Beijing hosts first-of-its-kind counterterrorism talks with Iran, Pakistan

The meeting represents the Chinese ambition to replace the US as the main player in the Middle East.

Chinese president Xi Jinping speaks at a meeting marking the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, earlier this month. (photo credit: CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/REUTERS)
Chinese president Xi Jinping speaks at a meeting marking the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, earlier this month.

Heavy rains followed by strong winds killed at least 27 people, including eight children, in northwest Pakistan over the weekend, officials said on Sunday.

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At least 140 people were injured and at least 200 farm animals died. The storms hit four districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province late Saturday, with 15 people killed in the province’s Bannu district, including five siblings aged between 2 and 11. On Sunday, authorities also reported a cyclone approaching southern Pakistan from the Arabian Sea.

As Pakistani citizens are dealing with intense weather conditions, Pakistani officials are attempting to respond to the winds of geopolitical change in the region. Together with a delegation from Iran, a Pakistani delegation traveled to Beijing last week for joint counterterrorism talks with China. The meeting, which is the first of its kind between the three countries, is considered an important step toward regional realignment.

A Pakistan Foreign Ministry statement described the talks as “detailed discussions on the regional security situation, particularly the threat of terrorism faced by the region.” Following the discussion, representatives from the three countries signed a joint declaration affirming the countries’ commitment to working together on counterterrorism initiatives.

First tripartite counterterrorism talks between Pakistan, Iran, and China

The delegations were led by Pakistan’s director-general of counterterrorism at the Foreign Ministry, Abdul Hameed; China’s director-general of the Department of External Security Affairs at the Foreign Ministry, Bai Tian; and Iran’s assistant to the foreign minister and director-general of the South Asia Department at the Foreign Ministry, Seyyed Rasoul Mousavi.

During a press briefing on Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin characterized the meeting as “a successful step taken by the three countries to act on the Global Security Initiative and enhance regional security and stability.”

 View of residential buildings as the rising waves splash, before the arrival of the cyclonic storm, Biparjoy, over the Arabian Sea, at Clifton Beach, in Karachi, Pakistan June 13, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/AKHTAR SOOMRO)
View of residential buildings as the rising waves splash, before the arrival of the cyclonic storm, Biparjoy, over the Arabian Sea, at Clifton Beach, in Karachi, Pakistan June 13, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/AKHTAR SOOMRO)

The Global Security Initiative is a Chinese initiative proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2022. According to the official Chinese Foreign Ministry statement, the initiative is meant to promote “the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security.”

“We stand ready to work in close collaboration with Pakistan, Iran, and other regional countries to resolutely crack down on terrorist forces that endanger the interests of regional security,” Wang added.

The talks are expected to yield positive results in the fight against extremism. Experts say that the initiative will likely lead to increased peace and stability in the wider Middle East region as well as within the borders of the involved countries.

China's increasing diplomatic efforts in the Middle East 

The counterterrorist effort, which is being led by China, is also seen as a step toward regional realignment.

China has ramped up its diplomatic activities in the Middle East in recent weeks in an attempt to position itself as the source of a solution to the region’s long-standing conflicts.

In April, China brokered a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two countries that had not had diplomatic relations since 2016.

Now China has its eye on resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Solving that long-running conflict would mark China’s increased influence in the world and serve as a blow to the global influence of the US, China’s archrival.

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang spoke to his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts by phone regarding China’s interest in facilitating peace talks in April 2023.

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas is set to visit China later this week at Xi’s invitation.

At a press briefing, spokesperson Wang said that Abbas will be the first Arab head of state hosted by China so far this year. The visit “speaks volumes about the high-level friendly relations between China and Palestine,” he said.

WAFA, the PA’s news agency, reported that Abbas and Xi are expected to discuss developments in the Palestinian arena as well as “regional and international issues of mutual concern.”

Experts weigh in on China's increased Middle East Involvement 

The Media Line spoke to various experts about China’s role in the realigning Middle East.

Retired Brig. Gen. Muhammad Zeeshan, who serves as the director-general of the Center for Peace, Security and Development Studies in Islamabad, told The Media Line that the US’s 2020-2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan set the stage for the talks between China, Pakistan, and Iran.

“There are still several terror groups on Afghan soil that are globally designated as terror outfits, and they pose a direct threat to the peace and security of neighboring countries,” Zeeshan said.

He noted that Pakistan is facing threats from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Iran is facing threats from the Islamic State group, and China is facing threats from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. All three of those terrorist organizations have ties to Afghanistan.

The trilateral initiative will likely lead Afghanistan to crack down on these terrorist groups in an attempt to “overcome its diplomatic isolation,” Zeeshan said.

Azeem Khalid, an expert on China-Pakistan relations and professor of international relations at COMSATS University Islamabad, described China’s diplomatic efforts as providing “a significant advantage for Pakistan and Iran in relation to the Taliban government in Afghanistan.”

“By bringing all three parties to the negotiation table, China provides a much-needed respite for Iran and Pakistan, both of which are grappling with security challenges along their respective borders with Afghanistan,” he told The Media Line.

He noted that China’s role in these talks, as well as in the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, consolidates China’s power in the region and positions the country as “a credible alternative to the United States in effectively managing regional affairs.”

“This paradigm shift has profound systemic implications, as China appears to be gradually assuming the role of the region’s primary power broker,” Khalid said.

China's growing influence poses a challenge to US

Middle East and global security expert Adrian Calamel said that China’s increasing role in the Middle East is part of the country’s efforts to undermine the US.

“The notion of China acting as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestine conflict is ridiculous,” he told The Media Line. But when China sees “an American administration undermining their one consistent ally in the region, they try to deepen the rift. When there is an economic, political, and diplomatic vacuum, China will try to fill it,” he added.

He said that China’s influence in the Middle East will likely continue to grow if the US does not intervene.

“China has been effectively challenging American primacy without drawing into open hostilities,” Calamel said. He noted that many Middle Eastern countries see working with China as a reasonable response to the fear of a nuclear Iran, but warned that such countries “should be very wary. China only works in its best interests.”

Amer Al Sabaileh, a Jordanian strategic analyst and a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, also described China’s increasing role in the Middle East as part of an attempt to promote Chinese interests.

The efforts are based on “economic pragmatism,” he said, noting that “China managed to build good and steady relations with various countries in the Middle East by offering cooperation and investment.”

Al Sabaileh said that China is benefitting from the US’ shrinking role in the region. “The role of China in the Middle East cannot be compared to the US, but definitely it represents for many a new chance and a new vital partner,” he said.