China has been keen to expand its influence to central Asia through the Pakistan-Afghanistan route and has made strategic investments in the two countries.
Pakistan, where according to some estimates the Chinese investments have risen above USD 60 billion, is largely dependent on China not only for financial but also military and diplomatic support.
Given the huge imbalance of power in its favour, China has begun to put pressure on Pakistan to allow building of outposts where it would station its armed personnel.
Afghanistan, where Taliban are ruling now, however, is yet to meet the expectations of both China as well as Pakistan on many counts.
Top diplomatic and security sources in Islamabad who requested anonymity for this report, believe that China’s People Liberation Army is working at a war scale to establish military outposts in Afghanistan and Pakistan for what it claims would be smoother operations and expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
According to a diplomatic source, the Chinese Ambassador Nong Rong has held meetings with Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto and Chief of Army General Qamar Javed Bajwa in this regard.
Ambassador Rong has not been in Pakistan since the end of March 2022 this year, only just arrived recently in the country.
However, the meeting in which he demanded the creation of outposts for Chinese forces was perhaps the first formal meeting of ambassador Rong with the new government and state representatives.
The Chinese ambassador has been continuously insisting on the security of Chinese projects and the safety of its citizens, the source informed.
China has already demanded security outposts in Gwadar and also for using the Gwadar International Airport for its fighter jets.
The facility that can be used for military purposes is soon going to be operational as revealed from its fencing, another top source revealed.
However, the issue has its own sensitive dimensions as the Pakistani people may not be comfortable with a heavy Chinese military presence in the country.
There have been fears that the country is already in a debt-trap-like situation and that Chinese tactics could leave it no better than a colony.
On Afghanistan, both China and Pakistan have their own set of concerns. After the Taliban’s take-over both Pakistan and China were expecting unquestioning cooperation from the landlocked nation. However, this has not materialised fully.
One of the foremost demands of the Pakistanis was that they wanted to keep the Indians out of Afghanistan. But the Kandahar-based Taliban have not too much of a liking for Pakistan that would allow it to call the shots.
The Taliban have been keen on an independent foreign policy including on ties with India. Even Mullah Yaqub, the Taliban defence minister, has suggested military training in India.
However, this was not the only area where Pakistan expected the new Afghan government to comply with its wishes.
Taliban and especially the groups affiliated to the Haqqanis were expected to facilitate the destruction of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and hand over wanted militants to the Pakistani army.
The Haqqanis soon made it clear that they would not comply. The reason being that the Kandaharis and some of TTP leaders shared the same ancestral background. Left with no choice, the Pakistani army has had to engage in complex ceasefire talks with the TTP.
The new Afghan government was also supposed to recognise the Durand Line as an international border. Pakistan had erected a wire fence at considerable expense in recent years, but within weeks the Taliban and TTP were cutting the wire and laying claim to the FATA region of Pakistan.
According to a source, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, General Bajwa, had already nursed anxieties about a Taliban takeover, but he was opposed by his intelligence chief Faiz Hamid and by powerful Corps Commanders.
China also has viewed the developments in Afghanistan with some concern. The Chinese have their own set of worries. The Taliban and Haqqanis show no interest in handing over Uyghur insurgents to the Chinese authorities.
China also considers them not serious towards the development of its BRI network in the Afghanistan. China wants access to central Asia and Europe through the CPEC and Afghanistan, the diplomatic source said.
There are concerns in Beijing that Uyghur extremists may have started collaborating with Balochi groups and the TTP to undermine the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
There have been a number of attacks inside Pakistan in which Chinese citizens have been targeted, including the bomb blast in Quetta in April 2021 which the Chinese Ambassador narrowly escaped.
A year later, a Balochi suicide bomber killed three Chinese citizens near Karachi’s Confucius Institute. It was precisely these incidents that led to a renewal of Chinese pressure on deploying their own security to Pakistan – a demand which Pakistan has repeatedly refused.
According to the sources, China wants to expand its strategic role in Pakistan by deploying its own security personnel to protect its projects and citizens there.
The source also said that China was keen to invest in Afghanistan and wants to expand its BRI project, so Beijing needs to secure Pakistan and Afghanistan with its military outposts.
China has reminded Pakistan of its history of giving outposts to America and other countries during the Cold War. Currently, China has heavily invested in Pakistan and the demand of the arrangement for the outpost and security is getting serious with passage of time.
Pakistan has to pay 300 billion Pakistani rupees to Chinese firms, and these companies have already threatened Pakistan to shut down power plants if unpaid dues will not be cleared, according to sources in the know.
Bostan Industrial Zone, Gwadar Port, Special Zone-I and Zone-II; some patrolling units on CPEC’s western alignment which cover Awaran, Khuzdar, Hoshab and Turbat areas; Mohmand Marble City (SEZ) near Mohmand Agency and Sost Dry-Port & Moqpondass Special Economic Zone in Gilgit-Baltistan are the major Chinese projects running in Pakistan.
On one side, Pakistan is trapped in the debt-trap diplomacy of China, while on the other hand, the Chinese administration is constantly reminding them that they do not have trust in the Pakistani security apparatus.
Pakistan does not want to annoy China from whom it repeatedly takes financial aid. However, the acceptance of the demand would not only dent its global image further it could also lead to domestic complications, conclude sources who requested anonymity for this report due to their proximity to decision makers in the country.
The latest exertion of Chinese pressure has put Pakistan in a tight spot as whether it accedes to the demands or not, it would face consequences.