Afghan Arena: Exit America, Enter China

The first round of the forum saw China announce some major commitments to promote regional cooperation.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published: February 18, 2015 11:28 am

 

Soldiers from the U.S. Army's Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment go on patrol near Command Outpost AJK (short for Azim-Jan-Kariz, a near-by village) in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. (Source: Reuters) Soldiers from the U.S. Army’s Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment go on patrol near Command Outpost AJK (short for Azim-Jan-Kariz, a near-by village) in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. (Source: Reuters)

As America reduces its military burden in Afghanistan, China’s deepening involvement there was marked by the launch of a new official forum in Kabul last week. Called the ‘China-Pakistan-Afghanistan Strategic Dialogue’, the triangular engagement is likely to emerge as a major force shaping India’s north western frontiers.

The trilateral consultations were initiated by Beijing at a low-key track two level a couple of years ago. Beijing has now elevated it into an official framework. China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Jianchao, Afghanistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai and Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry of Pakistan co-chaired the Dialogue.

The first round of the forum saw China announce some major commitments to promote regional cooperation. Beijing is now ready to finance a 1500 MW hydro-electric power project in the Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan. To be managed jointly by Pakistan and Afghanistan and the project will feed into the power grids of both countries.

China has signaled the intent to promote two important trans-border transport corridors—a motorway linking Kabul with Peshawar and a rail link between Quetta and Kandahar. These infrastructure projects nicely complement China’s ambitious Silk Road projects in inner Asia and its massive investments in developing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

China’s audacious effort to integrate the economic spaces of Afghanistan and Pakistan follows Beijing’s recent initiative to facilitate political reconciliation between the Afghan government in Kabul and the Taliban. While the Taliban has not explicitly supported the Chinese led peace process, its delegations have been travelling frequently to Beijing.

Over the last decade, the United States had tried hard on both these fronts—internal reconciliation in Afghanistan and greater cooperation between Kabul and Islamabad. Sceptics will say China is unlikely to succeed where America and the West have failed despite pumping in massive military and economic resources. They would suggest that China like so many great powers before—including America, Russia and the British Raj—will find it near impossible to manage deep contradictions that govern strategic life across the Hindu Kush.

Since the late 1970s when it embarked on reform and opening up, China been wary of being drawn into regional conflicts any where in the world being drawn into regional conflicts any where in the world and emphasized the principle of non-intervention.

China under Xi Jinping looks far more self-confident today and is prepared to take risks in the pursuit of its interests around. If Deng Xiaoping cautioned China against claiming a leadership role in the world a quarter century ago, Xi seems ready to take a calculated political shot at it.

“As the common friend and neighbor of Afghanistan and Pakistan”, China said last week in Kabul that it “sincerely welcomes the positive progress” in the trilateral dialogue and “welcomes Afghanistan and Pakistan to increase mutual strategic trust as well as enhance mutually beneficial cooperation.”

The three sides also reaffirmed that “terrorism, extremism and separatism pose a major threat to the security and stability” of the region and agreed to “deepen counter-terrorism and security cooperation.”

One reason why China might succeed where others have failed in Afghanistan is the apparent convergence of its interests with that of Pakistan, its all-weather friend. If Rawalpindi had deliberately sabotaged American plans in Afghanistan, the Pakistan Army believes China might help it achieve its long standing objective of securing political primacy across the Durand Line. As it comes to terms with American withdrawal, Kabul is betting that Beijing offers the last and only hope of getting the Pakistan Army to be reasonable.

Russia, which has drawn steadily closer to China in recent years and is warming up to Pakistan, is likely to back Beijing’s leadership role in Afghanistan. The U.S., which is rushing to the exits, is happy to welcome China or any one else, who is ready to hold the even for a little while.

All this leaves India staring, in the near term, at a potential diminution of its role in Afghanistan that flourished when the U.S. dominated India’s north western flank since 911. Delhi now needs a realistic adaptation to the unfolding power shift in the Great Game.

(The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for The Indian Express)

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  1. G
    gulshan
    Feb 18, 2015 at 6:38 pm
    with China , stan,Afghanistan strategic alliance getting activated across du line after US rushes out to exit , India is certainly diminished in strategic terms But India retains the goodwill that stan and china at present are striving for. India should build on that goodwill for Afghan people through declared policy of peace and progress for Afghanistan without appearing to create strategic influence . This investment in goodwill now shall pave the way for future healthy relationship between two countries. Like China biding its time when Russia and US were in the reigon , India shall watch and wait with pragmatism to formulate future policy
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    1. A
      Avinash
      Mar 3, 2015 at 3:37 pm
      China is trying to dwarf humanitarian role pla by Indian government in the war torn country by pouring vast amount of money but we should expect from Abdullah Abdullah the other presidential candidate backed by India, is also a part of current Afghan government.
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        Avinash
        Mar 3, 2015 at 3:31 pm
        I think India will revisit Afgan policy because new president Ashraf ghani is not facilitating India in the way Karjai did. Even Ghani refused to accept $1bn loan at low interest few days back and Pak army chief concluded a successful kabul visit recently.
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          Diva
          Feb 18, 2015 at 5:33 pm
          India should be happy to take a back seat so long ISI/Pak Army stops using Afghanistan as its backyard for terrorists that gives stan deniability.China can take care of that.A hands off aprroach will help India in long run in Afghanistan. We help when asked!
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          1. S
            Sanket Sudke
            Feb 18, 2015 at 4:14 pm
            Very good and detailed article.
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