Is Trilateral China-India-Russia Cooperation in Afghanistan Possible?

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Is Trilateral China-India-Russia Cooperation in Afghanistan Possible?

Indian, Chinese and Russian officials will meet on Friday to discuss Afghanistan. Is there substance to this trilateral?

Is Trilateral China-India-Russia Cooperation in Afghanistan Possible?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On Friday, senior officials from India, China, and Russia will meet in Beijing for a trilateral discussion on the emerging security situation in Afghanistan ahead of the United States’ drawdown and the upcoming general election scheduled for April. Cooperation between the three powers on Afghanistan has been burgeoning since 2013 and could become a major factor for Afghan leadership following a U.S. withdrawal.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Thursday that China recognized that security outcomes in Afghanistan stand to affect broader regional security and stability.  “As a close neighbor of Afghanistan, China is ready to work with countries in the region and the international community to support the peaceful reconstruction and reconciliation process in Afghanistan and jointly maintain peace, stability and development of Afghanistan and the whole region,” he added.

Beijing’s willingness to host the trilateral meeting signals its seriousness about the security outcome in Afghanistan in coming years. It recently held a trilateral meeting with Pakistan and Russia on the same matter, and has additionally met with Pakistani and Afghan officials on a number of occasions. China has also pushed the matter of Afghanistan’s fate after the U.S. drawdown to the top of the Shanghai Cooperation Oraganization’s (SCO) agenda, where Russia is a member and India and Pakistan are observers. In early 2013, Moscow hosted a trilateral dialogue on Afghanistan with India and China.

The logic of the trilateral discussion is simple on its face: India, China, and Russia all have an important stake in Afghan stability after the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces, and want to see a turbulence-free election this year. China has invested over $3 billion in Afghanistan, and India over $2 billion and growing. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh traveled to Beijing in late October in what was his last state visit to China, Afghanistan appeared to be noticeably absent from the agenda indicating that Sino-Indian cooperation on the matter may not yet be mature enough to broach a head of government’s meeting agenda.

Cooperation on Afghanistan could serve to bring India and China closer together in terms of their mutual contributions to security in Asia. Both India and China, and Russia to a lesser degree, will be important sources of investment for Afghanistan in coming years. What is less certain is if these three powers can successfully manage an ostensible power vacuum left by U.S. and NATO forces. So far, all three have been content to let the United States handle the security situation in Afghanistan. Russia, India, and China all support the Bilateral Security Agreement which Afghan President Hamid Karzai is reluctant to sign, arguing that his successor would be best left to handle the issue.

Where things could get complicated is if India and China begin to frame the discussion about Afghanistan in counterterrorism terms because that would inevitably involve Pakistan. A poor security situation in Afghanistan would lead to pockets of Taliban influence, which would in turn bolster militants east of the Durand line. True, both India and China stand to lose financially should the economic climate grow too risky in Afghanistan, but India uniquely faces the threat of Pakistan-bred Islamic terrorism. Pakistan’s status as an “all-weather” partner to China complicates this reality.

However, Beijing gives cause for optimism on this matter as it so far has succeeded in avoiding any linkages between its relationship with Islamabad and its interests in Kabul. Chinese analysts must realize that Pakistan’s military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have a major stake in destabilizing Kabul in perpetuity–it’s something of a grand strategic impulse for Pakistan’s old guard of military leaders. Beijing doesn’t seem to be interested in reining Islamabad in on this matter and instead prefers to deal with Afghan security as a separate issue altogether. This strategy, combined with Beijing’s willingness to allow Washington to do the heavy lifting in matters of internal security (as well as foot the bill), has been efficient for China.

Friday’s meeting will probably result in more of the same. If we look at the joint communiqué from the last such trilateral that involved dialogue on Afghanistan, held in New Delhi on November 10, 2013, the language is relatively boilerplate diplomat-speak. The three powers hit all the major points in discussing Afghan security–remain engaged, provide security assistance, develop the Afghan National Army’s capabilities, and agreeing that reconciliation and reconstruction should be Afghan-led. A point of interest is the joint communiqué’s call for regional and multilateral institutions to contribute to the effort–it mentions the SCO, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and the United Nations.

Ultimately, cooperation between Russia, China, and India on Afghanistan will be a net positive for regional security provided that India and China can successfully navigate their respective relationships with Pakistan in the process. De-linking Afghan policy from other competitive impulses will only be beneficial for Afghanistan and the region. At the end of the day, all three have much to gain financially from  a stable Afghanistan that offers a secure investment destination, and is capable of sustained growth in a secure environment. And that is a powerful motivator.