22 Jan 2019
Topics ChinaIndia

Photo: dvidshub on flickr.com

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?

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.

This article was first published in China-India Brief #130 on
22 January 2019.
Topics ChinaIndia