India and China can work together, bilaterally and in multilateral groupings, to build a secure Afghanistan
There is an air of uncertainty about the U.S.’s intentions in Afghanistan. The likelihood of an American pullout raises the spectre of instability in Afghanistan, South and Central Asia. If this happens, security could hinge on efforts made by regional powers to stabilise Afghanistan. Could China emerge as the power broker in Afghanistan? And could India help enhance Afghanistan’s security?
Like India, China never had any intention of contributing troops to NATO’s anti-Taliban campaign. But as Asia’s strongest power and challenger to the U.S., China will shed no tears if the U.S. reduces its military strength or calls it a day after 18 years of a protracted and indecisive war in Afghanistan. If the U.S. withdrawal exacerbates conflict, southern Russia will also face the threat of an extremist spillover. Therefore, Russia and its Central Asian ‘near abroad’ would be willing to expand their cooperation with China to curb insecurity. How will China deal with Pakistan, its all-weather friend which trains and exports extremists across the Durand Line? Pakistan has become a crucial link in the BRI. And China has reportedly invested billions in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which cuts across disputed territory in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.
Since 2011, China has continually blamed Pakistan for exporting extremists to Uighur in Xinjiang, and for extremist attacks on Chinese workers in the CPEC area. But these incidents have not affected their friendship. Could China have some leverage over Pakistan? Pakistan remained the largest recipient of Chinese arms imports (2013-17). Would China’s strategic and economic interests prompt it to press Pakistan to stop exporting terrorists across the Durand Line? These are the big questions. India supports China’s role in international negotiations on Afghanistan, the activation of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group and other mechanisms of dialogue and cooperation for restoration of peace and development in Afghanistan. For its part, India has certainly contributed much ‘soft power’ ranging from telecommunications to education, Bollywood movies and pop music. The building for the National Assembly was built with Indian assistance to support Afghanistan’s democracy. Indian reconstruction largesse, amounting to some $3 billion, has earned it goodwill and popularity.
Sitting across the table
India, which has been against holding talks with the Taliban for a long time, finally sent two retired diplomats, at the ‘non-official level’, to join them at the Moscow peace parleys in November last year. But India’s lengthy absence from regional diplomacy has resulted in its limited contribution to the negotiations that are necessary to stabilise Afghanistan. The Afghan government would like to see India-China economic cooperation in Afghanistan that could boost progress and enhance human security. Last October, in a first, India and China started a joint training project for Afghan diplomats.
They could expand cooperation by facilitating Afghanistan’s full membership of the SCO. China’s leadership role of the SCO and contacts with all parties (the U.S., the Taliban, the Afghan government, Pakistan, Russia and the five Central Asian states) could give it a vantage in crafting a regional solution on Afghanistan. That should not prevent India and China from working together, bilaterally and in the SCO, to build a secure Afghanistan.