A new version of the Great Game is unfolding in Afghanistan, the five Central Asia countries, as well as Nepal, India and Pakistan. As Washington and Delhi undertake a rapprochement, Beijing develops closer ties to Iran and Pakistan. Afghanistan too is in China’s sight, but US influence remains strong. COVID-19 becomes part of the diplomatic game.
Kabul (AsiaNews) – Afghanistan and Central Asia, for years torn by wars and extremist violence, still active despite the recent peace agreement with the Taliban, are becoming a new battleground between the United States and China for global leadership.
Billions of dollars in trade and new energy corridors that connect the region to South Asia and the Middle East, the world’s oil reserve, are at stake.
The rivalry between Beijing and Washington entered a new phase following the mid-June border clash between Chinese and Indian troops in Ladakh, in the disputed region of Kashmir.
Since then, diplomatic and security relations between the United States and India have grown considerably, with New Delhi oriented towards joining a strategic alliance with the US, Japan and Australia against China in the Indo-Pacific region.
Expectedly, China has responded to the India-US rapprochement by strengthening its strategic partnership with Iran.
The two countries are close to finalising a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement, which could dwarf even the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Both projects are part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, and mark a reshuffling of alliances.
“Fundamental realignments are taking place across the world at a challenging, transformative time in international affairs,” said Maleeha Lodhi, former Pakistani ambassador to the UK, the US and the United Nations. With “global power is shifting to the East,” the world is “witnessing a reordering of relationships”.
Recent diplomatic activity in Central and South Asia seem to confirm this, with both China and the United States getting more and more actively involved in the region.
In a series of meetings with the foreign ministers of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the five Central Asian states – as well as Taliban negotiators based in Qatar – a US delegation sought to reinforce the message that Washington intends to remain the top geopolitical player in Afghanistan, on the basis of its continuing role as the country’s major financier.
China, for its part, wants to boost its own strategic alliances by strengthening its access to the Middle East, via Central and South Asia.
To this end, Beijing is using the novel coronavirus as a soft diplomacy tool, providing material and human resources to help countries affected by the pandemic. The one exception is India, which seems to be turning more and more towards the US to defend its economic, trade and strategic interests.
In a four-way video conference on 27 July with the foreign ministers of Nepal and Afghanistan and Pakistan’s development minister, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi proposed expanding their pandemic cooperation to establish a “green corridor” between them.
He also did not exclude the prospect of including Afghanistan into the CPEC but remains cautious to avoid creating another point of friction with the Americans.
Another project on China’s agenda is the trans-Himalayan corridor, which would integrate Nepal into the Belt and Road plan via Tibet, Xinjiang and Gwadar, thus reducing India’s historic influenced over Nepal. This explains Beijing’s guarded endorsement of Pakistan’s proposal to extend the CPEC into Afghanistan.
Overall, “Developments such as closer China-Iran relations that promote regional stability, economic development as well as connectivity will be welcomed by Pakistan,” said Lodhi, the former ambassador. “We await details of whether Pakistan has a role to play in this regard.”
Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a professor of English literature and oriental studies at the University of Tehran, said it was “natural” for China and Iran to seek closer ties because they had enjoyed a conflict-free relationship based on Silk Route trade and civilisational exchanges for several millennia.
“This creates a natural convergence between nations to protect themselves against a great menace, the US,” Marandi added.