In an attempt to secure Beijing’s influence in Afghanistan, China and Pakistan have begun an unprecedented intelligence-sharing arrangement, designed to help China exploit its economic investments in Afghanistan while also stifling outcry over its persecution of the Uighur population near China’s western border with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The timing of the new relationship has become disturbing as President Donald Trump decides to pull out U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Now, American intelligence officials, who believe China will capitalize on ongoing problems in the administration’s effort to secure a peace deal with the Taliban, says 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. “We are now leaving Afghanistan, but who are we leaving it to?”
In an 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 and as a part of Beijing’s realization that 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.
Working together, China and Pakistan have secured pledges from Taliban leaders not to provide safe haven or support to 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 with wide-reaching implications, including granting China a strategic – and deadly – advantage in other regional aspirations, principally its ongoing border dispute with India.
Current U.S. government officials and analysts have 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,” he added.
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 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. 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.
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 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 had said.