Afghanistan is rapidly becoming a strategic hub for a grave conflict of interest among global players — China, Russia, the United States, and India — with huge repercussions for regional security and peace. In the recently concluded six-party meeting in Moscow, India and China rehearsed deep-seated disagreements over peace-building in Afghanistan. In strong opposition to China’s demands to initiate talks with the Afghan Taliban, Indian diplomats reiterated their concern about terror activities proliferating, albeit covertly, from Pakistan. Vikas Swarup, India’s external affairs spokesperson, called for concerted efforts to prevent “safe havens or sanctuaries to any terrorist group or individual in countries of this region” as a prerequisite of stability in Afghanistan.
Yet beyond geopolitical interest, the Sino-Indian rift over Afghanistan is also about status. Status can be understood here as a set of collective beliefs about a state’s standing. Paradoxically, it is only revealed to a state through acts by other parties, which either recognize or fail to recognize status.
For over a decade, the two emerging powers have been engaged in a conflict over their extended spheres of influence in the regional space. India and China have confronted each other in Kabul. China has opted to initiate talks with the Taliban as a prelude to peacemaking; India has resorted to developmental support while refraining from partaking militarily in the conflict. On both sides, there is seething unease about ceding to the other legitimate status as a “responsible” power in the region, with its implications for respective status at the global level.
This has created a status dilemma between the two stakeholders. A security dilemma, as is well understood, has the potential to amplify conflict among purely security-seeking states into an arms race or even war. Yet a status dilemma can engender conflict among states which seek only to maintain their relative standing. Indeed, status dilemmas are frequent and are thus more important causes of inter-state conflicts.
India and China have both pursued deceptively similar strategies vis-a-vis Afghanistan, officially premised on “non-intervention.” In contradiction to Western powers’ reflex toward direct intervention in recent times, the two Asian powers have advanced with cautious steps. Previously relegated to the sidelines of Beijing’s foreign policy perspective, since the 1990s Afghanistan’s strategic significance has escalated astronomically. With concerns ranging from Uyghur militants posing security threats in Xinjiang province to Afghanistan’s evolving geo-political interest — as a gateway to Central Asia and a key player in the “One Belt, One Road” initiative — Beijing has looked at Kabul with focused attention.
India, on the contrary, has eyed Afghanistan through the prism of Pakistan. In the era of Narendra Modi, Delhi has sought to strengthen Afghan ties. To that end, the transfer of Mi-25s attack helicopters – a first-of-its-kind lethal transaction — marks a new beginning.
On the wider canvas, however, India and China are highly sensitive to the status implications of their role in Afghan’s conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Their involvement in multiple institutional arrangements vis-a-vis Afghanistan has thus proved neuralgic.
On being excluded from the Moscow-led multi-party talks early this year, which engaged China and Pakistan, India registered strong opposition. This led to its inclusion in the subsequent six-party talks of unavoidable partners, also embracing Iran and Afghanistan itself.
In the absence of the Afghan Taliban, however, China elected to host a delegation of its leaders. One of the latter described China as a prime stakeholder in peace and stability in Afghanistan. Deng Xinjun, China’s special envoy on Afghanistan, reciprocally remarked: “China has always conveyed to the Taliban that it recognized the Afghan government and has encouraged the Taliban to join the peace process.”
India, differing prominently with China, has meanwhile described the Taliban as the biggest threat to Afghanistan. At the annual Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar in December, India presented itself as a strong peace partner while dismissing any role for the Taliban in bringing peace to the region.
With India and China seeming to pursue on mutually exclusive agendas on Afghanistan, they have used these different institutional platforms to win recognition for their own conceived roles. Status reflects an objective hierarchy, related to material capabilities and observed capacities, yet it is also socially constructed through eliciting acts of recognition by others. Hence the efforts of China to draw support from Russia and Pakistan and India’s advances to Afghanistan and the United States competitively seek recognition of their own envisaged roles in the conflict-ridden state. These institutional fora have offered vehicles for status signaling by the major stakeholders.
In any bargaining over states’ relative status, each state is incentivized to highlight the particular resources in which it enjoys comparative advantage. In the simmering Sino-Indian status dilemma over Afghanistan, India has highlighted its extensive commitments to development, contributing over $2 billion since 2001 alongside training police and military units. China, besides confirming an aid contribution of over $1.5 billion, has gone a step further in conducting joint patrols with the Afghan authorities – looking to fill the vacuum which the complete draw-down of U.S. forces from Afghanistan will herald.
Given that Sino-Indian cooperation is paramount if peace in Afghanistan is to be secured, the United States has a major responsibility to smooth the way. While Afghan policy is uncertain under the volatile new president, it is only prudent for the U.S. administration to attempt a strategic accommodation of the status concerns of India and China. And while Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia is also under scrutiny, Moscow’s interest in the region is growing – including as an advocate of peace talks with the Taliban.
Only through a peaceful accommodation of the status concerns of the great regional/global players – including in most cases institutional recognition – can an effective resolution of the Afghan conundrum be ensured.
Baisali Mohanty is a foreign policy analyst associated with the Observer Research Foundation. She has a postgraduate degree in South Asian Studies with International Relations from the University of Oxford. Her work has appeared on several prestigious international publications including the Huffington Post, the Diplomat, Forbes,OutlookIndia, OpenDemocracy, the Eurasia Review et al.