Updated: Mar 2
Image Courtesy: The Diplomatist
The events in Asia, with the BRI, and the recent fall of Kabul, must be taken into consideration with the developments in the Indo-Pacific to observe holistically, the broader shift in the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere.
While the USA enjoyed unipolar great power status after the fall of the USSR, the rise of China over the years, the failed liberal-democratic experiments in the Middle East, and the recent Kabul withdrawal, have increased the multipolar status of the world order. The USA still enjoys predominance in terms of naval power in the seas while on the continent, Asian states are slowly shifting towards Eastern regional powers. The rising power of China in Asia has had many scholars fear the emergence of what Graham Allison calls the “Thucydides’ Trap” where the rise of a new power threatens the position of the status-quo power.
The USA, having enjoyed its brief unipolarity and military installations in the Middle East, now sees this influence receding. While Kabul was not a strategically important objective for a consumer state like the USA, the integration of China into global supply chains, and its increasing influence in Central Asia and its power posturing in the South China Sea can be a sign of both receding “western” influence and increasing Chinese assertion. The BRI, a Taliban-run Afghanistan, CPEC, and the new 25-year strategic agreement between China and Iran have placed Asia, at least in theory, in China’s hands economically and diplomatically. The balance of power is shifting and it is shifting Eastwards.
To understand this rapidly changing environment holistically, one has to observe the changes that are happening in Central Asia and in the Indo Pacific simultaneously. The most recent developments in Asia are the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and China’s 25-year agreement with Iran.
Addressing Central and South Asia broadly, the regions that are crucial for China are Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and the Tibet Autonomous Region. These regions all provide, respectively, strategic depth for CPEC, the BRI into Europe, a potential port into the Arabian Sea and a water source for the most populated and biggest industrial society on Earth. Focusing on Afghanistan, the trends presently favor China’s posture in Asia. The 20-year war on terror came to an end with climactic scenes of the ANA retreating or surrendering and the Taliban cordoning off sectors of the city to restrict the evacuation of civilians out of the country. While there is still uncertainty of what the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will do, in terms of its international relations with its neighbors, it seems to have shifted towards the East towards China with an expected hostility towards India. An Afghanistan friendly towards China provides China with strategic depth in terms of allies and a buffer space to secure its BRI routes into Pakistan.
The decision by the Foreign Ministry of China to continue their diplomatic mission even before the entire takeover of Kabul by the Taliban made it evident that they welcomed the Taliban government as the legitimate government in Afghanistan. This was also evident from the words of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson who stated that China “hopes” that the Afghan Taliban could unite with the different parties and different ethnic groups of Afghanistan to build a widely inclusive political framework that is fit for Afghanistan’s situation, so as to lay the foundation for enduring peace in Afghanistan. China, with an already contentious Xinjiang region, prefers a stable Afghanistan and any instability in Afghanistan can become a hotbed to train and supply insurgents in the troublesome Xinjiang province. The current reaction of China to legitimize the Taliban rule is a significant shift from their previous attitude towards the Taliban as they didn’t recognize the Taliban takeover of 1996, refused to recognize their rule, and shut down their diplomatic missions in the country for years. This change of color in the Chinese policy to embrace an Islamist-militant-group-run government next door should be viewed through the prism of economics and geopolitics. Good ties with the Taliban is also important for the Chinese as they need guarantees that Afghanistan would not be used to network extremist groups within the Xinjiang region and further destabilize the Chinese West.
The flagship Belt and Road Initiative (Silk Road) is to expand their markets through secure regions. The Wakhan Corridor near Afghanistan is important strategically for the security of this BRI. The Wakhan strip lies between China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. This route, if built and developed, would be the most efficient and the shortest possible bridge in the region, linking the Wakhan corridor to the Karakoram Highway. The north-south expansion of the corridor would help landlocked Tajikistan to get access to Pakistan’s ports, allowing the Pakistanis to reach the resource-rich Central Asian republics by traversing Afghanistan through the shortest path. Currently, CPEC benefits Pakistan and China, but it can be easily extended to include Afghanistan and Tajikistan thus making them cooperative towards Chinese geostrategic goals in Asia. If the Wakhan route is connected to the CPEC, it would undoubtedly boost trade and transform the economic outlook for the entire region. With the help of the Taliban, China can enter Afghanistan which gives them direct access to many countries like Iran. In light of the current 25-year agreement between Iran and China, and the lucrative port of Chabahar, this would provide China with direct access to the Persian Gulf without having to traverse through the first island chain in the South China Sea, offsetting any potential naval blockades. This is not a far-fetched idea as Iran, reeling under Western sanctions, would benefit from Chinese investments and be willing to provide them with strategic benefits in turn. Afghanistan would provide them with not only potential land routes but also significant strategic depth.
This strategic isolation of India, which is a thorn in China’s side in Asia, will be complete in theory, if their ambitions in the Indo-Pacific are achieved as well. Beyond the strategic sphere, China’s interests are also economic. Without a guarantee of Chinese predominance in the Pacific and the String of Pearls, the BRI not only provides inroads into European markets but also provides for the potential control of ports and military bases in Pakistan and Iran, and Africa, with involvement in as many as 46 ports in Africa. The BRI and the String of Pearls would theoretically establish Chinese predominance in the Eastern Hemisphere, suppressing India, China’s primary continental and geopolitical rival.
To understand Chinese actions in changing the balance of power in this Hemisphere, one must also understand the Chinese mindset. China’s core strategic security interest is to protect its Han heartland, maintain stability domestically and to prevent the repetition of the humiliation it suffered under the Japanese and European powers, ie, sea powers. A weak navy allowed the invasion of China by foreigner’s multiple times, the most recent memories being the Opium Wars and the “rape of Nanjing” in 1937. The only way to prevent this is to acquire sufficient buffer spaces between the heartland and other powers and to develop a strong navy to not only defend the homeland but also project power and prevent unwanted incursions. Another recent yet logical interest would be to maintain a firm grip over Tibet not only as a buffer territory but to seize the water sources of the Brahmaputra and other Himalayan rivers. China, having a population of a little over that of India, and being an industrial and increasing military power, needs a lot of water – water which Tibet can supply. However, the river sources being shared among some of the most populous places of the world, namely, China, India, and Bangladesh, is likely to create severe contentions in the future.
With these interests kept in mind, China’s constant aggression in the South China Sea must not be seen as separated from any historical reasons for securitization. The question of Taiwan and the first island chain, given China’s history, is always a source of strategic insecurity, providing an explanation to the ascendant Chinese navy.
The change in the balance of power in Asia after the fall of Kabul was immediately met with the Quadrilateral security dialogue (Quad) meeting not a month later. This was done simultaneously with the announcement of the AUKUS trilateral agreement between the UK, USA, and Australia. While both the Quad and AUKUS are not explicitly alliances or institutions postured against China, reading between the lines must not be a difficult task. While containing China in the South China Sea would be the West’s immediate interest to prevent a major naval challenger in the Eastern Hemisphere, a strong Indian naval presence in the Indian Ocean would not only serve India’s current security situation but also serve India’s long-term interests by having an autonomous and assertive navy and undisputed control of the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea with significant Blue Water projection capabilities. While India does not seek absolute mastery of the seas, it will need to prepare for the possibility of a challenging blue water navy in its own waters.
The Indo-Pacific region is not just important economically with its Straits of Malacca and the Strait of Hormuz, the Indian Ocean region, the South China sea are important politically as regions where the sovereignty of India and China respectively is to be projected. With Australia becoming an increasingly important player in the region with the potential of acquiring nuclear submarines under AUKUS, and being part of many minilateral security initiatives in the Indo-Pacific, the balance of power is slowly shifting against China in the Pacific as is to be expected. While this, in the future could arguably be contentious for India which could find itself surrounded by predominant Anglophile navies, for the short term, Chinese projection into the Pacific does not seem obvious, which would mean that Chinese efforts in Central Asia will be intensified. These efforts would not just be intended towards making China further embedded through infrastructure and trade into Asia, but also increases the chances of Chinese naval projection into the Indo-Pacific bypassing the First Island chain in the South China Sea. The dream of its naval predominance is a distant dream, but we must expect intensified efforts in Central Asia, especially in Afghanistan, Pakistan and a possible shift of Iran towards Chinese investments.
While the West’s response to the Asian continental politics is still ambiguous, the power brokers as of now seem to be China, Russia and India. The oceans, however, have got the attention of the West – almost all naval powers. As they all recalibrate their Foreign policy documents to accommodate for an “Indo Pacific”, the recent Republican-led motion to exclude India from CAATSA sanctions from the USA seems to serve as enough proof that the West has shifted its attention towards the East instead of Russia or the Middle East.
With a loss of strong balancers on the Continent except for India, the Indo-Pacific is already the next center of focus for global diplomacy and alliance-balancing regarding Great Power politics as relations between India and China heat up the regional scene on the Continent.
(Joseph Moses is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in International Relations at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), Moscow, Russia. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Madras Christian College (MCC), Chennai, India. His areas of interest include International theories, Diplomacy, and Foreign Policy.The views expressed are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)
 Allison, G. Thucydides’s Trap. Retrieved from Belfer Center: https://www.belfercenter.org/thucydides-trap/overview-thucydides-trap
 Frederic Gare, M. R. (2021, September 13). Moving closer: European views of the Indo-Pacific. Retrieved from European Council on Foreign Relations: https://ecfr.eu/special/moving-closer-european-views-of-the-indo-pacific/