Interview: Ukraine War Is Deepening China-Russia Ties, Widening Beijing’s Rifts With the West

Mitali Mukherjee talks to the authors of 'The Comrades and the Mullahs', Ananth Krishnan and Stanly Johny, about how they read the current geo-political climate.

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In the recently released The Comrades and the Mullahs, authors Ananth Krishnan and Stanly Johny examine what Beijing’s interests are, the drivers of its foreign policy, and more specifically, how its new Silk Road project – the Belt and Road Initiative or BRI – is shaping China-Afghan relations. They also examine how Afghanistan has emerged as a key point on the corridor heading west from Xinjiang, and discuss the Xinjiang factor, drawing on their travels to China’s western frontiers, as well as the internal dynamics that are pushing Beijing’s westward march.

The book, born of a Twitter conversation between the two, has never been more timely. With Pakistan living through a renewed period of flux and a new prime minister on the one hand to a full-blown conflict between Russia and Ukraine on the other, how does it change the terrain for key players like China? What does it mean for the future of both Pakistan and Afghanistan? Most importantly, where does this place India, strategically and tactically?

Mitali Mukherjee spoke with both Ananth and Stanly on their book and how they read the current geo-political climate.

There is a “here and now” feeling about your book, with recent events in Pakistan playing out the way they did. It is yet unclear what the impact may be for Afghanistan. How have you read the developments of the last fortnight?

Ananth Krishnan: Our book was very much written while events were in flux, which was perhaps the biggest challenge we faced. That was certainly the situation in Afghanistan. The immediate trigger for the book was the late July 2021 visit of a Taliban delegation to Tianjin, China, which we both found fascinating. Of course, no one expected that Kabul would fall by mid-August.

With events in flux, what we wanted to do was try and map out the broader picture of how we got here, which may tell us where things are headed. This includes a history of foreign interventions in Afghanistan, the US exit, the Taliban’s resurgence and Pakistan’s role in it, how Kabul fell, and what role China may play in this new situation. The recent events in Pakistan, of course, have only added to this churn.

What do you believe the impact for the region could be geo-strategically, with Shehbaz Sharif taking charge in Pakistan, and what looks like a victory for the ‘establishment’ and its hold again ? 

AK: Given the history of Pakistan-Taliban relations, not to mention what the Chinese like to refer to as the “stabilizer” role played by the Pakistani military establishment – which applies beyond the relationship with China, which they were specifically referring to – one would expect more continuity rather than significant change.

I would think the broad contours of the China-Pakistan-Afghanistan dynamic to continue as we describe it in the book. The recent trilateral meeting in China attended by the three foreign ministers sent a clear signal on their deepening ties. The reaction in Beijing so far, on Imran Khan’s exit and Shehbaz Sharif taking charge, hasn’t reflected much concern. Their experts have been pointing out that Nawaz Sharif was bullish on China-Pakistan economic and investment relations, while Punjab province, where Shehbaz was in charge, had the biggest concentration of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects.

Also read: What India Needs to Do to Deal With the Consequences of the Russia-Ukraine War

Having examined China, Afghanistan and the region so deeply, what are the dangers of a leadership crisis; if you could draw that to the chapters where you talk about the failings of former President Ashraf Ghani and the financial distress the country was thrown into?

Stanly Johny: Specifically in the case of Afghanistan, the crisis was handled poorly by the country’s leadership. Of course, it was not totally in the hands of Ghani as the Americans bypassed the Ghani administration in cutting a deal with the Taliban. But throughout his term as President of the Islamic Republic, Ghani acted more like a detached technocrat than a popular leader. His government could do hardly anything when the Taliban steadily made advances.

Also, till the last moment, he and his vice-president Amrullah Saleh exuded illusory confidence that their troops would stand up against the Taliban, and when the Taliban reached the gates of Kabul, Ghani fled the country without a fight.

A member of Taliban (C) stands outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 16, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

The problem was that the different actors in Afghanistan were driven by divergent interests – the US just wanted to get out of Afghanistan; regional powers, who lacked the ability to shape the outcome of the conflict, were sitting on the fence engaging both the Islamic Republic and the Taliban; and the Ghani administration, fragile and isolated, neither had the morale nor the international support to fight back the Taliban. It was a collective leadership crisis.

With a change of guard in Pakistan, will this be a pivot moment for Sino-Pak relations and in what direction? Could there be deeper entrenchment for China in the Pak-Afghan region?

AK: For the reasons I just mentioned, I’d expect some continuity despite the change of guard, and the trend of deepening relations between China and Pakistan to certainly continue. I would, however, add that the strategic congruence hasn’t always translated into economic outcomes, and that is something to keep an eye on.

Often, the ambitious proclamations haven’t been matched by what we’ve seen on the ground in terms of investments or financial support. Actually, we haven’t so far seen China open its pockets to come to the aid of any country in the neighbourhood that is in economic strife, be it Afghanistan, Sri Lanka or Pakistan where too the economy is in hardly great shape. That’s another theme that this book explores – the big gap between the ambitious pronouncements from Beijing on its plans for both Afghanistan and Pakistan, which tend to make the headlines in the media, and the very messy reality, where Chinese companies have been extremely wary about going in.

You can see that in terms of their Afghan investments, of which very few have fructified over the past decade. Notwithstanding Beijing’s embrace of the Taliban, there’s no doubt that security remains their biggest concern, and I think the general caution behind China’s approach isn’t likely to change in the current situation when internal stability still remains an open question.

There has been criticism around the hypocrisy of responses – Ukraine’s war has been termed as one with “white people and blue eyes” deserving more importance and focus versus Afghanistan, where a raging food crisis did not seem to get the same attention ?

AK: There’s been a broad similarity in how India and China have responded to the war in Ukraine, both at the level of governments and publics. There are some important differences in the official responses, to be sure. Both haven’t criticised Russia directly, but what’s different is China has explicitly, and repeatedly, blamed the US and NATO. India’s external affairs minister also recently seemed to emphasise that each has its own position, when he was speaking to the media right after the unexpected visit of China’s foreign minister to New Delhi last month.

At the level of the people and the media coverage, however, your question captures the broad sentiment about what’s being seen as a certain kind of Western hypocrisy. It has been interesting to see Indian media clips criticising Western hypocrisy go viral on Chinese social media. That is definitely a first! One difference, of course, is that in China, where the State still controls much of the media, the anti-Western coverage is by no means organic or an accident. Even if the Chinese government is trying to portray itself as being “neutral” on Ukraine, the way the Communist Party-controlled media has been covering the invasion makes it very clear which side they are on.

Also read: Two MEPs Question India’s Non-alignment Stance on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Does the Ukraine war change dynamics in this region, particularly from China’s point of view ?

AK: In some ways, it seems it is accelerating, rather than changing. The most important dynamic, of course, is that of the US-China rivalry. The war is both deepening China-Russia relations and widening China’s rifts with the West. Tensions with the US were already worsening, but the war has certainly damaged China’s hopes of building closer ties with the EU and trying to exploit the US-EU divisions that came to the surface during the Donald Trump years. That seems unlikely now.

That has also led to concerns among some Chinese commentators that by going all in with Russia, China faces the danger of being isolated while facing greater tensions with the West going forward. China needs the West, not Russia, as far as trade, investment and technology are concerned.

For countries in Asia that have close economic ties with China, while having close security relationships with the US, that balancing act that we have seen, of trying to have the best of both worlds, will probably get a lot trickier. Some will perhaps be faced with a choice that they don’t really want to make, sooner rather than later.

How would you say Beijing now sees the West and has that changed post Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

AK: One immediate consequence will be Beijing’s concern at how the West was able to use financial measures and sanctions against Russia with damaging effect. There have already been commentaries in the Chinese media saying that Beijing should immediately start exploring ways to steel itself to such measures, if they are deployed by the West against China in the future. There have been commentaries comparing the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with China’s possible longer term plans for Taiwan.

The Chinese, of course, have stressed the distinction between the two issues from their point of view – Ukraine, they point out, is a sovereign nation while they see Taiwan as a breakaway province –  but they are studying the Western response, particularly the American response, both the financial response, where there have been strong measures, and militarily, where there has been reluctance about direct involvement.

Within China, the mainstream view in the strategic community is that Beijing should stand with Moscow, which is what it has been doing, and which reflects how much the prism of China-US rivalry now dominates every other aspect of Chinese foreign policy. This has relevance to India-China relations too, of course. However, there are voices of concern as well, which are worried that Beijing’s response to the crisis has ended up widening rifts with the West.

Where does India fit in – is it as some believe, a moment of great strategic importance or are we, as critics point out, losing goodwill by not supporting the right to territorial integrity for Ukraine?

SJ: India has repeatedly voiced its concern against the breach of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. I think India’s position here is a little nuanced – it has expressed its displeasure about the war, it has condemned the civilian killings in Bucha, it has called for an independent investigation, but without any name-calling or taking a position in the UN resolutions.

This is largely a continuation of the neutral position India has historically taken on conflicts involving its partners. An example from the recent past is the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. The Indian government condemned the war, but without condemning the aggressor.

A year after the Iraq invasion began, India announced a “strategic partnership” with the US. So I don’t think India faces any threat of losing goodwill this time. The partnerships it has built — both with the West and Russia — are based on mutual interests. It is India’s job to convince its partners in the West that the position it has taken on the Russian invasion of Ukraine is rooted in its self-interests, like the West’s more hostile approach towards Russia could be rooted in their self-interests.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Russian President Vladimir Putin at Sochi, Russia, on May 21, 2018. Credit: PTI Photo/PIB

In a post-US Afghanistan, some analysts believe India was late to ask for or organise a seat at the table. Do you agree ?

SJ: India was late. That’s a fact. The Chinese had reached out to the Taliban as early as 2015. The Russians had hosted Taliban delegates in Moscow. Even Iran, which had almost gone to war with the Taliban in the 1990s, had established contacts with the Taliban. But India faced bigger structural challenges than any of these countries in establishing links with the Taliban.

There’s the Pakistan factor, which did not restrict the options of any other regional player. India saw Pakistan, which is its rival, backing the Taliban to regroup and recapture Kabul. And when the Taliban were in power in the 1990s, they hosted anti-India terrorist groups and that was also a period when India had an unfriendly regime in Kabul for the first time since its independence. These factors might have delayed India’s outreach. But now that the Taliban are in Kabul, India has to make a realistic assessment of the situation and formulate policies.

In a way, it’s comparable to the challenge it faced after the Mujahideen government was formed in 1992, following the collapse of the communist regime. The Mujahideen government was brokered by Pakistan. India took a ‘wait and watch’ approach and once fissures emerged in the Mujahideen coalition and its ties with Pakistan, it reached out to the Mujahideen government.

Also read: Putin’s Decision to Shoot for Gold Could Move Global Energy Trade Away From the Dollar

Advisors to the Afghan government claimed complete shock at how Kabul fell, and how fast it all unravelled. Were you as surprised?

SJ: In June 2021, when the US was expediting its troops withdrawal from Afghanistan, American intelligence assessment, as per a report in the Wall Street Journal, was that Kabul could collapse in six months after the US completed its withdrawal (by August 31). Later they revised it to 90 days. I think everyone was surprised by the pace with which the Taliban took over Kabul.

The Russians pulled back from Afghanistan in 1989 after ten years of military presence. The communist government survived three more years, and it fell only after aid from Moscow dried up following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Here, the Taliban were in Kabul 15 days ahead of the scheduled completion of the US troops withdrawal. The 2020 US-Taliban agreement had emboldened the insurgency –strengthening their morale and military strength as the US substantially reduced air strikes. And the US withdrawal changed the balance of power in the conflict, which had been stalemated for years, in favour of the Taliban.

Afghan forces did not even fight when the Taliban made advances. In the “Fall of Kabul” chapter of the book, we have reconstructed the events that led to the collapse of the Islamic Republic.

Economic distress versus economic interest – interesting push and pull here. What was visible in Afghanistan has played out as a different financial crisis in Sri Lanka, and a simmering problem in Pakistan. How do you think economic distress will play through the dynamics of this region?

SJ: Each country has its own problems when it comes to economic crises and the (mis)management of the macroeconomic situation. Again, specifically in the case of Afghanistan, the crisis was foretold. The Islamic Republic survived on foreign donations—about 70% of the budget came through aid. This dried up after the Taliban takeover. Besides, the Afghan Central Bank’s reserves were frozen by the US, which worsened the situation in Afghanistan.

The international community may be thinking that they could use this as leverage against the Taliban and arm-twist them to take more moderate policies. But what we have seen until now is that the Taliban haven’t changed much –| at least in their governance approach –while the crisis has made life for Afghans more miserable.

Finally, there is a sense of an indeterminate pause for Afghanistan. As though this is an ‘in-between’ phase before something else is put in place? Do you agree with that, and what do you believe the next five years may bring?

SJ: The best we can say about Afghanistan’s future is that it is uncertain. The Taliban appear to be stronger now compared to the 1990s –they control almost all of Afghanistan whereas in the 1990s the northern provinces were not in their control; and regional countries, which supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in the 1990s, are ready to engage the Taliban. And as we write in the book, China, the world’s second largest economy, could play a major role in the country. But at the same time, what Afghanistan’s history tells us is that at least since the early 1970s, Kabul has always failed to stabilise or extend its authority across the whole country.

Daoud Khan tried; the communists, backed by the mighty Soviet Red Army, tried; the Mujahideen tried; the Taliban tried; and so did the Islamic Republic, with backing from the US. Everyone failed. So it is too early to say that the Taliban would succeed in the long run. The fault lines that led to the collapse of previous regimes are still there. The question is, whether the Taliban have learned from Afghanistan’s history and could defy historical trends. We have to wait and watch.