As US and ISAF troops are drawn down in Afghanistan, it is becoming increasingly clear that the void left by the withdrawing nations might have to be filled by Afghanistan’s neighbours.
Several regional multilateral endeavours have been taking shape to help Afghanistan achieve its cherished goals of becoming a peaceful, stable and prosperous nation. The Heart of Asia process is one such effort that underscores the importance not only of regional economic integration, but also of cooperation in the many other fields that will contribute towards a successful outcome of the Afghan puzzle. Although many of Afghanistan’s neighbours are part of this process, India and China are particularly important stakeholders in ensuring peace and stability in the region. They are also the countries with the greatest wherewithal to help Afghanistan in moving towards this goal.
Both India and China have a bilateral dialogue for discussing their shared concerns in Afghanistan. At summit level meetings, political leaders from both countries have emphasised the need to help Afghanistan with its ongoing transitions on several fronts.
In addition to bilateral mechanisms, India, China and Russia have a trilateral mechanism (the RIC annual Foreign Ministers meeting) in which Afghanistan figures prominently. The last meeting, held in February this year, voiced support for the presidential elections and the security transition from ISAF to ANSF. The ministers also stressed that the security transition needs to be supported by building the Afghan National Security Force’s (ANSF) capacity. They also affirmed support for broad and inclusive peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan that is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, as well as to help Afghanistan’s integration into the region through expanded trade and transport networks.
Therefore, Sino-Indian discussions at the bilateral and multilateral level signify the emerging convergence of their interests and approaches to Afghanistan. While they may have their own sensitivities and reservations regarding cooperation in security, it is the reconstruction and economic development of Afghanistan that offers the greatest potential for bilateral cooperation.
Development and prosperity in Afghanistan
As part of its ‘peripheral diplomacy’, China is in the process of implementing its Silk Road Economic Belt policy to connect its western regions to Central Asia and beyond through trade corridors. Meanwhile, India is also promoting its ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy. President Xi has talked about building highways, railways, fibre optics and pipelines, logistics centres, manufacturing hubs and new townships.
India is speeding up the construction of Chabahar port in Iran and its connectivity to Afghanistan via the Garland Highway. There are also plans to construct a railway line for the transport of finished products from the Hajigak iron ore mines. These plans are in addition to the construction of an International North-South Transport Corridor through Iran and Central Asia.
Similarly, China has plans to link Afghanistan through Pakistan by rail, road and other communication networks. Furthermore, China is planning several projects to strengthen the Central Asian communication networks that have the potential of being linked to Afghanistan. The geostrategic location of Afghanistan makes it an eminently suitable trade and economic hub emanating in all directions.
There are also reports to suggest that China National Petroleum Cooperation might join the consortium of companies seeking to build Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. If the TAPI pipeline is realized, it would act as a catalyst for many other connectivity projects between Central and South Asia through Afghanistan.
Impact of Sino-Indian cooperation
It is hard to miss the complementarity of Indian and Chinese efforts. There is therefore significant potential for both countries to pool their efforts and help Afghanistan in its reconstruction and development – particularly in its social and agricultural sectors.
Recognising the potential for bilateral cooperation in Afghanistan, China’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Sun Yuxi, is believed to have visited New Delhi in February to identify possible areas for cooperation. When making overtures to India, Chinese interlocutors are always cautious about the sensitivities of Pakistan, especially when it comes to cooperation in matters related to Afghanistan. However, health, education and agriculture seem to have been suggested as three likely areas for joint projects.
Although India already has a significant presence in Afghanistan in these sectors, cooperation with China would be beneficial in many ways. First, no country, least of all Pakistan, can have any objections to such cooperation in non-security related sectors. Second, these projects could act as pathfinders for cooperation in other related sectors. And last, even if cooperation in such sectors is termed mere symbolism, the importance of symbolism in diplomacy as a way to build trust should not be overlooked.
From an Indian perspective, engagement with China could have a positive impact on Pakistan’s behaviour in Afghanistan. The coming summit between Indian Prime Minister Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping would again be an opportune time to reflect on the situation in Afghanistan and how both nations can best cooperate in helping Afghanistan.
Vinod Anand is a senior fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation