Published Twice a Month
January 10, 2019 – January 22, 2019

Centre on Asia and Globalisation
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Guest Column

Letting Off (Some) Steam: China and India in Afghanistan

By Chayanika Saxena

China-India Brief 130_1200x737Photo by dvidshub on

As rising powers, China and India constitute two different geo-political imaginations that are formed by their own internal interests and ideologies. Competing over a shared geo-political space, these imaginations have often collided to create frictions and disputes that erupt from time to time. Yet barring one major war in 1962, the restless and uneasy ties between China and India have avoided massive flare-ups for various reasons. Where the 2017 Doklam stand-off was a manifestation of their competing claims for ascendancy in South Asia, Afghanistan is ironically, proving to be a place where they can collaborate peacefully. Indeed, mutual cooperation, however limited, has become the accent of their interaction in the land of Hindukush.

Apart from their strategic and other interests that can help us understand the convergence between China and India in Afghanistan, another way of looking at this dynamic is through the lens of domestic politics in the case of China and status in the case of India. I argue that China and India are engaged in different behaviours which are not necessarily at odds with each other, at least in Afghanistan. Different as their intentions and objectives might be, they are not on a collision path. India persists in Afghanistan to demonstrate its status as a rising power. China’s policy there looks more like an external projection of its internal security demands – preventing the spread of extremism into its restive Western regions by ensuring that Afghanistan does not fall into the hands of extremists and terrorists once again. In fact, China and India recognise that they share a mutual desire and need for a stable and safe Afghanistan, and have thrown their support behind an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process.

Passive China, Pro-Active China

The People’s Republic of China describes its relations with Afghanistan as ‘traditionally friendly’ (传统友好). Where their ancient and medieval ties were largely premised on trade, their modern interaction was mediated by colonial powers and their interests. Following their independence, China and Afghanistan took several steps to lay “the foundation for the development of friendly relations”. However, subject to the changing geopolitical demands of time, the nature of their ties oscillated between suspension and resumption.

Following the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001, China supported the creation of the Interim Administration of Afghanistan under the Bonn Agreement and recognised its leadership vested in Hamid Karzai. However, despite the political support it offered to a re-building Afghanistan, its economic contribution remained paltry. This was the case until 2011 when things started to take a different turn. The reason for this was China’s domestic security concerns and the American decision to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.

The terrorist attacks in China’s frontier region of Xinjiang and in other major Chinese cities were attributed to rising extremism, the major cause of which was the seething instability in Afghanistan. China’s interest in Afghanistan’s stability therefore, had more to do with its own security demands than the need to service its external ambitions and bolster its image abroad. It was only later with the drawdown of the international forces in 2014 that this ‘defend-thyself’ approach took a more pro-active shape. The need was to project itself as a responsible power even as it continued to recognise the United States as the ‘leading power’ in Afghanistan.

Consequently, China became an important part of the post-drawdown resolution mechanism, (the now abandoned) Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG). In more recent years, China, along with Pakistan and Russia initiated what soon became the Moscow Format Consultations on Afghanistan. In addition, China has been facilitating discussions between Pakistan and Afghanistan and has formed a trilateral with these two countries to “cooperate on counter-terrorism and coordinate to call on the Taliban to return to the negotiating table and to move ahead (with) the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation process”. It has also used the platform of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to convene discussions around the ‘Afghan question’.

India’s Status Quest

Much like China, India’s ties with Afghanistan harken back to ancient times. In fact, shared mythological ties along with cultural, linguistic and social familiarity have helped to cement their relationship. However, interactions between the two countries have had their share of ups and downs. India’s post-Taliban engagement with Afghanistan has been praised for its economic and social success even as its presence in the country has been met with regional and global resistance.

Spread over four critical domains that include providing assistance, development of infrastructural projects, capacity-building initiatives, and strategic partnership, the role that India has assumed in Afghanistan ever since the toppling of the Taliban regime has been that of a facilitator. India’s ‘development assistance’ as it is called is geared towards strengthening the Afghan state’s capacity to deliver basic goods and services to the people and maintain the rule of law. Valued at USD 3 billion, India’s aid to Afghanistan makes it the largest donor in South Asia and the fifth largest on the global tally.

India’s contributions to Afghanistan have nevertheless, only belatedly been acknowledged. In the face of regional pressure and international reluctance, Indian concerns were dismissed and ignored for much of the first decade of Afghanistan’s re-construction. In fact, in Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s initial five-circle foreign policy, India had been relegated to the outermost ring - an almost inconsequential orbit of the least important countries. Nevertheless, India placed its bet on strategic patience and continued to persist in Afghanistan.

India’s persistence in Afghanistan can be explained using the lens of status. As noted by Indian scholar Harsh V. Pant, Afghanistan was seen as a “test case” by India where its persisting presence was a way of signaling that it had arrived internationally. Backed by economic clout, credible democratic success and a track-record at managing cultural diversity, India’s geopolitical self-image convinced it to maintain an active and deep involvement in Afghanistan. Moreover, the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US had vindicated India’s stance on terrorism which, before this ‘watershed event’ was never treated as a quasi-global threat. America’s march into Afghanistan to eliminate terrorism was seen by India as an opportunity to focus attention on terrorism in South Asia and advance its credentials as an important and credible partner in Afghanistan. Its presence in Afghanistan thus, became an occasion for India to not only demonstrate that it was right but also to prove that it could manage its strategic backyard well.

As a Pressure Whistle?

Invested in the same geopolitical space, China and India understand that they stand to benefit from a stable Afghanistan in material and strategic ways. What makes their cooperation possible is an assessment of their needs, which while different, do not necessarily put them on a collision course. In fact, their cooperation in Afghanistan could be seen as an attempt to let off some steam in their otherwise volatile relationship. Afghanistan thus, emerges as an arena where they can pursue mutual engagement as a means of tempering their rivalry which has been raging elsewhere in South Asia and beyond.

Furthermore, unlike the US-driven models of intervention, China and India’s repeated stress on an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned (and Afghan-controlled) peace process has allowed them to follow a hands-off approach, at least formally. Not at the forefront of the war, both these countries have managed to stave off popular and political resentment and opposition in Afghanistan. Neither indifferent nor predatory, China and India are invested in Afghanistan in various capacities that, if anything, are not averse to each other. While the details of their cooperation are yet to be worked out, they have decided to train Afghan diplomats for starters. It will not be surprising if China and India do not extend their emerging camaraderie to strategic and political areas given their quite different relationships with the other major outside power, Pakistan. However, they do not seem averse to each other either. Overall, Afghanistan could prove to be an instructive case of rising powers and regional rivals letting off strategic steam and avoiding conflict?

Chayanika Saxena is a President Graduate Fellow and PhD candidate at the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore. Her doctoral thesis looks at the interaction between spaces and political subjectivities of the Afghan diaspora in India. She has more than six years of research experience on Afghanistan and has published and presented on related matters nationally and internationally. She maintains linguistic proficiency in Hindi, Urdu, English and has working knowledge of Farsi.

The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy or the National University of Singapore.

News Reports

Bilateral relations

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman visits forward base at Indo-China border
The New Indian Express, January 18

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Friday (January 18) visited the forward areas along India-China Border in Dibang Valley of Arunachal Pradesh located at a height of 5,300 feet.

To counter China’s military buildup, India orders moving of strategic ITBP command to Leh
The Times of India, January 17

Amid growing concerns over the Chinese military buildup along the eastern flank of the country, the government has ordered mov ing a strategic ITBP command from its current base in Chandigarh by over 960km to the border of Leh in Jammu and Kashmir official sources said on Thursday (January 17)

India bolsters defence on border with China by building 44 new roads
South China Morning Post, January 17

The Indian government will construct 44 strategic roads along the border with China and over 2100 km of axial and lateral roads in Punjab and Rajasthan, abutting Pakistan, a document from the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) has shown.

News Reports

China and India in the Region

Vietnam frustrated by slow pace of talks on South China Sea code of conduct
South China Morning Post, January 17

Foreign Minister Pham Bình Minh says Southeast Asian countries are trying to strike a balance between competing US and Chinese interests in disputed waters. Hanoi and Beijing both claim areas of South China Sea but Vietnam insists it wants to avoid conflict.

China among top five bilateral donors to Nepal: Nepali finance ministry
Xinhua, January 17

China is among top five bilateral donors in disbursing highest amount of foreign aid to Nepal in the last fiscal year 2017-18 that concluded in mid-July 2018, Nepal's Finance Ministry said on Wednesday (January 16).

Sri Lanka to receive $1 billion Bank of China loan this quarter
Reuters, January 17

Sri Lanka will receive a loan of $1 billion from Bank of China before the end of the January-March quarter, the chief of the central bank said on Thursday (January 17), to help the country meet repayments in the coming months.

China expanding access to foreign ports: Pentagon
The Times of India, January 16

China is expanding its access to strategic foreign ports like Pakistan’s Gwadar and Sri Lanka’s Hambantota to pre-position the logistic framework necessary to support the growing presence of its military in the Indian Ocean and beyond, the Pentagon said.

China cautions countries against helping Taiwan to produce submarines
The Times of India, January 14

Six foreign companies, including one from India, have submitted design proposals for producing submarines for Taiwan. Beijing said countries which have relations with China should earnestly abide by the one-China principle.

"Good To Have Ties With India, China, Russia And Japan": Donald Trump
NDTV, January 14

US President Donald Trump on Monday (January 14) said it's good to have relationship with countries like Russia, China, Japan and India as he expressed hope to reach a trade deal with Beijing.

Pakistan asks China to remove power project under CPEC
The Times of India, January 14

The multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has received a setback after the Imran Khan government formally asked China to remove one of its major power project from the agreement.

Attack on Chinese consulate in Karachi ‘planned in Afghanistan, aided by Indian spy agency
South China Morning Post, January 12

Police in Pakistan alleged that a deadly attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi last year was planned in Afghanistan with the support of India’s spy agency – a claim India has denied.

News Reports

Trade and Economy

US accuses India and China of eating into poorer nations' relief
The Economic Times, January 21

The US has accused India, China and other emerging economies of claiming rights and using exemptions from commitments meant for poorer nations in global trade negotiations.

China's economy grew 6.6% in 2018, slowest rate in 28 years
Channel News Asia, January 21

China's economy grew at its slowest rate in almost three decades in 2018 and lost more steam in the last quarter of the year, official data showed on Monday (January 21), amid a debt battle and a United States (US) trade war.

China to remain top market for Asia-Pacific economies: think tank
CGTN, January 16

Despite a recent decline, China will remain the prime destination for Asia-Pacific (APAC) exports for several years to come, Oxford Economics said on Tuesday (January 15).

Samsung to launch India-first smartphones to counter Chinese rivals
Channel News Asia, January 14

Samsung plans to launch a budget smartphone series in India ahead of a global release, aiming to regain ground ceded to Chinese rivals such as Xiaomi in the world's second-biggest mobile phone market.

Chinese commerce minister vows continued efforts to attract foreign investment
Xinhua, January 12

China will continue its efforts to widen market access for foreign investment and build a better business environment, Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan has said.

China talks pharma with India, but buys cheap drugs from other countries
Hindustan Times, January 11

China has imported dozens of new drugs including cancer medicines for government hospitals while it engages New Delhi in long-drawn negotiations to allow Indian pharmaceuticals access to the country.

World’s largest economy in 2030 will be China, followed by India, with US dropping to third, forecasts say
Newsweek, January 10

Standard Chartered has predicted China will overtake America as the world’s largest economy in 10 years, Fox Business reported. Within the same period of time the size of India’s economy will also have surpassed the U.S., as it takes up second place.

Govt launches initiative to bring Indian, Chinese IT firms closer on single platform
The Economic Times, January 10

An initiative to bring Indian IT companies and Chinese enterprises closer on a single artificial intelligence-enabled platform - SIDCOP - was launched Thursday (January 10), the commerce ministry said.

News Reports

Energy and Environment

India nowhere less than China in arena of space: ISRO
The Economic Times, January 18

India is nowhere less than China in the arena of space, and after the success of human space mission project 'Gaganyaan', it will be equal to its neighbour in all aspects related to the field, ISRO Chairman K Sivan said Friday (January 18).

China installed 18 percent less solar power capacity in 2018
Reuters, January 17

China put just over 43 gigawatts (GW) of new solar generation capacity into operation in 2018, down 18 percent from a year earlier, an industry group said on Thursday (January 17).

First U.S. crude cargoes head to China since trade breakthrough: sources
Reuters, January 15

The shipments mark a change since Chinese buyers largely began avoiding U.S. oil during the trade dispute that flared last summer.

India seeks China's help to power electric vehicle market
CGTN, January 15

In a bid to curb vehicular emissions choking leading Indian cities and reduce soaring oil bill, policymakers expressed their interest to collaborate with China to boost the nascent electric vehicle (EV) market.

India's electric vehicle goals being realized on two wheels, not four
Channel News Asia, January 14

Electric scooters make up a small but fast-growing portion of India’s scooters and motorcycles market. In fiscal 2017-18, sales more than doubled to 54,800 from a year ago while electric car sales fell to 1,200 from 2,000 over the same period.

OPEC secretary general worried about trade war effect on China and India, oil demand’s ‘bright spots’
CNBC, January 13

India’s booming growth is set to see it overtake China as the country with the world’s largest demand for oil by 2024, according to a recent report by energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie. But if a trade war severely hit China’s growth, it would send shockwaves through the rest of Asia and threaten crucial sources of income for OPEC’s producers.


China’s Debt-Trap: Chance for India to Step Up Its Game?
The Quint, January 19

By Manoj Joshi, Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is reeling under a slew of criticism around the world. No doubt some of this is geopolitical envy, but some of it should have Beijing rethinking its grand global scheme. But whether or not it presents opportunities for India, is another matter.

As China Fights For Huawei, Should India Be Wary of Its 5G Entry?
The Quint, January 17

By Nitin Pai, Director of the Takshashila Institution

It may be heavy handed, but surely protecting one of its citizens against perceived injustice in a foreign country is a legitimate goal. Besides, beating up a soft Western country like Canada warns governments around the world not to mess with Chinese business leaders.

India-Pakistan row thwarts regional cooperation
Global Times, January 17

By Long Xingchun, Senior Visiting Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Not long ago, Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs once again invited Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend the 19th summit of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj responded that India will not be present unless Pakistan stops its terrorist activities against India.

The Indian Ocean Region May Soon Play a Lead Role in World Affairs
The Wire, January 16

By Craig Jeffrey, Director and CEO of the Australia India Institute; Professor of Development Geography, University of Melbourne

Around 80% of the world's maritime oil trade passes through the Indian Ocean. And the economic and political might of the region is growing.

Free trade pacts will drive economic growth
China Daily, January 16

By Ren Xiao, Professor and Director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Foreign Policy, Fudan University

Despite the rising trend of protectionism and unilateralism in 2018, China has supported and participated in various free trade agreements in East Asia.

Governments criticise China yet sign deals with them still
The Interpreter, January 14

By Roshni Kapur, Research Analyst, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore

There is growing anxiety about the increased Chinese footprint in South Asia and Africa within the strategic community in the West and India. Chinese projects have raised concerns about the lack of transparency, sustainable development, and being politically motivated. This has led to pushback against the Asian giant.

For India and China, uncertainty is the only thing about 2019
South China Morning Post, January 11

By Ananth Krishnan, Visiting fellow, Brookings India

Last year saw the two countries repair their relations after the deep freeze caused by the 2017 Doklam stand-off. But while they are growing closer, it is increasingly obvious they have different priorities – particularly where the US is concerned.

Books and Journals

China's Strategic Multilateralism: Investing in Global Governance

Cambridge University Press, October 2018

By Scott L. Kastner, Professor in the Department of Government and Politics, University of Maryland, College Park; Margaret M. Pearson, Dr. Horace E. and Wilma V. Harrison Distinguished Professor, and Distinguished Scholar-Teacher in the Department of Government and Politics, University of Maryland, College Park; and Chad Rector, Associate Professor, Marymount University, Virginia

China sometimes plays a leadership role in addressing global challenges, but at other times it free rides or even spoils efforts at cooperation. When will rising powers like China help to build and maintain international regimes that sustain cooperation on important issues, and when will they play less constructive roles? This study argues that the strategic setting of a particular issue area has a strong influence on whether and how a rising power will contribute to global governance. Two strategic variables are especially important: the balance of outside options the rising power and established powers face, and whether contributions by the rising power are viewed as indispensable to regime success. Case studies of China's approach to security in Central Asia, nuclear proliferation, global financial governance, and climate change illustrate the logic of the theory, which has implications for contemporary issues such as China's growing role in development finance.


Compiled and sent to you by Centre on Asia and Globalisation and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

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