Strategic disruption: How Trump can derail China, prevail in Afghanistan

lawrence sellin

In its quest for global domination, China is making effective use of the four instruments of national power: diplomatic, informational, military and economic.

To explain Beijing’s thinking, it is useful to take them in reverse order.

Economic: The foundation of and the starting point for China’s roadmap to supremacy is the Belt and Road Initiative. BRI is a development plan, a program of infrastructure projects and a network of commercial agreements designed to link the world directly to the Chinese economy through inter-connected land-based and maritime routes beginning with the Eurasian landmass, which already represents two-thirds of the world’s population and one-half of the global Gross Domestic Product.

Military: As China expands commercially, the Chinese military, in particular, its navy, will advance concomitantly to protect China’s growing economic empire, just as the British did in an earlier era.

China is establishing military bases at strategic choke points to control vital sea lanes. Defying international agreements, China has turned the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea into a belt of military fortresses. Last year, the Chinese naval base in Djibouti, at the entrance of the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, became operational. In January, it was reported that China has been in discussions with Pakistan to establish a military base on the Jiwani peninsula near the mouth of the Persian Gulf.

China has also acquired access to no less than fifteen commercial/military dual-use ports in the Indian Ocean, causing many to wonder whether BRI’s infrastructure investments are primarily driven by national security interests and advanced through “debt trap” diplomacy (see infographic).

Informational: China is leading the race to deploy and dominate 5G wireless technology and networks. To control the flow and content of digital information from Beijing, China plans to create its own international fiber optic and GPS system.

Diplomatic: Established in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a de factoChinese-led Eurasian political, economic, and security group, which now has eight member states; China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and India. Aspiring member states include; Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, Mongolia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey. The SCO is the Asian equivalent of the European Union, whose economic focus is BRI as the “powerful engine to achieve common development and prosperity,” according to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Despite being a formidable strategy for global hegemony, Chinese expansion will inevitably expose vulnerabilities that can be exploited. In his speech opening the SCO Summit in Qingdao, China on June 9th, President Xi himself identified perhaps the most prominent vulnerability in China’s aggressive strategy.

In order to “strengthen the foundation for shared peace and security,” that is, make the world safe for BRI, SCO members must combat the “three evil forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism.” In Chinese terms, separatism equates to terrorism and extremism. Think Tibet and Taiwan for starters.

There are simple explanations for why we are still not successful in Afghanistan after seventeen years. Afghanistan is a landlocked country and Pakistan does not share the same aspirations for Afghanistan as the United States. Pakistan has stymied U.S. efforts in Afghanistan by controlling the operational tempo through its support of the Taliban and Haqqani network and by maintaining a stranglehold on the supply of our troops.

Blackmail largely restrains the United States from attacking insurgent safe havens in Pakistan because, by doing so, there is a risk that further destabilization of Pakistan would allow terrorists to obtain nuclear weapons. So, the stalemate continues and the Pentagon’s fallback strategy remains the status quo, more counterinsurgency and nation-building.

A solution resides in changing the strategic dynamics of which ethnic separatism is a key component in South Asia, for example, Balochistan independence and the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement (PTM).

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the majority of which runs through Balochistan, is the linchpin of BRI, providing infrastructure projects, resource development and a transportation route that connects China to the Pakistani ports of Gwadar and Karachi on the Arabian Sea. Without CPEC, BRI is dead in the water.

Once secular and independent, Balochistan was forcibly incorporated into Pakistan, where a festering insurgency has existed since 1948. A restored independent and secular Balochistan could; derail BRI and Chinese military expansion, open a sea route to Afghanistan, drive a stake into the heart of radical Islam and threaten Iran’s theocracy because of the sizable Baloch population in Iran’s southeast province

PTM is a social movement for Pashtun human rights based in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan, Pakistan. The Pakistani government views the PTM as an ethnic separatist movement and has made efforts to suppress it.

Those efforts include alleged government-inspired attacks by the Taliban on the PTM and the incorporation of FATA into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. The latter was ostensibly designed to dilute the influence of the PTM as a substrate for ethnic self-determination and the potential for the PTM to loosen the Taliban’s grip on the Pashtuns, both of which might interfere with Pakistan’s plans for Afghanistan.

Strategic disruption by exploiting ethnic separatism is a viable option to counter China and create alternatives in Afghanistan.

Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel, an IT command andcontrol subject matter expert, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He receives email at lawrence.sellin@gmail.com.