New Delhi and Beijing are both keen to see the visit to China by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which is scheduled for May, produce something substantive. For one thing, the two countries are looking to address one of the thornier issues between them, the border dispute. The 18th round of border talks are currently underway and Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval has also held talks with his Chinese counterpart and State Councilor Yang Jiechi.
Both countries want progress on the contentious issue, which has long bedeviled relations. However, the border question is not the only determinant of China-India ties: the Chinese role in Afghanistan, and its efforts to connect Afghanistan with both Pakistan and Central Asia, will also have an important bearing on one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships.
In fact, Chinese economic ties with Afghanistan have been limited, mostly by security issues. Still, in 2012, China National Petroleum Company managed to secure rights to develop oil fields in the Amu Darya basin. More recently, in February 2015, at an Afghanistan-Pakistan-China trilateral dialogue, Beijing signaled plans to expand its economic footprint by announcing that it would provide grants worth $300 million over the next three years. Among the projects China announced it would undertake – which are important for Beijing’s New Silk Road (South Asia-Central Asia component) – are rail connectivity between Chaman (Balochistan) and Kandahar (Afghanistan) and a motorway from Peshawar to Kabul.
China is not just expanding its economic footprint in Afghanistan, it is also keeping a close eye on the security situation in the country. Indeed, Beijing has already begun to engage with the Taliban. Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah pointed to negotiations between China and the Taliban while speaking at a Distinguished Lecture Organized by the OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat on March 15. Abdullah of course made it clear that the talks needed to be “.. Afghan led and inclusive.”
China is interested in Afghanistan for several reasons. For one, instability in Afghanistan could very readily spill over into China. Beijing is already battling the rise of religious extremism in the border province of Xinjiang. The Kunming train station attacks (March 2014) and Tiananmen Square attack (October 2013) brought to the fore the dangers posed by the looming threat of the Uighur Insurgency.
Second, China also wants a stable Afghanistan, so that it can be part of the Western component of Beijing’s New Silk Road initiative. It is for this reason that Beijing is keen to invest in improving connectivity between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
China also has an interest the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) project, originally a brainchild of the U.S. and one of the key components of Washington’s own version of the New Silk Road.
The key question that arises here is whether China and India can cooperate in Afghanistan, and whether Beijing will want India to be a participant in the New Silk Road. India has also emerged as a key player in Afghanistan and has been able to earn the goodwill of a large section of the population, not just because of the magnitude of its assistance (in excess of $2 billion) for a number of areas of infrastructural development, capacity building, rural development, and education. India has also been training Afghan military and police personnel. In 2011, Afghanistan and India signed a strategic partnership agreement. More recently, there have been some indicators that the new government in Afghanistan headed by President Ashraf Ghani may be hesitant at the prospect of stronger strategic ties with India. But while there may be some tweaks in Kabul’s policy towards India, New Delhi remains an important player due to its assistance as well as its positive image.
Meanwhile, China is sending clear signals that it wants a leading role in Afghanistan, and is building its presence quickly, as it has done in other regions. India was not part of a trilateral dialogue featuring Afghanistan, Pakistan and China that was held in Kabul in February 2015. China for has also long been lukewarm on India joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), although it has become more open to the idea since China itself was given membership in the SAARC.
Interestingly, during his interactions with members of the Chamber of Commerce in Amritsar (Punjab) on March 13 and 14, the Chinese Ambassador to India, Le Yucheng spoke about trilateral cooperation between India, Pakistan and China while pitching the idea of taking the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor up to the Wagah border. While India-Pakistan relations remain tense, bilateral trade through the Wagah-Attari border (estimated at over $2.5 billion) has provided a glimmer of hope, helping to create strong lobbies for better relations on both sides of the divide. India has repeatedly referred to the possibility of Pakistan being a conduit for India into South Asia.
So will India be part of the Chinese version of the Silk Road?
While China is sending signals that it will fill the vacuum in Afghanistan, it can not leave India out entirely. The immense goodwill India has earned in Afghanistan cannot be undone via infrastructure projects.
Second, ever since the terrorist attacks by Uighur insurgents there have been clear indicators that China and India are seeking to find common ground.
Third, if China wants India to be part of the BCIM Corridor, India will not play second fiddle to China in its ambitious New Silk Road. It will also not tolerate being left out of any meaningful dialogue on Afghanistan. By investing in Chabahar Port (Iran), India has already sent clear signals of its own that it has kept all its options open and will not bank on any one.
While China may well emerge as the dominant player in postwar Afghanistan, its approach to strategic issues has been different from earlier Western powers. This means that there will be shades of gray; areas where it will be open to cooperation, and others where it will want to be unchallenged.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a Senior Research Associate with The Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonepat. The views expressed here are personal.