history, this region has attracted the attention of the major world players of the moment. Among the earliest are the empire of Alexander the Great, and the most recent is the United States. Among the various reasons for interest in the CSA is that the region has always served as a bridge of communication between Western and Eastern civilizations. And, consequently, there has been a temptation to try to establish “power control” over it.

Such attempts have invariably failed. The main reason was that each new “controller” was faced with a sea of “local” problems, most of which he had not even guessed about beforehand. And therefore, sometime after arriving in the region in order to establish the very “control,” the newcomer, having destroyed a lot of money and people, sooner or later realized that everything was useless. And with this feeling, he got out of this region.

Outwardly, the completion of a hundred-year mission to establish “control” by the United Kingdom took place here gently and skillfully. A signal in the style of “from here on out you’re on your own, fellas” was adopted in the summer of 1947 by a legislative act of the British Parliament, in accordance with which two independent states were separated from the former British India, namely “Republic of India” and “Islamic Republic of Pakistan.”

In order to remove any suspicion of complicity in provoking the impending catastrophe (the traces of which still serve as a major component of the overall state of turbulence in the region), the so-called “Lahore Declaration” was the basis of the said act. It was drafted in 1940 by a group of Islamic activists who claimed to represent all Muslims in British India. In other words, London “made a timely move” out of a region that was “on the brink of great” trouble.

Much less skillfully, and outwardly just clumsily (and even shamefully), 75 years later the same procedure was done by the current “big brother” of London, that is Washington. Namely when Joe Biden’s administration completed the long (stretched over several years) process of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a country that has absorbed almost all the problems of the region and has always been in the focus of political games.

With the United States gone, it is inevitable that the new leading world power, China, will plunge into the complex of intertwined regional issues. Moreover, if the UK and the USA are situated very far from the CSA region, and therefore could afford (with considerable expenses, but nevertheless) to simply leave it, China is obviously deprived of such an “option.”

At the very least because CSA is next to it, i.e. literally “nearby,” and many of the difficulties characteristic of this region are also present in the vast parts of the Chinese territory. For example, the problems of religious nature. The latter is evident in the giant Tibetan and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions and is closely intertwined with it in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the countries of Central Asia.

However, the inevitable prospect for China of bearing the heavy burden of involving itself in resolving various “local-regional” problems has a much broader implication, conditioned by the very fact of its emergence as a global power. And this means that it will no longer be possible for China to limit (as has been so far) its growing presence in a particular region of the world to a “purely economic” component. That is, it will not be possible to adhere in the short term to the strategy: “We build roads, bridges, industrial and energy facilities, schools, hospitals, and we do not interfere in your domestic and foreign political squabbles.”

In fact, there have been failures in implementation of this strategy for a long time. Periodically, buses with Chinese experts engaged in a case that looks very useful for the host country get blown up. Which has a simple and perfectly understandable explanation: this “usefulness” is obvious for a country “in general,” but not for this or that “minority” that inhabits it.

With certain reservations, which need not be discussed here, the leadership of Pakistan (regardless of party affiliation) positively assesses the fact of implementation of the grandiose project for the construction of an industrial and transport China-Pakistan economic corridor. However, separatist groups in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province view the same China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as a threat to the “just struggle of the Balochs for independence from the hated regime in Islamabad.

The leaders of Pashtun separatist groups, who position themselves as representatives of the people who occupy the vast cross-border territory of present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, are probably saying approximately the same words about the mentioned project. Not limiting themselves to words and also sometimes blowing up buses with the same Chinese on the “Pashtun” section of the CPEC.

Let us not forget the extremely important point, due to the fact that the two previous “controllers,” mentioned above, when leaving the region, did not take their interests with them. Which, however, will now be achieved by methods other than direct military intervention. Although a direct military intervention cannot be ruled out. So far, one can only say that the general turbulence in CSA and the terrorist “excesses” in it are in favor of the above-mentioned former “controllers.”

This is, in general, the background against which the activation of China’s all-round presence (again, forced-unavoidable) in this region is taking place. In particular, this can be seen in its increasing political and diplomatic activity in the CSA, which has been especially noticeable in recent months.

The author is talking about several multilateral events that took place during this time. Of these, the ministerial meetings held within the framework of the SCO in India, the host country of all the organization’s events this year, deserve the first mention. The arrival in India of China’s defense and foreign ministers and their talks with their Indian counterparts was more of a landmark. The fact that Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Zardari came to India and participated in the SCO was just as noteworthy (far from being predetermined). The Pakistani defense minister expectedly refrained from such a trip.

In the author’s view, all this demonstrates that the prospects for the PRC-India-Pakistan triangle do not look hopelessly negative. The nature of this prospect will depend significantly (if not determinatively) on the level of skill that Beijing now needs to display in its new role as one of the two leading global players. That skill will be particularly important in keeping India from sliding back into the friendly embrace of the US and UK.

From India, Chinese Foreign Ministers Qin Gang and Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Zardari went to Islamabad, where they were joined by their counterpart from the provisional government of Afghanistan, Amir Khan Muttaqi. The joint statement issued after the May 6 trilateral talks in Islamabad called attention to the note about the inadmissibility of the use of the territories of all three countries by any terrorist groups. Including the Pakistani Taliban (banned in Russia), which carries out the aforementioned armed Pashtun activities in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It is up to the Afghan Taliban government (also banned in the Russian Federation) to put these words into practice.

Three weeks earlier, a similarly targeted event was held in Samarkand. Along with Foreign Minister Qin Gang, participants included Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, as well as Pakistani Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar.

Finally, as evidence of China’s increasing activity in the region under discussion, Qin Gang met with his counterparts from the five Central Asian countries in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, on April 27. The main outcome of this meeting was the announcement of a summit planned for mid-May, which will be attended by Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the leaders of all five countries mentioned above.

The author can only wish China’s leadership success in its new and very challenging mission of initiating the resolution of problems in Central and South Asia.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook.

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