Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘India, China and the Coming US Drawdown in Afghanistan: A Choice of Dilemmas’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XLIX, No. 14, 5 April 2014, pp. 24-27.
The post-US drawdown situation in Afghanistan throws up a number of national and regional political and security challenges for India and China. This essay outlines some of these challenges and prospects for joint Sino-Indian action to tackle them.
China and the US Drawdown in Afghanistan
Beijing is convinced that the US will actually not quit Afghanistan entirely. It takes this view from a realpolitik perspective; given the blood and treasure that the Americans have expended on Afghanistan for a decade, to leave giving the impression that they have been defeated or without adequate protection for what little assets they have created during this time, is in the Chinese view, unlikely. The US, they believe will maintain a significant presence in Afghanistan as might become evident following the conclusion of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) currently being negotiated between Kabul and Washington.
However, even as Beijing is opposed to extended American presence in Afghanistan, it also does not want continued instability in Afghanistan or Pakistan. The Chinese fear that the departure of the Americans might leave the Afghan security forces ineffective in their battle against the Taliban. The Afghan army and police have been hit by frequent desertions and cases of ‘popular uprisings’ against the Taliban are dismissed as being staged by Afghan government together with its security forces. The Taliban are seen as too strong to be subdued by force alone and not as unpopular as is made out to be by Western media (Zeng 2014).
The Chinese however, do not expect a complete breakdown of the political regime established in Kabul and view a Taliban return as unlikely, post-drawdown. Nevertheless, despite the instability in its Xinjiang region, which China blames on a section of Uyghurs with ties to radical elements in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Taliban’s resilience means that negotiations with them are seen as inevitable (Zhao 2012; Zeng 2014). Even the establishment of an Afghan Emirate under Sharia law, it is believed will not adversely impact the regional security situation, including stability in Pakistan (Zeng 2014).
In this context, it is somewhat notable that there is a perception that jihadi groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been rather restrained as far as China is concerned relative to the US, considering China to be a friend rather an enemy. Further, given the fact that Beijing has engaged in direct negotiations and deals with right-wing religious parties such as the Pakistan-based Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-ud-Dawwa (Siddiqa 2012), it seems likely that the Chinese have opened channels of communication with various important factions of the Afghan Taliban (see also Parthasarathy 2012; Small 2013). At any rate, China’s security interests vis-à-vis Afghanistan were seen as serious enough to merit a visit to the country in September 2012 of China’s then top security official, Zhou Yongkang, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee (China Daily 2012).
The Pakistan Factor
New Delhi understands the closeness of Sino-Pak ties and Pakistan will certainly have a role to play in any political dialogue on Afghanistan. But China cannot seriously believe that this role can extend to the security realm for a number of reasons. One, the Pakistani Army doctrine of seeking ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan – also seen as necessary by some Chinese analysts (Swaine 2010) – can only lead to further complicating the Afghan political and security situation. Further, despite statements to the contrary, China cannot really expect that instability and radicalization in Afghanistan will not have a concomitant effect on Pakistan and Xinjiang. Two, there is very little trust among Afghans of Pakistan’s intentions. Three, without a wholesale change in thinking within the Pakistani security establishment vis-à-vis India, any security role in Afghanistan helmed by Rawalpindi will likely jeopardize Indian interests and scupper potential Sino-Indian cooperation.
However, if as a prominent Chinese analyst once suggested, ‘China can help by stiffening the resolve of Pakistan’s military to move more aggressively to contain Taliban extremists on its territory’, then this offers promise of a more positive Pakistani security role in Afghanistan (Zhu 2011).
Meanwhile Chinese workers in Pakistan have been targeted frequently in recent years being kidnapped or killed in regions as far apart as Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. For many Chinese analysts, a ‘regionally influential Pakistan prevents Indian domination of South Asia, weakens Indian influence in Central Asia, and obstructs any Indian desire to focus primarily on strategic rivalry with China’ (Swaine 2010). Nevertheless, the situation in the Af-Pak region is a source of some worry for China. Given their Xinjiang problem, Beijing clearly has no love lost for Islamic radicals, but its moderate views on the role of the Taliban might just as well indicate both a lack of choices and of faith in the Pakistani ability to actually influence these elements in a post-US drawdown situation.
China and the Afghan Economy
At the same time, Beijing possesses a genuine belief in the efficacy of economic growth and development as a panacea for social and political instability. Thus, it continues to invest in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Of course, these investments have also much to do with China’s domestic compulsions – industrial overcapacity and the official ‘going out’ strategy have combined to push Chinese enterprises into new, even difficult, countries in a bid to expand their markets.
In fact, many US analysts see potential benefits to China’s economic involvement in Afghanistan, even as there are complaints that the Chinese have cornered the economic benefits while the Americans have been paying the security costs (Kaplan 2009; Payne 2013). But in terms of development efforts, compared to the US$100 billion of non-military funds that the US has put into to Afghanistan since 2002 – the largest that it has ever spent on reconstructing a country (Ghiasy and Sekander 2014) – the Chinese have contributed only about US$250 million to Afghanistan’s reconstruction, between 2002 and 2012 (Hornung 2012; see also Parthasarathy 2012). Indian development aid to Afghanistan, by contrast, stands at US$2 billion (Embassy of India Kabul, 2013).
Pakistan will certainly have a role to play in the economic realm given that Afghanistan is a landlocked country and Pakistan provides one axis of connectivity for China through the Karakoram Highway in addition to the Central Asian route. The Wakhan Corridorwhich connects Afghanistan with China is both difficult terrain and remains underdeveloped as far as infrastructure goes, even though some development has been reported on the Chinese side of the border (Hsiao and Howard 2010).
Of course, routes with greater economic spinoffs all around would be those connecting China with Afghanistan through India. The Sino-Indian boundary dispute is the first obstacle. But in history there were connections between China and Afghanistan through Ladakh and Kashmir. While routes from Lhasa passed through Leh, those from Xinjiang through the Karakoram Pass passed through the Nubra Valley to Kargil and onwards to Gilgit in the Northern Areas currently controlled by Pakistan. This latter route would bypass most of the difficult terrain that the Karakoram Highway passes through. Connecting Xinjiang and Ladakh, the Karakoram Pass itself is not part of the disputed boundary between India and China. However, the problem is that India’s own road infrastructure in this region is so poor that even if the Chinese and Indians were to come to an agreement on such trade or Pakistan were to agree to Chinese trade across the Indo-Pak LOC, it would be years before the roads were operationalized.
Nevertheless, the idea is worth considering for the two large Asian powers that talk constantly about the need for economic development both at home and abroad.
In Afghanistan itself, reports have pegged its mineral resources at nearly US$1 trillion (New York Times 2010). These include coal, copper, lithium, gold, rare earths and substantial reserves of natural gas and oil. Chinese and Indian public sector units currently dominate FDI into Afghanistan with most investments going into the natural resources sector. The Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper own the Mes Aynak copper mine, which is so far the largest foreign investment project in Afghanistan estimated at about US$4.4 billion (Zhou 2011).
Prospects for Sino-Indian Cooperation in Afghanistan
A prominent Indian investment in the Hajigak iron ore mine involving a consortium of public and private steel players ran into rough weather late 2013 with the Indian Finance Ministry stating that since these were only commercial in nature and could not be considered to be of any national strategic importance, government funding could not be given (Das 2013). A later report stated that the consortium was cutting its investment to an eighth of the original plan of some US$11 billion due to security fears (Singh 2013).
India already possesses neither China’s capacity in terms of economic resources nor its ability to possibly influence key security actors in Afghanistan through Pakistan. Against such a backdrop, India’s sending such mixed signals on its strategic priorities due to lack of political direction and inter-ministerial differences means that the ongoing India-China dialogue on Afghanistan too, cannot be expected to produce much results; the Chinese might not wait around for India to get its act together.
Still, given the complexity of the Afghan situation, China’s reluctance to go it alone or to tar itself with Taliban/Afghan ill-will by being seen as cooperating with the US, it is possible that waiting for India might be a necessity. In their dialogue on Afghanistan, India and China could have discussed a few ideas to develop joint projects in Afghanistan, possibly involving infrastructure-related projects and and/or a dividing up of the country geographically for each to concentrate on in terms of aid projects.
Afghanistan has rich agricultural soil and just 12 percent of its arable land could annually produce food for up to 160 million people (Ghiasy and Sekander 2014). Given that Indian and Chinese companies are already investing in arable land in different parts of the world for commercial purposes, Afghanistan too provides a similar opportunity. Further, as part of their outreach to Afghanistan in this sector, it is also incumbent upon India and China to provide an alternative to the profitable but destructive cultivation of opium. Of course, these enterprises must go about their operations in such a way that they do not end up generating still further conflict. Unfortunately, the record of Indian and Chinese companies both at home and abroad in this respect is not always encouraging.
The new ‘Chinese Silk Road economic belt’ through Xinjiang and Central Asia announced as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s new neighbourhood policy also includes ‘an active and crucial role’ for Afghanistan ‘in regional connectivity, facilitation of transit trade, commercial investment and energy and mining resources exploration’. At the same time, this new belt is seen as having a population of ‘nearly 3 billion’ (Deng 2013) and therefore, must also include India in its calculations.
But aid and economic development only provide one pillar for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Ensuring security and political stability in Afghanistan form the other pillars. The Chinese might have the wherewithal to pay off the Taliban or other actors in Afghanistan in order to secure their investments, but they cannot keep at it indefinitely as extortion demands are only likely to rise. Eventually, without a positive security situation, no country will find its investments in Afghanistan sustainable. But as far as China is concerned, the sums it has invested are comparatively small and do not preclude it simply abandoning them if the security situation gets too rough. For the Indian government, however, a bad security situation or the return of the Taliban could lead to significantly larger and more consequential losses when compared to the Chinese.
Eventually, the loss of their investments is something that both India and China can bear, but protecting themselves against cross-border terrorism is a more serious issue from which there will be no running away. Whether this factor will push either or both to develop a robust security presence of their own in Afghanistan, remains to be seen but if such an option is chosen it is likely to be couched in terms of meeting their responsibilities as regional and global powers. While China has the option of using Pakistan as security provider, this might be a fraught and losing proposition in the long-term for the reasons stated above. India meanwhile, has considerably fewer options in the security realm that will also not also set off alarm bells in Pakistan and China.
Negotiations with important factions of the Taliban and making a distinction between the Taliban and Al Qaeda might be one option to prevent the security situation from getting too far out of hand, as even the Americans seem to have acknowledged. There are different levels of openness within India and China to the idea of negotiating with the Afghan Taliban but it is perhaps time for them to consider whether their long-run interests in Afghanistan are not better served by working together
The lack of palatability to sections of the security and political establishments in India of any outreach to the Taliban (or indeed, to China) might be mitigated if this were done through a larger regional mechanism such as the SCO. The question then is whether the Chinese will play ball and finally wholeheartedly and unambiguously support India’s full membership of the SCO and, if Pakistan were to join too, make sure that Islamabad does not play spoilsport. Clearly, the time has come for New Delhi to put Beijing’s rhetoric of ‘win-win’ relationships to serious test. But India cannot do this, if it will also not make bold choices and take a few chances.
Certainly, the Chinese see a role for the SCO in launching an intra-Afghan dialogue (Zhao 2012) a role that would give Beijing greater room for manoeuvre as well as cover behind a regional grouping. Given India’s economic heft and goodwill with large sections of the Afghan population, its participation – whether as full member or observer – in any SCO negotiations will be important. Even if negotiations with the Taliban were to fail, and a military intervention of some sort was required – however unlikely, it may seem at this stage – an SCO-led intervention could conceivably be more feasible than any one country going it alone.
New Delhi needs to remember, however that Beijing ‘has no intention of rebuilding Afghanistan politically’ and has doubts about the suitability of current political model in Kabul given Afghanistan’s political and social conditions (Zhao 2012). In other words, as far as Beijing is concerned, a dialogue with the Taliban need not seek preservation of the current democratically-elected political system as an end goal. While this ties in smoothly to China’s political principles of every country retaining the right to develop its own political system, it also flies in the face of American and Indian emphasis on certain inalienable rights of human beings and universal values. Thus, even in an SCO-led scenario India faces the challenge of being able to influence the outcomes in an organization that is dominated by Chinese economic might and political clout.
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