Even though the latest meeting between India and China failed to discuss Afghanistan, both countries will be increasingly involved, and China will need to look beyond the prism of Pakistan to ensure stability in the region.
By Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi
The absence of a reference to Afghanistan in the India-China joint communiqué of October 2013 does not mean that both countries are unconcerned with the evolving security situation there.
The summit came within five months of a previous meeting held between the two nations in May 2013. Discussion then was largely devoted to bilateral issues, with limited attention paid to regional and global security. Comparing the two joint statements, we can see that the May version encapsulated almost all subjects currently under discussion. The October version, however, was shorter and did not extend beyond issues of core concern to India.
There is, however, an intensive and ongoing dialogue between India and China on many levels on coordinating their approaches to Afghanistan. Both China and India share common concerns on Afghanistan, particularly in ensuring peace and stability. The first specific bilateral dialogue between high ranking officials took place in Beijing in April this year. Both sides agreed that enhanced cooperation and consultations between both countries can contribute to ‘early settlement of the Afghan issue’.
Again, it was in the last Sino-Indian summit of May 2013 that China and India declared that the situation in Afghanistan concerns regional security and stability and reiterated their support for a ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned’ reconciliation process. Following Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India in May, he proceeded to Pakistan and repeated the same formulation. However, this does not mean that China has stopped looking through the Pakistan prism on either the Afghan issue or on the question of terrorism. Recently, during Pakistani Army Chief General Kayani’s visit to Beijing, a Chinese official spokesperson said that Pakistan ‘has made enormous efforts in cracking down on terrorism. China supports Pakistan in making counterterrorism strategies based on its own national conditions. We are ready to work with Pakistan and other countries to strengthen cooperation in this area‘. In order to further coordinate their policies towards Afghanistan there is a regular trilateral dialogue between China, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
While that may be its stated policy, China is now looking for a broader range of options other than relying solely on Pakistan to address its concerns over radical and extremist forces spilling into Central Asia and Xinjiang, especially in the wake of NATO withdrawal in 2014. China has not been critical of the Taliban and recognises it as a politically significant force, which may reflect a desire to keep an avenue of communication open. India, for its part, believes that engagement with China on Afghanistan may moderate Pakistan’s behaviour in Afghanistan.
In addition to the aforementioned consultations, both countries have also discussed Afghanistan at the Joint Secretary level as part of their first bilateral dialogue on Central Asia – which was held in August earlier this year. Although the discussions on Central Asia ranged from regional security and counter-terrorism to energy security, Afghanistan was a major focus of discussion.
Radical and extremist groups (including elements of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Kunduz) are ensconced in Afghan border regions and throughout Central Asia, and their potential to cause instability in the region should not be underestimated. Instability and insecurity in Central Asia would have concomitant adverse impact on regional stability and security. Thus, cooperation between India and China is driven by such motivations. Furthermore, this discussion is part of many such bilateral dialogues underway between India and China on West Asia, Africa, Afghanistan and counter-terrorism. Engagement between the two countries has been enhanced across a host of issues.
If that was not enough, both sides again exchanged their views on Afghanistan during the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit at Bishkek in September 2013. China, which is one of the major players in the SCO, reiterated the need to fight the three evils of ‘terrorism, extremism and separatism’. President Xi Jinping also spoke about the necessity to ‘support Afghanistan's national reconciliation process, help Afghanistan realise peace and stability as early as possible, and jointly safeguard regional security’. Salman Khurshid, India’s External Affairs Minister attending the SCO meeting stated that:
‘India strongly believes that Afghanistan can successfully complete the security, political and economic transitions in coming years and regain its historical place as a hub for regional trade and transit routes. However, this presupposes fulfillment of pledges made by the international community for security and civilian assistance to Afghanistan and non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. We see SCO as an important body that can offer a credible alternative regional platform to discuss the challenges related to Afghanistan.’
Therefore, it cannot be said that a lack of reference to the Afghanistan issue in the October summit joint communiqué in any way denotes dilution of a joint India-China commitment to adopt a coordinated approach. Indeed, it is also believed that there were deliberations between China and India on the Afghan question even though references were not to be found in the minutes of the Summit.