New possibilities on regional cooperation are emerging, which India should not hesitate to explore
Afghanistan has again emerged as a platform providing new possibilities on the India-China cooperation front. After the restructured ‘Strategic dialogue’ between India and China last week, Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar said: “On Afghanistan, they certainly seem to suggest to us that their approach and policies are in tandem with us, not on different page.” The strategic dialogue, which was divided into five sub-groups of which Afghanistan was one, focussed significantly on the country. China expressed admiration for India’s developmental work in Afghanistan amidst a broader understanding that New Delhi and Beijing need to strengthen the government in Kabul.
This development comes against a backdrop of the growing threat of the Islamic State (IS) to China. The IS released a video this week of Chinese Uighur Muslims vowing to return home and “shed blood like rivers” even as the Chinese military displayed its military might as a show of force in Xinjiang. A rattled China is calling for greater global cooperation against the IS, which is also a reason why China has joined ranks with Russia in a bid to engage the Taliban in Afghanistan.
China has for years blamed exiled Uighur “separatists” for violence in Xinjiang and has warned of the militants’ potential to link up with global jihadist groups. It is worried about the spillover effect of continuing instability in Afghanistan. The impact of Afghanistan’s destabilisation will be felt not only in Kashmir but also in Xinjiang where the East Turkistan Islamic Movement is active. Moreover, China’s mega investment plans in Pakistan are predicated on a measure of regional stability.
With the Donald Trump administration yet to clarify its position on Afghanistan, and with it looking unlikely to add more American troops to the depleting reserves of Western forces in the country, it is not surprising that China is keen to engage India, the one country that has built a reservoir of goodwill in Afghanistan and has demonstrated some ability to deliver concrete results on the ground.
Divergences on Afghanistan
But there remain some fundamental divergences in Sino-Indian positions on Afghanistan and broader counterterrorism postures. Just last December, Mr. Jaishankar said that India and China were not able to “cooperate as effectively” as they should in countering terrorism. His statement had come in the wake of China putting on hold the inclusion of JeM chief Masood Azhar’s name in the United Nation’s list of global terrorists.
Even after last week’s strategic dialogue, the Foreign Secretary was careful to underline the differences. On the Taliban, for example, he suggested that “their [China’s] characterisation was that there were elements of Taliban which are very extreme. In their view there were also elements of Taliban that can work with international community and Afghan government.”
For long, India sought to include Afghanistan in its discussions with China on counterterrorism. The Sino-India counter-terrorism dialogue was initially viewed as a promising bilateral initiative for dealing with terrorism. But nothing of consequence emerged from these dialogues. For India, the main source of terrorism is Pakistan where the state machinery continues to view terrorism as a legitimate tool of national policy. For China, Pakistan is an important asset in its South Asia policy and an all-weather friend. As a consequence, where New Delhi had, somewhat audaciously, expected to make common cause with Beijing vis-a-vis Islamabad and Rawalpindi, there was only disappointment at the outcome of these dialogues.
But as concerns started rising in the region about the consequences of the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014, China reached out to India. This too couldn’t go far as China continued to emphasise that its relationship with Pakistan was far more important than a regional approach on terrorism with India. In this context, New Delhi should not 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’. But the fact that China is interested in working with India on Afghanistan suggests that new possibilities on regional cooperation are emerging, which India should not hesitate to explore. Its success, of course, remains predicated on how committed China is in tackling extremism as opposed to hemming in India in South Asia.
Harsh V. Pant is Professor at King’s College, London and Head of Strategic Studies at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi
The Afghan Tribune | The Hindu | Published: March 04, 2017, 11:36 AM