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China leveraging Afghanistan to puncture Central Asian mountains, link with Iran, says ex-envoy

In webinar on ‘China's Position on Afghanistan’, hosted by the Institute of China Studies. experts speculate on China's reasons for embracing the Taliban & any reservations it may harbour.

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New Delhi: One reason why China is keen to leverage the Afghanistan crisis is to “link up” with Iran across the Pamirs, Hindu Kush, Karakorams and Himalayas, and for the first time become a strategic player in the Gulf region, said former diplomat Gautam Mukhopadhaya at a webinar hosted by the Institute of China Studies Wednesday.

The webinar, titled ‘China’s Position on Afghanistan’, was also attended by Dr Andrew Small, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, and Suhasini Haidar, diplomatic editor of The Hindu, and hosted by former Indian ambassador to China, Ashok Kantha. ThePrint was a digital partner for the event.

“They [China] have a $400 billion and 25-year deal with Iran with strategic overtones. If we see what they are doing in the Central Asian mountains, my general feeling is that they are positioning themselves to actually puncture the mountains, from the Pamirs to the Karakorams,” said Mukhopadhaya.

In 2011, Tajikistan had signed a boundary agreement with Beijing and ceded about 1,000 sq km of territory in the Pamir Mountains.

“One could even see their probing moves in the Ladakh mountains in that context,” he added.

Haidar agreed with Mukhopadhaya and added: “When China looks at Afghanistan, it looks at complete and strategic control of South Asia.”

Ahead of the Taliban government formation earlier this month, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi had said he hoped that the new government will be “open and inclusive”, and develop good relations with other countries.

Later, China welcomed the new Taliban government, calling it “a necessary step”.

In Mukhopadhaya’s view, the US “abetted” the Taliban takeover by “white-washing” its leaders Sirajuddin and Anas Haqqani, and positioning them in leadership roles during negotiations.

“They [US] have actually set the Taliban…onto the region basically to destabilise China, and of course, Russia and Iran as well,” he added.

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China’s potential reservations

While other experts spoke on how China may leverage the Afghanistan situation, Dr Small discussed Beijing’s potential reservations.

“This has been understood by China as a headache…They didn’t want to see the Taliban take power in an emboldened fashion, an outright victory on the battlefield,” he said.

Beijing will have its eye on Taliban’s dealings with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uyghur extremist group, and other militant organisations like Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), he added.

In August this year, a suicide bomb attack in Pakistan injured Chinese personnel, and TTP took responsibility for it.

Taliban’s relationship with such organisations will determine how Beijing will move forward with economic projects, he added.

“Over time China would like to have a deeper level of economic involvement in the country [Afghanistan] but there would be a set of conditions required for that as well…The really major investments will take a significant period of time before they deliver any real output…,” said Dr Small.

There are also fears in Beijing that with the US withdrawal, all of Washington’s diplomatic “bandwidth” will be focused solely on China and the Indo-Pacific, he added.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

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