In its hubris, China is making the mistake that has doomed empires

Britain, Russia and America came to grief on the Afghan frontier. Beijing is following in their footsteps

Afghan fighters watch explosions from US bombings in the Tora Bora mountains, 2001

The powers that choose to play the Great Game on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan have never prospered. Despite the courage of generals and the brains of  political agents, their best-laid plans – whether British in the 19th century, Russian in the 20th, or American in the 21st – have generally ended in disaster and retreat. Now it seems that China – which has long treated Pakistan as its client and proxy in a push for a defining regional role, most recently through the Belt and Road Initiative – faces the same fate. How has this come to pass?

China’s ambitions to contain and dominate South Asia date back decades. Its rivalry with India made building dependencies in Pakistan an attractive option, while confident Chinese regimes have tightened their grip on Xinjiang and looked further west to spread their power and influence. With the global expansion of China’s economic strength came a compelling wish for military influence, not only in competition with India but the West as a whole. If China could establish a naval and economic foothold at a Pakistani port near the Hormuz Strait, it would open up important opportunities on both fronts.

Gwadar Port was meant to become this foothold, the jewel in the crown of the Asian belt and road, and a China-controlled funnel for trade not only from its own economic powerhouse but also its allies in Central Asia. The voyage from China via the Malacca Strait to the Gulf is around 10,000 kilometres; steaming from Gwadar knocks 7,500 kilometres off the journey, and a great deal of geo-strategic risk as well. But what of the 2,500 kilometres land route from Xinjiang to the sea, through Balochistan, skirting the lawless frontier of Afghanistan?

Overlooking Beijing’s oppression of Islamic minorities in Xinjiang may have been rationalised in Pakistan’s dysfunctional and debt-captured political system. There is, however, no lack of fighters in the renascent Pakistani Taliban willing to take up arms in support of their Uyghur brothers. Together with Pakistan’s inept management of ethnic resistance in Balochistan, and the distinctly neocolonial nature of relations between Beijing and Islamabad, has drawn this economic corridor into the literal firing line.

Lethal attacks on Chinese infrastructure engineers have followed, despite Pakistani soldiers being stood up to protect them. Savage counter-terrorism actions in Balochistan have failed to protect the Chinese from intense resentment among local groups, who see their presence as appropriating local homelands. Beijing’s own security details are entirely out of their depth.  

Now things may be further deteriorating. Last week, a Pakistani Taliban commander announced that unless it was paid a 5 per cent “tax” on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the massive infrastructure project linking Xinjiang with the sea, it would be “destroyed” – along with Chinese workers and equipment.

History confirms the need for caution. In 1841, William Macnaghten, the British political agent in Kabul, decided to cut back the “subsidies” (bribes) paid to local militants. Soon afterwards he was beheaded, chaos ensued and the first British withdrawal from Afghanistan began. It seems that the much-vaunted “China Dream” is turning into a familiar nightmare – one that may also end in an inglorious Imperialist graveyard.