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The China-Pakistan-Iran Trilateral

By Saniya Kulkarni

China, Pakistan, and Iran met in Beijing last Wednesday for a first-of-its-kind trilateral consultation on security and counterterrorism efforts in the region. China and Pakistan have previously shared concerns about organizations operating across Pakistan’s northern provinces and Afghanistan such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-K).

The groups threaten security not only along the Af-Pak border and China’s Xinjiang province but also the successful functioning of various projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as part of the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative). Iran joining the two partners is fairly new, although unsurprising considering its tilt towards China in the recent past.

The trilateral is a further indication of shifts in regional alliances and also of movements in the global scales of balance. After China led the Saudi Arabia-Iran rapprochement in March, which sidelined the U.S. almost entirely, it was apparent that this is a greater solidification of China’s active presence in the region.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Beijing in February marked the first state visit by an Iranian President to China in over two decades, where he even took a jab at his predecessor Rouhani’s lack of engagement with Beijing. Tehran has been serious about pursuing stronger ties with China, evidenced by the 25-year cooperation agreement signed by the two in 2021. The most significant development marking the closeness of these ties has been Iran’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

On the one hand, China has had a long-standing friendship with Pakistan, which has in recent years been characterized by the CPEC. Pakistan’s military apparatus has had ties with groups in Afghanistan dating back to the emergence of the Mujahideen in the 1980s, but lost control over most of this network in the past couple of decades and even had to – for the most part – bear the brunt of increased terrorist activity in the region.

Although these links have not been a major hindrance to the China-Pak friendship, they have not been the most useful either. China’s wariness of groups operating within Central and South Asia stems from threats to its own expats in the region, particularly following a rise in attacks on Chinese nationals in Pakistan. More often than not, these are carried out in the name of Balochi separatism and in protest of CPEC projects threatening the livelihoods of local communities. Counterterrorism has become quite a significant talking point in the China-Pakistan friendship as a result.

Iran and Pakistan, on the other hand, have an interesting relationship. Although they haven’t had any major contention over the years, the two have not maximized the potential of their friendly relations and only fairly recently have started making serious attempts towards accelerating trade and people-to-people exchanges. The two neighbors have shared security concerns over Balochistan, and stability (read ‘squashing separatist tendencies’) in the region is in the interest of both.

The most interesting aspect of this relationship is its ties with India, specifically when it comes to the port cities of Chabahar in Iran and Gwadar in Pakistan. It is widely believed that India’s investment in the development of Chabahar was a means to counter China’s growing influence around Pakistan’s coasts. With China’s desire to play a more active diplomatic role in the region and India’s need to access Central Asia without having to go through arch-rival Pakistan, Iran’s balancing act between the two Asian powers has the potential to yield lucrative results for itself. If the China-Pakistan-Iran trio grows to be more substantial, it will have serious implications for many regional players.

Saniya Kulkarni is a project coordinator at LSE IDEAS.

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