One of the most troubling, but fundamental, questions confronting India is its relationship with China. While India wants a mutually beneficial and cooperative relationship that is conflict-free and cordial, does China want a similar relationship with India?
While trade between the two Asian giants is booming, there are other issues such as the boundary question that cause strain in the relationship. Certain actions by the Chinese, such as stapled visas for people and officials from the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, the ‘aggressive’ and ‘intrusive’ patrolling along the disputed stretches of the Line of Actual Control, the complete disregard for India’s concerns and sensitivities when it comes to relations with Pakistan, all foul Indian public opinion towards China.
Even as the two sides work to manage these issues, Afghanistan has emerged as a test case on whether India and China will work in conjunction or at cross-purposes. With Western involvement in Afghanistan almost over, countries in the region will have to do some of the heavy-lifting to ensure that Afghanistan does not once again become a source of terrorism. Among Afghanistan’s neighbours, India and China are probably the only two countries with the diplomatic, political, economic and military clout to help stabilise Afghanistan. They can pool their strengths to prevent Afghanistan’s descent into chaos.
The Russians, still suffering from the hangover of their Afghan misadventure in the 1980s, are very wary of direct involvement in Afghanistan. The Iranians have a crucial role to play but cannot do much alone because of their strained relations with the West and their deepening involvement in the Middle East and fight against the Islamic State. The Pakistanis are more of a problem and, notwithstanding the horrible massacre of school children in Peshawar, are unlikely to become part of the solution unless someone – perhaps China – knocks more sense into them. The Central Asian states have their own problems and can at best play a supporting role.
Convergence of interests, divergence of strategies
The problem as far as Afghanistan is concerned is that, even though the interests of India and China converge, their strategies diverge. Both countries are extremely concerned about instability in Afghanistan and the possibility of the country once again becoming a base for global and regional jihadist terror groups. In this scenario, Uighur terrorists and separatists in Xinjiang, India-centric jihadists, Central Asian extremists, would once again head to Afghanistan and make it a safe haven for plotting and launching terrorist attacks. A civil war in Afghanistan between the resurgent Taliban and the forces opposed to them would spill into other countries. This, in turn, would force countries affected by the war to cultivate proxies, adding fuel to the conflict inside and outside Afghanistan.
But keeping Afghanistan secure from extremists and jihadists is just one of the common interests shared by India and China.
For Afghanistan to remain safe it must become economically viable. For the foreseeable future, foreign aid and assistance will be necessary to keep Afghanistan afloat, but the country cannot remain a donor driven economy forever. There are two areas that can propel Afghanistan towards economic viability. The first is Afghanistan leveraging its location to become a bridge between South Asia on one side and Central and West Asia on the other. China doesn’t need Afghanistan as a bridge to reach Central Asia, but India does. More importantly, Afghanistan becoming a transit hub between Central and South Asia makes sense only if these routes extend into India. Without India, Afghanistan’s utility for transit is neither attractive nor viable.
The second is extracting the mineral resources of Afghanistan and using them to establish industry in Afghanistan and exporting some of the raw material. In this area, India and China have a role to play, not just in developing infrastructure – roads, railways, pipelines – but also in helping to create industry in Afghanistan. However, peace, security and stability are prerequisites for Afghanistan to exploit its location and its mineral wealth to become a self-sustaining economy.
Ironically, the biggest spoiler in Afghanistan is also the country that is most likely to be affected by an unstable or Talibanised Afghanistan. Pakistan is also the major point of divergence in how India and China seek to stabilise Afghanistan. For now, China appears set to ride on Pakistan's shoulders to play a role in Afghanistan. While Pakistan is undoubtedly critical in solving the Afghan conundrum, it is also the biggest obstacle. The Chinese, however, have placed faith in Pakistan and have been taking their cues from Islamabad in making their Afghan policy. However, given the influence that China exercises on Pakistan (the much delayed and much-hyped Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan was in no small measure the result of Chinese pressure), the Chinese are ideally placed to compel Pakistan to change its destructive policy on Afghanistan, both in terms of the support and sanctuary it provides to the Taliban and their affiliates as well as its denial of transit rights to India.
But as long as China sees Afghanistan through the prism of Pakistan and refuses to exert its influence to make Islamabad do the right thing, the prospects of India and China working together on Afghanistan remain very bleak. The Chinese do not understand that Pakistan's current policy of giving the Taliban a stake in power in Afghanistan is going to push Afghanistan into the throes of extremism and jihadism which, beyond a certain point, even Pakistan won’t be able to control. As such, with or without China, India needs to remain engaged in Afghanistan because of its vital security interests in seeing a stable, non-Talibanised Afghanistan.
Of course, if the Pakistan part of the problem is resolved – either by China pulling its weight to make Pakistan fall in line or, in the extreme case, China bypassing Pakistan completely – India and China can work together through Central Asia or through Iran to help Afghanistan. India can also share its development template in Afghanistan with China to rebuild that country. Both countries also have the technical and institutional expertise to strengthen Afghanistan’s ability to handle its own affairs. Most of all, India has a much deeper cultural and social connection with Afghan society than China, and Delhi can assist Beijing in developing a better understanding of Afghanistan.
Sino-Indian cooperation in Afghanistan will benefit the broader bilateral relationship. But in the final analysis, everything will depend on what sort of a relationship China wants with India.
Lt. Gen. Ravi Sawhney is a distinguished fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation. Sushant Sareen is a senior fellow at the Foundation.