The World This Week

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The World This Week
Taliban's friendly neighbourhood: China, Russia and Pakistan

  GP Team

The World This Week #133, Vol. 3, No. 34

Dincy Adlakha, Vaishnavi Iyer and Harsimran Singh Sondhi

China: Beijing's economic interests in Afghanistan outweighs likely threats from the Taliban
What happened?
On 16 August 2021, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying held a regular press conference and stated: "China has maintained contact and communication with the Afghan Taliban and played a constructive role in promoting the political settlement of the Afghan issue."  She demonstrated tacit support for the Taliban by adding: "We hope the Afghan Taliban can form solidarity with all factions and ethnic groups in Afghanistan, and build a broad-based and inclusive political structure suited to the national realities, to lay the foundation for achieving enduring peace in the country." The statement also read: "China respects the Afghan people's right to decide on their own future independently. We are ready to continue to develop good-neighbourliness and friendly cooperation with Afghanistan and play a constructive role in Afghanistan's peace and reconstruction." With this, she confirmed that the Chinese embassy in Afghanistan is operating smoothly with its staff despite many Chinese nationals being brought back to China.

What is the background?
First, China's recent engagements over Afghanistan. Over the years, China has gradually shifted its Afghanistan approach from non-interference to strategic engagement. Stable Afghanistan is crucial for China. Consequently, China has been active in international dialogue, stimulating the dialogue process in Afghanistan. It has maintained an essential position in the extended troika and troika plus in facilitating intra-Afghan talks. Additionally, China has repeatedly attempted to bring the Taliban to the table with the US, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and itself through the Quadrilateral Cooperation Group. On 15 July, China also put forth a three-part roadmap at Shanghai Cooperation Organization to begin the peace talks in Afghanistan. Regionally, China has held multiple high-level ministerial talks with the Central Asian countries and Pakistan and China, monitoring the Afghanistan situation for a long time.

Second, China's recent engagements with the Taliban. China has not disguised its intentions. On 28 July, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with the Taliban co-founder and deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in a nine-member delegation that visited the Tianjin port. Previously, a similar trip was organized in 2019. In 2015, secret talks with Taliban representatives were held in Urumqi, Xinjiang. These meetings hold great meaning for China. 

Third, China's economic interests in Afghanistan, especially the minerals. Earlier, Afghanistan was not a part of China's Belt and Road Initiative. Yet, it has become a crucial connecting route for China for BRI and also the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China also has significant interests in Afghanistan's minerals; Mes Aynak is the world's second-largest copper mine. Apart from copper, Afghanistan also has huge amounts of iron ore, gold, and even rare-earth metals, lithium, worth approximately 4.4 billion US dollars. The provinces of Herat, Ghazni, and Nimroz offer substantial economic benefits for China.

Fourth, China's security concerns. China fears a spillover of instability in its territory through Afghanistan. There exist multiple militant groups in the region that lies in geographical proximity with Xinjiang. According to reports, the Taliban has promised not to allow Afghan soil to be used against Chinese interests.

What does it mean?
First, China was apprehensive of the American presence in Afghanistan. However, now the withdrawal, too, causes another apprehension. The US will not have any liabilities in South Asia and would direct its resources towards China. Second, recognition from China would give legitimacy to the Taliban and open doors for integrated cooperation. There may be some distrust with the Taliban's promises, but Chinese economic interests in Afghanistan speak louder.

Russia: For Moscow, the Central Asian concerns are crucial in the Taliban's Afghanistan
What happened?
On 17 August, the Russian ambassador to Afghanistan Dmitry Zhirnov praised the Taliban's conduct and described its approach as "good, positive and business-like." He said the Taliban had made Kabul safer than it was under the previous authorities. Dmitry Zhirnov, called the Taliban "reasonable guys" following a "positive and constructive meeting". He added that the Taliban guaranteed the Russian embassy's security.

On 19 August, Sergey Lavrov said: "We see encouraging signs from the Taliban who say they would like to have a government that includes other political forces." On 20 August, Zhirnov described the situation in Afghanistan as one of cautious hope and said that "it should be better" calling for the Taliban to take socio-economic measures to help boost development.

What's the background?
First, the return of Russia into Afghanistan after the 1989 exit. Moscow left Afghanistan badly wounded and having lost to the US-Mujiahideen-ISI combine after fighting the entire 1980s. In the 1990s, preoccupied with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Moscow watched the rise of the Taliban with less influence in Afghanistan. In the 2000s, Russia remained under Putin started looking at Central Asia and Afghanistan closely. In May 2009, Russia began seeking improved relations with the Taliban in the "Russia Afghan Forum"; owing to the inevitable need to maintain good relations with not only the government representatives but also the Pashtun groups.

Second, Moscow's Central Asian interests in Afghanistan. Russia has been looking towards stabilizing the regional engagement with its post-soviet neighbours. The economic and political interests in Central Asia are crucial for Russia's rise under Putin. Russia has engaged in military exercises with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and East Xinjiang. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan share borders with Afghanistan. These borders are not only physical but also ethnic, as Central Asia shares Uzbek and Tajik populations with Afghanistan.

Third, the American factor in Afghanistan for Moscow. All big neighbours of Afghanistan – Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran have grown sceptical about the US presence in Afghanistan. In 2018, Moscow was accused of arming the Taliban and providing financial support and bounties to kill US troops. The Kremlin denied these allegations; however, many in the US believe that Moscow has not forgotten what happened in the 1980s, and would want to return the favour to the US.

Fourth, Russia's recent interests in the Afghan dialogues. Moscow has acted as a host and sponsored several initiatives calling for diplomatic talks with 11 other regional leaders, including China, the US, India and Pakistan. Russia regularly indulged in special envoys to meet with the US and other diplomatic initiatives like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization-Afghanistan Contact Group. There were reports even of Russia supporting a "Moscow Shura" of the Taliban.

What does it mean?
First, the Russian government is confident about the intentions of the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, it has declared that it would not be making any unilateral decisions on giving the Taliban a dejure recognition. As per the 2003 status, the Taliban remains a terrorist group. Russia has assured that it will only change its status if the United Nations does. 

Second, Russia is now interested in filling the void created by the US exit, with its main focus on securing regional cooperation with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to secure Central Asian stability. Russia may have to adopt to new realities in Afghanistan and pursue its strategy accordingly. 

Afghanistan: With the Taliban back, Pakistan feels victorious in Kabul
What happened?
On 17 August, Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan declared that the Afghans had "broken the shackles of slavery" in a war-torn country. He believes that the withdrawal was a "logical solution." Roofi Hasan, who is the Prime Minister's special assistant, took to Twitter to state that Ashraf Ghani's "corrupt" government rule was a "virtually smooth shift" to the Taliban. Many retired and serving generals are thrilled that Pakistan will finally have "friends" in the driving seat in Kabul, and have expressed admiration openly for the Taliban.

On 20 August, Pakistan's army and the Taliban held a "meet and greet" at the border areas. One of the Pakistani soldiers was also seen taking a selfie with one of the Taliban. The friendly act came after Islamabad released terrorist Mullah Mohammad Rasool, the leader of a splinter faction of the Taliban. He spent around five years in Pakistan prison and was freed days after the collapse of the Ashraf Ghani administration. On the same day, Imran Khan urged his ministers to refrain from commenting on the Taliban takeover as it is a "sensitive matter."

On 21 August, reports suggested, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi is likely to visit Kabul on 22 August 2021. Pakistan is determined to play a "positive role" and their envoy in Afghanistan said in a statement, that he is also in touch with different Afghan personalities.

What is the background?
First, Pakistan's Taliban history. The Taliban emerged as an armed group in Pakistan. Many of its members had studied in the religious schools in Pakistan. Islamabad was also one of the three capitals, alongside Saudi Arabia and the UAE to formally recognize the Taliban in the 1990s. During the last two decades, successive American military leadership fighting the war in Afghanistan complained about Pakistan playing a double role with the latter continuing to support the Taliban.

Second, Pakistan's recent engagements. Pakistan was a part of the Doha dialogue, the 'extended Troika for Afghan peace' to discuss the Taliban takeover and its implications, and the Afghan Quadrilateral dialogue, along with China, Russia and the US. The US was dependent on Pakistan to get the Taliban on board, and its Afghan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad made multiple visits to Islamabad. Pakistan used its Taliban linkages, to present itself as a vital cog in the Doha dialogue process. Islamabad has been providing the Taliban shelter and a resource base in its territory even as the world expected it to put pressure on the Taliban to arrive at a negotiated political power-sharing deal with Ghani's government. 

Third, Pakistan's friction and lukewarm relations with Ashraf Ghani's government. Ever since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, administrations in Afghanistan have publicly chastised Pakistan for backing the Taliban. In the present context, the Taliban government in Kabul will undoubtedly act in Pakistan's interest; Pakistan could return the favour by utilizing its soft power to invoke international acceptance of a Taliban regime in Afghanistan. 

Fourth, Pakistan's economic interests in Afghanistan. Pakistan hosts millions of Afghan refugees on its soil at a huge economic cost. In recent years, Islamabad has also developed new economic and energy interests in Afghanistan with the construction work on the Central Asia - South Asia Regional Trade and Transmission Project (CASA-1000). The CASA-1000 project is a 1,270km power transmission line that is expected to export excess hydropower generated in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan. 

What does it mean?
The return of the Taliban can have both good and bad implications on Pakistan. Pakistan may feel better with the exit of the US and the likely decline in the Indian presence in Afghanistan. Pakistan may also feel better with a friendly regime in Kabul, which has been one of its primary interests in Afghanistan. However, there are dangers as well for Pakistan. What lessons will the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) and other extremist groups in Pakistan learn from the success of the Taliban? 

Also, in the news …
By Sukanya Bali and Avishka Ashok

East and Southeast Asia This Week 
China: Tightens tech scrutiny over the unfair competition
On 17 August, China's State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR) issued a draft regulation to ban unfair competition and restrict the use of user data, in the tech sector. The draft stated, operators "must not implement or assist in the implementation of unfair competition on the Internet, disrupt the order of market competition, affect fair transactions in the market." On the same day, Reuters reported: "the Chinese government has also taken ownership stakes in the domestic entities of social media giants ByteDance and Weibo," citing corporate filings.

China: Astronauts complete second spacewalk
On 20 August, two Chinese astronauts conducted a second spacewalk at the new space station. The astronauts installed a platform for extravehicular activity on the space station's robotic arm, a thermal control pumping set, and a bracket to the panoramic camera. According to CCTV news, astronauts returned back to the module one hour ahead of the time schedule. Three astronauts are expected to stay for three more months in the space station.

Hong Kong: Pro-democracy activist found guilty; four arrested on suspicion of terrorism 
On 19 August, Andy Li, Hong Kong's pro-democracy activist, was found guilty of conspiracy to commit collusion with the foreign country in a national security case. The court identified that Li, "was instructed by Jimmy Lai" to lobby countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and China. On 18 August, Hong Kong Police arrested, "four students on suspicion of advocating terrorism." Last month, their student union passed a motion for the mourning of the death of a 50-year-old who stabbed a policeman before killing himself.  Secretary for Security Chris Tang had described it as a terrorist act by a "lone wolf." 

Japan: Protests over Seoul main opposition leader visit Takeshima
On 18 August, Japan protested the visit of Seoul's opposition leader, of the People Power Party, to the Takeshima Island. Tokyo's Director-General of the ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau lodged a formal protest at the South Korean Embassy in Japan. In response, South Korea's Foreign Ministry official said, "In accordance with our position, we dismissed the unreasonable demand and claims Japan has made through diplomatic channels."

North Korea: Navigational warning issued in the East Sea
On 18 August, Pyongyang declared a "no-sail zone for ships off the east coast." According to the Korean Herald, the declaration indicates North Korea's "plans to launch missiles" amid joint exercise between South Korea and the United States. Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff said, "no actual ballistic missile launches or artillery firings took place during the period."  

Australia: Police arrests anti-lockdown protestors
On 21 August, Australian police arrested hundreds of anti-lockdown protestors in Melbourne and Sydney. On the same day, the country saw its highest single-day rise of COVID-19 cases. State Health Minister said, "We are in a very serious situation here in New South Wales." He further added, "There is no time now to be selfish, it's time to think of the broader community and your families." Police blocked private and public transport in order to reduce people gathering for the unauthorized protests.

Singapore: FM says, ASEAN not effective in Myanmar
On 21 August, Singapore Foreign Minister said, "ASEAN is not as effective or as quick as we would have hoped for". In April, ASEAN announced a five-point consensus to resolve the crisis in Myanmar. As part of the consensus, members appointed Brunei's second minister for foreign affairs as a special envoy to Naypyitaw. Reuters reported, he further hoped "there would be progress to report on the envoy's visit before the ASEAN leaders' summit in November." According to AAPP, since the coup, the death toll in Myanmar has crossed over 1,000.

Malaysia: Ismail Sabri swears in as the ninth Prime Minister
On 21 August, Ismail Sabri Yaakob was sworn in as Malaysia's ninth Prime Minister. Ismail was a Deputy PM under former PM Muhyiddin Yassin's rule. He secured the parliamentary majority from the same coalition which replaced Yassin. He took an oath of office before King Al-Sultan Abdullah.  

South Asia This Week 
Sri Lanka: Beijing loans USD 308 million for economic revival 
On 18 August, Sri Lanka signed a loan agreement with China worth USD 308 million. Chinese embassy tweeted: "China Development Bank and Sri Lankan Government have entered into an agreement of RMB 2 billion Term Facility today (17 August), upon a request from Sri Lanka side to support its #COVID19 response, economic revival, financial stability, and livelihood betterment." Earlier this year, Beijing gave two loans for USD 500 million to Colombo.

Pakistan: First MILGEM ship inauguration; strengthen relation with Turkey
On 15 August, Pakistan's President, Dr Arif Alvi while addressing the inauguration of 1st MILGEM Ship, PNS Babur, appreciated Turkey's support. He said, "the relationship between Pakistan and Turkey was a force for regional peace and stability with their exemplary support towards co-existence and cooperative multilateralism." As per the agreement, four MILGEM will be constructed. President Alvi also congratulated the Turkish Defense Ministry for making progress under President Erdogan's leadership.

Central Asia, Middle East and Africa This Week
Armenia: Prime Minister expresses willingness to normalize relations with Turkey
On 18 August, the Armenian Prime Minister Nicol Pashinyan announced that the country was prepared t normalize its relations with Turkey. While reiterating Armenia's position on improving relations with Turkey, Pashinyan also expressed the country's willingness to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh issue by resuming negotiations with Azerbaijan. He said: "The OSCE Minsk Group has repeatedly said that the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiating process should be resumed in full. We welcome these statements and this position and are ready to participate in the talks at the highest level."

Iran: IAEA report announces Natanz facility's production of 60 per cent enriched uranium
On 17 August, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a report according to which Iran had achieved the enrichment of uranium to 60 per cent, which is considered to be weapons-grade enrichment. According to the report, Iran had also produced 200 grams of metal-grade uranium, up to 20 per cent. Although 90 per cent purity is essential for creating a nuclear warhead, the current progress is considered as a violation to the JCPOA, which limits Iran's refining levels to 3.67 per cent. 

Lebanon: Defence Minister registers complaints against Israel at the UN
On 20 August, the Lebanese Defence Minister Zeina Akar reported that Lebanon had registered a complaint against Israel for trespassing over its air space to launch an airstrike on targets in Syria. He said: "Israeli planes blatantly violated Lebanon's airspace at low altitude, causing a state of panic among citizens." Although the Syrian air defence system was able to prevent the missiles from causing harm, the Lebanese media reported that two missiles fell in the Qalamoun region on the border of the Lebanese-Syrian border. 

Mali: Interim President addresses the people on the eve of the anniversary of the coup
On 18 August, the Malian President Colonel Assimi Goïta addressed the people in his country and explained the reason behind the military coup on the occasion of its first anniversary. He also promised to hold transparent elections to elect a civilian leader in Mali by 27 February 2022. He said: "What happened on 18 August was a culmination. The collapse of the state on 22 March (2012 - an earlier coup) should have been followed by a patriotic upsurge. Instead, it led to a process, one of the major consequences of which was the decay of governance." He justified his usurpation of power by claiming that the people needed a change in governance. 

Ethiopia: Heavy rains cause seven deaths in the capital 
On 18 August, the situation in the capital city of Ethiopia worsened after torrential rains which left the city flooded and caused seven deaths. On 17 August, the city turned chaotic due to the unending downpour that submerges multiple parts of the city. The Mayor of Addis Ababa said: "I urge our residents to take the necessary precautions in the area as heavy rains are expected in the coming days, and we will intensify our efforts to increase protection."

Africa: WHO reports outbreak of Ebola along with Coronavirus pandemic
On 19 August, the World Health Organization (WHO) cautioned the member countries against a new outbreak of Ebola, causing a strain on the health system in West Africa. The regional director of WHO explained the challenge faced by the governments in West Africa as they try to fight Ebola along with the COVID-19 pandemic. On 16 August, Ivory Coast began vaccinating its medical help after the first case of Ebola was registered since 1994. Guinea also announced a death due to Ebola. The WHO reports and data provided that the healthcare system in West Africa was much weaker than the rest of the continent. 

Europe and The Americas This Week
Greece: As the Afghan crisis deepens, Greek and Turkish governments prepare for the refugee crisis 
On 20 August, the government in Greece announced the completion of the 40-kilometre extension of the fence with Turkey to prevent the inflow of Afghan refugees through Turkey. Turkey also finished constructing a 155 kilometre long and three-meter high fence across its border to restrict the movement of people. On the same day, the Greek Prime Minister and Turkish President also discussed the Afghan refugee crisis on-call and predicted that if matters worsen, a new immigration wave would be inevitable. 

Germany: Chancellor visits Russia and discusses evacuation of Afghans from Kabul
On 20 August, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and urged him to pressure the Taliban in Afghanistan to ensure the safe evacuation of citizens who align themselves to the West. She said: "I have given information that we in Germany consider it most important to evacuate people who have worked for over 20 years for us. Those citizens of Afghanistan should receive a place to stay in Germany." Putin urged the world to prevent the further collapse of the country by accepting the reality where Taliban controls Afghanistan.

Lithuania: Belarus accused of trespassing borders by border service and the EU
On 17 August, the Lithuanian border service accused 12 Belarusian officers of illegally trespassing the Lithuanian territory to force a group of migrants over the border. On the other hand, Belarus also accused Lithuania of being violent towards the migrants. The European Union protested against the "instrumentalization of human beings for political purposes" by Belarus. On 18 August, the Eu held an emergency meeting to discuss the influx of migrants and extended solidarity to Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. 

Spain: Interior Minister defends plan to repatriate young migrants back to Morocco
On 16 August, a Spanish court suspended the expulsion of 12 young migrants who had requested for help to remain in Spain. The Interior Minister of Spain was accused of violating international law by repatriating young and unaccompanied children back to Morocco. However, Spanish authorities claim that the best interests of the child were sought and vulnerable children were not being sent back. However, as of now, over 800 children will be repatriated to Morocco. 

Haiti: Earthquake adds to the political and economic crisis
On 17 August, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs announced that aid workers had to negotiate with armed groups in Haiti who were creating obstacles and preventing the aid from reaching the needy. After the 7.2 magnitude earthquake which left almost 12,000 injured and over 200 dead, the people are in desperate need of medical assistance, food and sanitation. More than 77,000 houses have been damaged, trapping people in the rubble. 

Cuba: Government passes decree to ban anti-state publications 
On 17 August, the official gazette of Cuba shared Decree 35 according to which a ban was imposed on publications that could damage the country's reputation. The move was seen as an attempt to smother the people's protests and complaints against the country. The decree was also passed as the unrest was initially caused by information shared on the internet. Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said: "Our Decree 35 goes against misinformation and cyber lies."

The US: President Joe Biden's statements on developments in Afghanistan 
On 16 August, US President Joe Biden addressed the crisis in Afghanistan at a press conference. He used the opportunity to reiterate the US' objectives in Afghanistan and said: "We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals: get those who attacked us on 11 September 2001, and make sure al Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again." He stated that the US objectives were never aimed at nation-building or creating a unified and centralized democracy. 

About the Authors
Dincy Adlakha is a postgraduate scholar from Christ (Deemed-to-be-University). Vaishnavi Iyer and Harsimran Singh Sondhi are research interns in the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Sukanya Bali and Avishka Ashok are Research Associates at NIAS.

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