RSTV - India ' s World: India-China Project in Afghanistan


Anchor: Frank Rausan Pereira
Speakers: T C A Raghavan, Former Ambassador; Prof. Harsh V Pant, Head of ORF’s Strategic Studies ; Prof. A K Pasha, Centre for West Asian Studies

Importance of this Episode:

  • In a move that could upset Pakistan, PM Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, have agreed to undertake a joint India-China economic project in Afghanistan. The understanding was reached between the two leaders during the two-day informal summit between the two countries which concluded recently.
  • As per the understanding reached, officials on both sides will identify the project and will work out the modalities. This will be a first such project in the war-torn country of Afghanistan where China, while trying to extend its influence, has tacitly backed Pakistan. Pakistan has been accused by Afghanistan and the USA of backing the Taliban and its most violent attacks in the country that has destabilized attempts of restoring peace.
  • On this edition of India’s World, we will try and understand as to what shaped the India-China project in Afghanistan.

Analysis by the Experts:

This has been labelled as one of the most significant developments in recent times between India and China, although the bilateral ties between India and China have improved over a period of time. In recent times, there have been several high-level exchanges between India and China. For the last couple of years, India was feeling left out because of the tilt of the USA towards Pakistan on the Afghan issue. It is only when President Trump came to power that we saw a new American strategy that attempts at putting India on a pedestal. But still, the kind of transparency that India is looking for from the USA hasn’t been met completely.

China, with its economic policies such as the OBOR (One Belt, One Road) Initiative, of which Afghanistan is also a party, looks at the economic angle as crucial for stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan. It is because of this problem that many projects such as the TAPI pipeline have been hanging in the balance.

Further, the Afghan government’s willingness to approach the Taliban for an eventual peace settlement, gives an opening for both India as well as China. China has been in favour of the engagement of the Taliban for quite some time, whereas, India had her own reservations.

Cooperation between India and China is a major breakthrough; as for a long time, both India and China have not been cooperating jointly. In Syria, India has cooperated, i.e. in the search for oil, with the involvement of ONGC Videsh; however, in Africa, India hasn’t been able to cooperate much.  Thus, this development is a major breakthrough.

Why does Afghanistan matter?

Afghanistan matters firstly because, for the entire region, the deterioration in its internal security situation, which has continued unabated is something of great concern to everyone i.e. those who are her immediate neighbours, plus those who are even further away, and even countries who are great distances away from Afghanistan. The main issue in Afghanistan that still remains is that of internal security.  Unfortunately, regional efforts, international efforts and even bilateral efforts have not really made a serious dent on the internal security situation in Afghanistan. The terrorist attacks in Kabul underwrite that particular factor. It is felt that this particular announcement by India and China, should be seen essentially as a confidence-building measure, primarily between India and China. It is believed that one should not make too much out of this development, although it is a very welcome first-step that shows the possibility of a joint approach between India and China on issues even where there may be otherwise some political differences upon.

It is important to note that there have been multiple projects where the ultimate aim of all the stakeholders operating in the realm of Afghanistan, has been to build capacity of the Afghan state. Further, it is in the same realm that there are multiple projects that India and China can potentially do. The issue has always been that of our engagement with China as far as Afghanistan is concerned has been severely limited because many in Delhi have seen China’s propensity to always give Pakistan’s side of the story. In fact, when the Afghan conflict was beginning to emerge, there was a school of thought that perhaps Afghanistan could be that one place where India and China could potentially cooperate on. For example, terrorism affects both India and China equally, and terrorism affects the regional security of both countries again. But, unfortunately, this did not pan out in the manner that many had anticipated. So, it is in that context that if Indian and Chinese governments are thinking of undertaking joint projects, it is a welcome step. It is also a step that will reassure the Afghan government in particular; this is because they have been concerned about the ability of regional actors to get their policies in place so that there is some amount of coherence.

Perhaps, it would also to some extent help the American national south Asian security strategy, as America has been prodding India to do more in the region. India’s ability to do more in the region has been severely restricted by the mischief that Pakistan continues to create in and around Afghanistan. But, if you can bring China on board, there is a possibility to remove that constraint to some degree. Although, this would be contingent on operationalizing the project on the ground, China’s considerable leverage over Pakistan can ultimately allow India to take a project like this to its logical conclusion. It is hoped that both the Indian government as well as the Chinese governments will be thinking in terms of building capacities of the Afghan state. This is because, if Afghanistan has to survive as a functioning state, then the capacity of the Afghan state needs to be augmented. This is also in line with what the other regional powers also want. It is hoped that developing concrete projects are on the agenda.

What is it that India and China will expect out of Afghanistan?

The cooperation of any government in Kabul is essential for the successful implementation of any economic project. It is also important to note that elections are coming up soon in Afghanistan, and Abdullah Abdullah has already indicated that he will not be a candidate. But, it is believed that whoever emerges as the President of Afghanistan, will have to talk to the Taliban. So, whether there will be a national unity government in which the Taliban would be a major-player, or player, and how Pakistan reacts to this development is important. Further, China recognizes Afghanistan’s role as it can further the BRI (Belt Road Initiative) process.  Although Government of India has raised objections to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), it is through Afghanistan that the BRI can be linked to Iran, just in case that there are problems with Pakistan- especially problems such as Balochistan, Gwadar, etc. Thus, the Iran, Afghanistan, China link is extremely important. Without India’s cooperation, any project in Afghanistan cannot really take off. The Chinese are aware of this fact. Overall, it is believed that China would push forward with its economic agenda. This is because much of the investments made by China in Central Asia may be affected if there is no stability in Afghanistan. It is to this end that China has already roped in Iran and Turkey to their side along with the central Asian states. Thus, if Afghanistan can be a matching example for them with India’s cooperation, it can have a sobering influence on Pakistan. This is because much of the support to the Taliban comes from Pakistan because of the strategic struggle for power that India and Pakistan have had over Afghanistan. Further, China has been caught in the cold war between the two South Asian neighbours which is why she has taken a decisive shift to have closer relations. It is important to note that China is also under pressure from the United States on various fronts: military, economic, political, etc. Thus, when taken in context, it is a win-win situation not only on India-China relations but also, for their own economic projects in which they have pumped billions and billions of dollars.

Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, many attempts have been made to stabilize the situation, but all haven’t worked in the past 18 years or so.

Will Pakistan be jittery over what has happened over the weekend in Wuhan?

It is believed that Pakistan would be jittery in a general sense, this is because they realise that India-China relations covers a very wide spectrum and has a considerable amount of depth. Also, any overall improvement in the India-China atmospherics changes the overall regional equations. Thus, to that extent, Pakistan will be watching this development very carefully. Also, the Pakistani’s have a dependence on China which is in many ways unprecedented and the Chinese are conscious of that. It is believed that there wouldn’t be any immediate fallout of this development on the behaviour of Pakistan. But, in the medium and long term if we can multiply such steps, whereby we can move India-China relations to higher levels, then certainly the regional dynamics would be greatly impacted.

In December 2017, China had a meeting in Beijing between China, Afghanistan and Pakistan- attempts were made to sort out Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s problem in the region. During this particular meeting, China was very particular that Afghanistan is a part of the CPEC.

Having said that, are there concerns for India there? China’s role and the way that China has operationalized its role in Afghanistan over the last few years has been a point of concern for many in Delhi. This is because, in the initial phases, there was considerable optimism that India and China can somehow work together for the betterment of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, this did not pan out the way they had foreseen. Also, gradually, the relations between Pakistan and China have grown; thus the larger gamut of Sino-Pakistan relations does not change with his one meeting. But, the possible reality of Indians and Chinese working together would change the dynamic on the ground for Afghanistan.  Further, the more reassured the Afghan government is about the ability of regional powers to pull through these turbulent times, the better it would be for them to engage. Thus the more confident the Afghan government is, the more pressure it puts on Pakistan. Thus, in some ways, we are witnessing some moves on the chessboard which have the potential to change what is happening in Afghanistan and around Afghanistan. Again, seeing an immediate transformation on the ground is difficult to see. Both Pakistan and China have a strategic interest in viz-a-viz India. Also, in terms of the larger foreign policy that Pakistan has adopted, it is not going to change too much just because of the meeting between the Indian leadership and the Chinese leadership.  But, the signals are important and the signalling is that there are avenues now that are being explored and that in itself can change the dynamic quite significantly.

What’s at stake for India in Afghanistan?

There are many things at stake. First and foremost would be the violence and terrorism which has spread to all nooks and corners as this has actually prevented any government in Afghanistan from reaching out to the people who are in dire need of various essentially. The people of Afghanistan over the past 25-30 years have seen nothing but wars, destruction, killings and tremendous pain and suffering.

Without the cooperation of regional actors– i.e. China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey even Uzbekistan, for example, have the shared concern that unless the situation in Afghanistan is stabilized, it is going to impact all the players in the region as it has ramifications beyond geographical boundaries- which we have seen in events such as 9/11. The Chinese are equally concerned as instability there would impact the Xinjiang province, and areas such as Kashgar as well. There are a lot of reports which suggest that certain parties are training the Uighur militants there; in fact, there are reports of even other central Asian militants being trained there for various purposes. Thus, in that way, the regional dynamics also change since both India and China are seen as strategic partners to bring peace and stabilize the situation and not as rivals as is being portrayed that India is on the side of America and is against China.

Further, it is easy to be pessimistic about Afghanistan, this is because that despite all the efforts that have been made both domestically in Afghanistan as well as by concerned regional players, there is no real political process on track which would suggest that through a process of confidence-building measures that maybe some degree of internal stability or improvement in the security situation can be assured. It is for these very reasons that we need to keep trying. For the Afghans, it is not an academic choice, it is a choice of life and death, and certainly, for anyone who is in the government or anyone who aspires to be in the government, the central issue would be that of internal stability and security for its neighbours and especially for India. When India looks at her own security environment, clearly an internal Afghanistan peace process and an internal Afghanistan meeting-of-minds is something which would be entirely in our interests. This is because, from 1979, with the entry of foreign forces in Afghanistan, our own security environment has been transformed beyond all measure.  Thus, on our part, we need to keep trying no matter what the odds are to see that we do what we can to bring about greater stability.

When we look at the role that US, Russia and Iran would need to play, we get the picture that they can potentially play a very important role. Also, the Trump administration has clearly articulated a powerful statement of intent as far as their South Asian strategy is concerned. It is in that context that we see that one is looking at the American role with an entirely different context- for example, at one point, it was about the withdrawal of American troops, but the larger sense is that the Americans want to be there at least to see the transition.

The other question to ask is: With the American withdrawal, is China filling up those spaces?

This has been a question for some time now. In some sense, the Chinese have already taken the lead by organizing various trilateral engagements, and by trying to arrange something with them. The issue has always been that despite the best efforts of the Afghan government, Pakistan’s policy has continued to be very obstructionist. In fact, when Mr. Ghani himself came to power, he was perceived as a pro-Pakistani leader. He wanted to reach out to Pakistan from the very beginning. Pakistan not only snubbed him, but also derailed the process that he had initiated in the first phase of his presidency. This meant that later on, he had to take a negative stance against Pakistan. Thus, any country that is seen as today having the potential to bring Pakistan back to the table with some degree of sensitivity about Afghan’s concerns is China. This is why China’s role becomes important as one is not only looking at China to fill the vacuum but also one is looking at China to see if it can put some sense into Pakistan in so far as how the latter moves forward.

Unfortunately, for India, in the past, her efforts with China have not been very fruitful. For example, our counter-terror dialogue that was initiated precisely because Afghanistan has had great difficulty in moving forward. China cannot expect that its terrorism problem in Xinjiang will disappear without expecting that Pakistan will deliver on the ground. Thus, across the region, there is a possibility of cooperation.

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