China Reaches to India on Afghanistan
The counterterrorism dialogue between China and India finally took a serious turn in 2013 as the two sides discussed the issue of Afghanistan for the first time. The impending departure of Western combat forces from Afghanistan and the specter of looming chaos seem to have persuaded Beijing that it cannot ignore the “Af-Pak” challenge forever. The two sides decided to initiate a long overdue dialogue on Afghanistan, which took place April 18, 2013, in Beijing.
The Sino-India counterterrorism dialogue, which has been held annually since 2002, was initially viewed as a promising bilateral initiative for dealing with the threat of terrorism. But these hopes were quickly laid to rest as nothing of consequence emerged from these dialogues. The reason is not difficult to decipher. For India, the main source of terrorism is Pakistan. ... For China, Pakistan is an important asset in its South Asia policy and an “all weather” friend. As a consequence, although New Delhi had, somewhat audaciously, expected to make common cause with Beijing vis-à-vis Islamabad and Rawalpindi, there was only disappointment at the outcome of these dialogues.
But as concerns are rising in the region about the consequences of the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014, China is showing some nascent interest in coordinating with India on this issue. There is a clear convergence between China and India because both states have made major investments in Afghanistan since 2002.
The impact of Afghanistan’s destabilization will be felt not only in Kashmir but also in Xinjiang, where the East Turkistan Islamic Movement is leading a separatist movement. China has also indicated that it is not sure if Pakistan’s security establishment actually continues to exert influence over the Taliban and other extremist groups, given the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Pakistan.
China and India both have reiterated that a regional approach is necessary in order to maintain peace and stability in Afghanistan after the departure of Western combat forces. According to some reports, the two sides have agreed to support the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to play a greater role in Afghanistan and discuss anti-terror cooperation within the framework of the Istanbul Process agreed upon in 2011. Toward that end, trilateral consultations among China, India and Russia were recently held in Moscow and, in order to maintain regional balance, were followed by China-Russia-Pakistan discussions in Beijing.
Though it is indeed encouraging that Beijing is finally recognizing the need to work with India on Afghanistan, given regional geopolitics, New Delhi will be treading cautiously as it moves forward with its dialogue with Beijing.
Since 2001, China has adopted a hands-off policy toward Afghanistan, preferring the U.S. to do most of the heavy lifting. It did not want a serious involvement in Afghanistan, but it also did not want a victory for the extremists, given its negative impact on China’s problems with Uighur separatists in Xinjiang. Apart from the U.S. $3 billion Aynak copper-mine project, China also did not make a significant attempt to project its economic power in Afghanistan. But as the departure of Western combat forces from Afghanistan approaches, China has upped its game in Afghanistan. In 2007, the state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corp. secured a 30-year lease on the Mes Aynak site in Afghanistan’s Logar province.
Though progress has been slow and Afghan insurgents have targeted the mine, Beijing expects to extract U.S. $100 billion worth of copper from the site. China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) has also helped Afghanistan in setting up the country’s first commercial oil production site, which is likely to extract 1.5 million barrels of oil annually from 2013. China’s humongous appetite for resources will ensure that Afghanistan, with more than U.S. $1 trillion in potential mineral wealth, gets adequate attention from Beijing. With China’s backing, Afghanistan became an observer in the SCO. China has also signed a strategic partnership agreement with Kabul. More significantly, Beijing has access to the Taliban through Pakistan and was the only non-Islamic nation in touch with Mullah Omar in the late 1990s.
It is true that the deteriorating internal security situation in Pakistan has strained Sino-Pakistan ties in recent years, to some degree. China Kingho Group, one of China’s largest private coal mining companies, pulled out of what was to be Pakistan’s largest foreign-investment pact, citing concerns for the security of its personnel. Amid worries about the potential destabilizing influence of Pakistani militants on China’s Muslim minority in Xinjiang, Beijing has also taken a harder line against Pakistan. The flow of arms and terrorists from across the border in Pakistan remains a major headache for Chinese authorities, and Islamabad’s inability and/or failure to curb extremism makes it difficult for the Chinese to trust Pakistan completely. But it is equally the case that China, at least publicly, has continued to emphasize that its relationship with Pakistan is far more important than isolated incidents of violence.
In this context, few in New Delhi expect Beijing to change its Afghanistan policy significantly to suit Indian interests. The road to stability in Kabul lies through Rawalpindi, and China has few incentives to challenge the Pakistani security establishment’s traditional adversarial mindset vis-à-vis India that continues to look at Afghanistan for some chimerical “strategic depth.” Notwithstanding recent positive signals emanating from China, New Delhi is unlikely to find a fully cooperating partner in Beijing in the management of post-2014 turmoil in Afghanistan. But a dialogue between Asia’s two mainland powers on Afghanistan is certainly worth pursuing. As the expression goes, they both have “skin” in this game.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) originally published this article in its May 2013 Issue Perspective.
By Dr. Harsh V. Pant
Chinese paramilitary police march past the gates of the Indian Embassy in Beijing in May 2013. [AFP/GETTY IMAGES]
Indian Army personnel stand watch at Bum La Pass at the India-China border in Arunachal Pradesh in October 2012. [AFP/GETTY IMAGES]