Afghanistan: When India and China Touch Base

30 Apr, 2013    ·   3911

J Jegan Nathan discusses the criticality of a sustainable bilateral strategy towards Afghanistan

J Jeganaathan
J Jeganaathan
Research Fellow

India and China recently held a bilateral meeting on Afghanistan, for the first time in Beijing, to chart out a joint plan to secure their multi-billion dollar investments in the war ravaged country whose future remains uncertain post US withdrawal in 2014. This cooperative mechanism raises three important questions: What are the prerequisites for such a bilateral mechanism to be more effective and sustainable? Will the Sino-Indian strategic partnership on Afghanistan assuage Pakistan’s security concerns, and if yes, then to what extent? Whether it is a stand-alone approach or part of a grand strategy towards Afghanistan is also a moot question.

Although this bilateral dialogue can be considered as a part of similar bilateral and multilateral endeavours by others including the US, UK, France, Germany, Turkey, India, and Pakistan, it has two unique features. First, it brings together India and China, which are the two great powers of Asia in terms of military capability and politico-economic stability. Second, they hold the largest investment projects in Afghanistan, particularly in the mining sectors. (So far, India had pledged USD 2bn for Afghanistan, whereas China has invested USD 3bn on various mining projects). Thus, it is no surprise that both share common interests as well as concerns in Afghanistan.

During the dialogue, both sides agreed that the Afghan issue raises concerns for regional security, stability, and peace, and also acknowledged the need for regional cooperation and consultation to help Afghanistan achieve independence, peace, and stability. However, the exact outcome of the meeting has not been officially disclosed to the media. Or, it is possible that it might have been overshadowed by the latest Sino-Indian border tension along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Ladakh region?

Nevertheless, it is passionately argued, especially by South block, that India should enhance its bilateral relationship with China to focus particularly on Afghanistan since both share common interests, and to secure their large scale investments. By doing so, India will be able to assuage Pakistan’s concerns over India’s increasing role and presence in Afghanistan, and also secure its men and materials placed in Afghanistan from Pakistan-backed militias.

Security Concerns Entwine Strategic Interests
In a media briefing, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying stated, “The two sides agreed that the Afghan issue concerns regional security and stability.” It signifies that common ground pushed these two powers to cooperate. Primarily, China’s security concerns in Afghanistan are two-fold: to secure its investments in Afghanistan after 2014, and to prevent the threat of jihadi spill over from Afghanistan to its western Xinjiang province which has a predominant Uyghur (Muslim) population.

However, China has not yet categorically emphasised its security concerns since it can handle such concerns very well within the scope of its strong bilateral cooperation with Pakistan, an all-weather friend and inevitable factor in Afghanistan affairs, or multilateral frameworks such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). For China, its grand strategic interests are more important than immediate security concerns in Afghanistan. Once viewed as a ‘graveyard of empires’, China has started to see Afghanistan as a ‘gateway to Central Asia’ which will help it to harness energy resources and ensure supply through land routes for the benefit of its economy.

On the contrary, India’s immediate concerns are purely security-based; its investments in Afghanistan, as well as the life and integrity of Indians working on various developmental or civilian projects in Afghanistan. In the past, Indian workers including embassy personnel have been brutally targeted by insurgent groups, allegedly supported by Pakistan. Moreover, India is paranoid about Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for terrorist organisations, which have heinous designs against India, particularly in Kashmir.

Unlike China, India can contemplate its strategic interests in Afghanistan only in the long-term perspective, due to the fact that articulation of such interests would instantly raise Pakistan’s security concerns. For now, India’s Look West strategy, if there is one, will have to be satisfied by its access to Iran, which can serve as a ‘gateway to Central Asia’ via Chabahar port in Gulf of Omen to meet its energy interests. Although Afghanistan’s stability and security is indelibly linked to India’s national security, it will remain a security hotspot for India and continue to haunt its national security.

Thus, the rapprochement on common concerns and shared interests between India and China on Afghanistan is rather superficial, and the asymmetry within could eventually cause a trust dilemma between the two. In the long-run, Pakistan will remain a strategic partner for China’s grand strategy in and beyond Afghanistan. What India lacks is the political vision to articulate a grand or regional strategy beyond its national security concerns. Instead of just talking the talk, both should devise a regional strategy for the Afghanistan quagmire.