Afghanistan could potentially become the centre of cooperation, not competition, between India and China, the two main Asian powers. This can only be achieved if problems and barriers are overcome and small-scale initiatives are implemented in order to stabilise Afghanistan.
Competing outside and cooperation inside Afghanistan
Security threats and economic benefits have brought China and India together in Afghanistan. Both countries are threatened by extremism and terrorism. Separatists in India and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement in Xinjiang both received training and support in Kabul under the regime of the Taliban. China and India have therefore both benefited from the Taliban’s fall. With the establishment of a new government in Kabul, China and India have joined the international community in the reconstruction of Afghanistan: India has granted more than $2 billion and, in the coming three years, China will grant an additional $600 million to Afghanistan.
Thousands of Afghan students have received scholarships from India and China. Both countries have established strategic relations with Afghanistan. Many noteworthy Chinese and Indian companies have contributed to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Indeed, with $5 billion of Chinese investment in the Ainak copper mine and the Amu Darya oil basin, and $10 billion of Indian investment in the Hajigak iron ore concession, China and India have become the biggest foreign investors in Afghanistan.
Although both countries are competing elsewhere in Asia, Afghanistan has in fact turned into a platform for cooperation.
Problems and Barriers
China has concerns over the security of its western regions and the possibility of spillover from Afghanistan to Xinjiang. Although Beijing has supported anti terrorism operations by international forces, it has concerns about the intentions and timeframe of the US military presence in Afghanistan. China is trying to bridge Afghanistan-Pakistan relations and it has also been in contact with the Taliban in recent years.
India’s main concern is the role of Pakistan. This concern has recently intensified following an attack on an Indian diplomatic mission in Afghanistan by Pakistan-supported forces.
New Delhi also faces a problem with transport and logistics. Even though there is a transit agreement between Afghanistan and India, Pakistan does not allow goods to pass overland through Pakistani territory. Instead, India has to transfer products, such as iron ore from Hajigak, through the Chabahar Port in Iran – which is a 1000km longer route.
With the unstable security situation in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, China also faces difficulties in transporting copper from Afghanistan. However, China is not willing to build a railway from northern Afghanistan to Aynak and the Torkham border with Pakistan despite it being part of the Aynak contract.
The Taliban is another major concern to India and China, although each side has a totally different interpretation of the threat.
Beijing has had direct contact with the Taliban and Chinese officials met Mullah Omar in Kandahar during the Taliban decade to seek assurance that Uyghur insurgents would not be allowed to use Afghan soil to launch attacks on China. China believes that the Taliban is a political group and by removing a number of its more extreme elements, it can become part of Afghanistan’s reconciliation process.
On the contrary, India sees the Taliban as a terrorist group that is used as proxy by Pakistan against India’s interests. And with the hijacking of an Indian airplane in 1999, the group made their enmity with India well apparent. New Delhi clearly states that ‘peace and reconciliation’ should not include the Taliban.
Cooperation instead of Competition
The current government of Afghanistan has made unprecedented effort to build better relations with Pakistan to secure negotiation with Taliban. President Ashraf Ghani visited Rawalpindi and assured the Chief Army Staff, Rahil Sharif, that the Karzai policy will not be followed. Instead, he stated that the Germany-France model will be implemented with Pakistan in the coming 10 years and with this promise, Afghanistan has unilaterally granted all concessions requested by the Pakistani military, including joint operations against the Pakistani Taliban in Afghan territory, access to Taliban prisoners in Afghan prisons, and handing over Mullah Mahsood, the Pakistani Taliban leader, who was used as leverage in negotiations with the Afghan Taliban by the Karzai government.
Afghanistan has more expectations of China. China has always had good relations with Kabul and is better able to facilitate peace talks. India, a historic friend of Afghanistan and one of the largest aid donors to Afghanistan, does not possess much leverage in the would-be Afghan peace talks because of its enmity with Pakistan.
Peace itself has become an issue for both sides: the Taliban sees peace with the Afghan Government as a loss of pride and submission to the ideological enemy. Similarly, the Afghan National Army deems it pointless to fight an enemy with whom they might soon make peace.
Afghanistan is very important for both India and China. Stability in both countries is dependent on the situation in Afghanistan. But, can Afghanistan be a trust-building platform for the two countries?
History shows that large-scale cooperation begins through small initiatives. China and India need Afghanistan. The rich natural resources of Afghanistan are a good reason for more cooperation.
In order to more effectively utilize their mining concessions in Aynak and Hajigak mines, China and India could train Afghans in the fields of railway administration and transportation.
Afghanistan is traditionally an agricultural society and both China and India have rich experience and good markets for high quality afghan agricultural produce. The two countries could join hands to promote and develop irrigation and agro-business products in Afghanistan.
China and India could also follow the US-China example of training young afghan diplomats. They can extend training to other fields too, subject to afghan needs.
New Delhi and Beijing have already agreed in principle to bilateral cooperation in Afghanistan. The time has come for action. The government of Afghanistan should be able to convince both countries that good relations with Kabul are in their interest, and in return, Kabul needs to take its allies’ interests and concerns into consideration. President Ghani recently assured a Russian delegation that the Afghan Government wants China, India and Russia to be the main investors in Afghanistan. Afghanistan could be the centre of cooperation between these two Asian powers and this, in turn, will help build trust between them.
Sultan Ahmed Baheen is a former Afghan ambassador to China