Afghanistan a building block for China-India ties

By Raffaello Pantucci
July 30, 2014

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

The appointment of a former ambassador to Kabul and New Delhi by China to the role of Special Envoy for Afghanistan highlights China’s thinking of what it can do in Afghanistan.

China is not seeking a leadership role in the country, but is rather looking for regional partners to support its efforts. A key partner is being sought in New Delhi where the Narendra Modi administration has welcomed Xi Jinping’s early overtures for a closer broader relationship. The opportunity presents itself that Afghanistan’s two largest Asian neighbours might be on the cusp of closer cooperation to help the nation onto a more stable footing.

It is clear that there are issues with Sino-Indian collaboration on Afghanistan. First among these are differing perceptions on Pakistan and its responsibility and role in Afghanistan’s current predicament. For China, Pakistani security forces are trying to deal with a monster within their country with links across the border. For Indian authorities, it remains a Frankenstein’s monster of Pakistani construction that is, therefore, fundamentally theirs to address. China’s particularly close relationship with Pakistan plays into this divide, raising concerns in New Delhi as well as complicating China’s approaches to Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, all three sides (China, India and Pakistan) seem to have found some way of working through these concerns, as there has been considerable movement and public discussion (including this project the author has been working on) between China and India in particular about their future collaborations in Afghanistan.

All of this highlights how divergent views on Pakistan aside there remains substantial scope for cooperation between the two in Afghanistan. In particular, both sides agree that terrorism in Afghanistan is a problem that needs to be addressed and a part of this is through the strengthening of Afghanistan’s security forces. Neither power is going to send forces, but there does seem to be the possibility of some agreement to increase their security training contribution. While this has to be managed carefully, it is clear that there is a need to do something to support the Afghan National Security Forces post-2014, and in particular with the more than 100,000 men under arms who will become unemployed in line with the Chicago declarations of shrinking the ANSF from 350,000 to around 228,500.

One idea would be that China and India step in to find a way to support the transformation of some of these men into a ‘mineral protection corps’ or some other paramilitary role that means they will continue to retain jobs rather than becoming unemployed men with arms and military training. This is a logical lead for China and India given it is most likely to be their national firms that are coming in to rebuild Afghanistan and profit from its mineral wealth.

Beyond this, the most obvious strand of cooperation between the two in Afghanistan lies in focusing on developing the country’s economy and building the nation’s technocratic infrastructure. This works through governments ensuring their state-owned firms (those most likely to be investing substantially in Afghanistan’s economy in the future given their higher risk threshold and capacity to make major infrastructure investments adjacent to mineral extraction projects) maintain a certain level of coordination when building infrastructure and that they agree to not go below certain thresholds of corruption when entering into deals within the country.

Given it is state-owned firms that make the most investments in Afghanistan, it is more likely that governments in either country will be able to drive policies forwards in this direction. They can further consolidate this with support to Afghanistan’s bureaucratic future through the creation of a large pool of scholarships at their technical universities for young Afghans. This will have the effect of building a soft link between the nations as well as provide Afghanistan with the needed technocratic capability that will help it build institutions to confidently rebuild the country.

The net result of these efforts is likely to be incremental. Neither China nor India are going to take the lead in Afghanistan having watched the West flounder for the past decade. At the same time, both have an interest in rebuilding Afghanistan and have many of the necessary levers of power to make a difference. The longer-term benefit of this cooperation is a tangible result for the increasingly warming Sino-Indian relationship — something that will only strengthen the hands of both powers in Asian affairs. Afghanistan could become the starting point of a new Asian order, increasingly led by billion-person giants China and India.

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