Can India and China Both Court Afghanistan?

India needs to do more to gain the upper hand in Afghanistan.

Can India and China Both Court Afghanistan?
Credit: Flickr/ MEAphotogallery

While welcoming Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in India last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi underlined that “the relationship between India and Afghanistan is not just between two countries or governments. It is a timeless link of human hearts.” With that spirit Modi made it clear that India would support Afghanistan’s security forces and open the Attari check-post in Punjab to Afghan trucks in order to increase trade between the two countries. Modi stated: “India will walk shoulder to shoulder with you and the Afghan people in a mission of global importance.”

In addition to proclaiming India’s support for Afghanistan’s security forces, Modi announced that India is “prepared to join the successor agreement to Afghan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement” which will “re-establish one of the oldest trading routes of South Asia.” For his part, Ghani signaled his disappointment with Pakistan over its refusal to allow direct trade with India via the Wagah border, and suggested that if the deadlock continues Afghanistan “will not provide equal transit access to Central Asia [for Pakistani trucks].”

But even as the Afghan President is welcomed in India, there is a sense that New Delhi is fast losing its carefully nurtured decade-old clout in Afghanistan. Compared to his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, Ghani has been lukewarm toward India. His visit to Delhi came long after his outreach to Pakistan and China, both of whom seem more firmly embedded in the peace overtures to the Taliban than India. Ghani has been to Pakistan twice and the Afghan Army Chief recently attended the graduation parade at Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul. The Ghani government has also been keen to see China take a more active role in the reconciliation process. India stands isolated with many in the country wondering whatever happened to the much-hyped Delhi-Kabul strategic partnership.

It is not that Delhi has not been active. Soon after the Modi government came to office in India, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Afghanistan in September 2014 to underscore India’s commitment to remain engaged in the country’s reconstruction activities in a significant way. Describing India as Afghanistan’s first strategic partner, Swaraj suggested that Delhi would always share the Afghan people’s vision of a “strong” and “prosperous” Afghanistan. Delhi has conveyed to the Ghani government in strong terms that India is there to stay in Afghanistan, even after the western troops have left. The Modi government is keen to expand its security profile in Afghanistan and has provided Kabul with military vehicles, choppers and automatic weapons in a bid to strengthen the army as a first step in that direction. It has also, after years of dilly-dallying under the previous government, taken a decision to invest $85.21 million in developing the strategically important Chabahar port in Iran, allowing India to circumvent Pakistan and open up a trade route with landlocked Afghanistan.

But while Delhi was preoccupied internally over the last few years with a weak government unable to make up its mind on substantive defense engagement with Kabul, other actors (China in particular) decided to step up their role. Ghani has lost no time in reaching out to China, which he visited in October 2014 when China hosted a conference to discuss peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan. Ghani called on the Taliban to join and enter an Afghan dialogue, and China echoed Ghani’s call, urging groups to “lay aside former enmity and join the political reconciliation process.” There was high flying rhetoric as Ghani said his country viewed China “as a strategic partner, in the short term, medium term, long term and very long term.”

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Chinese President Xi Jinping reciprocated by hailing Ghani as an old friend of the Chinese people with whom China prepared to work towards “a new era of co-operation,” and “to take development to a new depth.” Despite China’s concerns that a deteriorating security situation could threaten greater investment, it agreed to give Afghanistan $327 million in aid over the next three years — $81.8 million in 2014 and the remaining sum between 2015-2017. More significantly, China also agreed to act as a mediator between Afghanistan and Pakistan while Ghani pledged to help China fight its own Islamic militants.

Both Beijing and Kabul recognize each other’s importance. Afghanistan has requested assistance from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in its fight against the Taliban. Providing assistance to Afghanistan may form a part of Xi’s wider plan to establish a 6,437 km “Silk Road” economic belt to connect China’s western regions with Europe by way of Central Asia. Security concerns have prevented Chinese investments in Afghanistan from getting off the ground.

China is interested in playing a larger role in Afghanistan, long seen as primarily a U.S. responsibility after its 2001 invasion. China’s Afghan policy is now feeling the pressure emanating from the withdrawal of western troops and Taliban surge threatening to give a boost to Islamist militancy in China’s western Xinjiang region. Much like the rest of the region, China remains worried about the withdrawal of western forces from Afghanistan as it fears a broader destabilization of the region post-2014.

The growing problems in Pakistan have also alerted China to the reality that its leverage over Pakistan may not be enough in managing the regional turmoil. As tensions have risen in Xinjiang, the perceived Pakistan link to the Uyghur militancy has led to a reassessment in China of its approach towards Afghanistan, especially as concerns are rising in Beijing that Islamabad has was not been very effective in controlling the training of Uyghur militants in Pakistan. For all the hyperbole, the Chinese president’s visit to Pakistan last month should also be assessed in this context.

Ghani’s visit to India has been an important opportunity for India to underline its role in the unfolding strategic dynamic in the region. The Modi government has to make it clear that, unlike its predecessor, it takes its responsibilities as a regional power seriously. Beijing is widely considered a more credible regional player and this has enhanced its profile in Afghanistan as well. India, despite being the nation most loved by ordinary Afghans, has given an impression that it is not serious about making hard choices. The Modi government’s success in changing that impression will determine if India will be able to preserve its equities in Afghanistan.