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From Beijing to Kabul

It is time for India and China to make common cause on Afghanistan

Domestic criticism of India’s handling of its foreign policy risks missing the forest for the trees. India’s management of the recent Chinese incursion in Ladakh,the Indian government’s reticence on the impact of the latest Pakistan elections,and a lack of holistic economic diplomacy in Afghanistan,have led some Indian foreign policy analysts to wonder if the Indian government’s infamously understaffed ministry of external affairs is rudderless.

Regardless of the basis for these charges,the visits of Chinese Premier Li and Afghan President Karzai represent a great opening for Indian foreign policy in its neighbourhood,an opportunity not to be missed. On China: not since before the 1962 Sino-Indian war has the potential of the Indo-Chinese relationship been based on so much common interest. On Afghanistan: with the slated 2014 departure of international troops and the recent Af-Pak tensions,India’s relationship with Afghanistan takes on a new urgency and presents fresh opportunities.

The Chinese premier’s decision to make India the destination of his first state visit is an indication of the premium placed by the new Chinese leadership on an enhanced,cooperative relationship with India. Though India and China are economic rivals,it would be a mistake to see India’s and China’s development and security cooperation in countries from the Strait of Hormuz to the South China Sea only through a lens of competition. It is not a zero sum game of investments and counter-investments. The reality is that the Chinese government can outspend India in any country. And India,with at least 300 million people living below its official poverty line and with malnutrition rates worse than those in African countries,cannot afford to offer the scale of investments China can provide to other countries in the region.

Nowhere is the common cause of India and China more apparent than in Afghanistan. With the withdrawal of international troops by 2014 and rapidly dwindling foreign aid allocations,along with weak foreign investment,the security and economic prognosis for Afghanistan is worrisome. India and China,with their respective iron-ore and copper mining contracts,are the largest foreign investors in Afghanistan. The Chinese government’s investments in Afghanistan,which also include a contract to start production of crude oil,have been more commercial in nature. The Indian government’s efforts have been more development-focused,with $2 billion in official commitments to Afghanistan,including the daily provision of vitamin-fortified biscuits to two million schoolchildren.

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While the histories and nature of Indian and Chinese investments in Afghanistan differ,neither country wants to see the return of an Islamic fundamentalist government in Kabul. India has experienced,first hand,the impact of such a fundamentalist government on its domestic security,while China worries about the potential impact on the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement in its western province. The two countries have invested in Afghanistan’s economy — both providing a path away from aid dependency for Afghanistan but also representing a buy-in by these two dominant regional powers into regional peace. This is an opportune time for India to map out how to achieve these common interests with China,not the least because such common cause would also help to ring-fence Pakistani attempts at gaining strategic depth in Afghanistan.

Separately but not unconnected,President Karzai is currently on his 12th visit to India,underscoring the already close relationship between the two countries. Yet Afghanistan wants India to engage more deeply with their country. They want increased development cooperation,further investments in the Afghan economy,and not only training but also military hardware for their armed forces. India has already worked on securing some of these requests. For example,it is investing significant resources in Iran’s Chabahar port and in linking this port through railroad and roads to Afghanistan’s interior in order to have an alternative export route from Afghanistan.

The visits,particularly by the Afghan head of state,so soon after the Pakistani elections,are not coincidental and present a great opportunity for India,China and Afghanistan to more closely align their common interests with actions. President Karzai wants to secure firmer commitments from India to his country. This has become all the more important to Afghanistan after the recent border tensions with Pakistan raised the spectre of the 1990s civil war. China wants to ensure closer economic relations with India and a more coordinated regional policy on Afghanistan in order to safeguard its commercial and security interests.

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Securing peace in Afghanistan beyond 2014 and concomitant domestic security in India will require an Indian foreign policy that is more deeply engaged with both Afghanistan and China. A regional solution,with both major regional powers on board,is the only way to safeguard the tenuous peace in Afghanistan. It is also the only way to encourage economic growth and trade within the region and provide the resources needed to improve the well being of Afghan citizens.

The writer is director of Indian Development Cooperation Research and visiting fellow,Centre for Policy Research

express@expressindia.com

First published on: 22-05-2013 at 03:23:27 am
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