Sino-Indian Scabbard Over Afghanistan


Assertive China wants to wind its way to Kabul by extending CPEC project to Afghanistan, but its wish may find heavy road blocks from India and America

By Mridu Kumari

While giving wings to its ambition in the South Asian region, China recently invited foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan to discuss the possibility of extending the presently suspended China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan. By roping in Afghanistan in the project, a part of its Belt and Road initiative, China wants to challenge India’s position in Afghanistan, which recently received several quintals of wheat shipped by New Delhi through Iran’s Chabahar port.

India is developing two births of Chabahar port and of them, one has been inaugurated, yet it will take a few more weeks to become fully operational. In the second week of January, this year, India’s Minister of Shipping, Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari held bilateral talks with Dr Abbas Akhoundi, Iranian Minister of Roads and Urban Development in New Delhi and they sorted out whatever protocol related problems were there between the two sides. With its operationalization, the port, while becoming growth engine for India, would open up an alternative route to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Russia. That means, by the time OBOR becomes operational, India’s growth story through Chabahar port would have taken Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asian countries and Russia in its octopus grip.

In fact, on the one hand, Chabahar will be connected to International North-South Transport Corridor, a ship, road and rail connectivity project which is backed by India, Iran and Russia, on the other hand, it will be linked with Afghanistan through Chabahar-Zahedan-Hajigak railway line that will be built by India’s Ircon International.  Hajigak is the mineral–rich region of Afghanistan where seven Indian companies, including the country’s public sector steel giant SAIL have acquired mine. China has also acquired cooper mine in Mes Aynak and iron ore mine in the Hajigak region. Neither India nor China is able to extract mines from Afghanistan because of the prevailing security situation. But China which shares close border with Afghanistan wants to increase its influence in the land locked nation for economic and strategic reason. It wants peace to prevail there. To this extent, it has no hesitation in backing Taliban for peace talks with Kabul and this is where it stands opposed to the Ashraf Ghani government. Afghanistan under him has a clear position on peace talk issue. It says before starting negotiations, Taliban will have to pledge that they will abide by the country’s Constitution, rule of law and democracy.

Yet the foremost road block in China’s way to increase its influence in Afghanistan is continued hostility between India and Pakistan. Even though Afghanistan has in principle agreed to be part of China-led OBOR initiative, it would not see light of the day because America which has invested blood, money and years in freeing the land locked nation of terrorism, is not amenable to China on the issue of OBOR, which Beijing wants to link with on-going China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. It should be noted that China wants to connect Gawadar port lying in Pakistan’s Balochistan region with Afghanistan and from there to Central Asia. At the time when US President Donald Trump’s South Asia policy has further deteriorated relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, it would be a difficult task for China to work out a way to win Kabul in its favour. Afghanistan sees Pakistan as a major hurdle in the way of peace and stability in the country. It says that Pakistan patronizes not only Haqqani network, but also two dozen other terrorist groups of the region. Yet China is confident that it will cross the bridge when the time will come. It feels that besides, providing Kabul and Islamabad an opportunity to improve ties, CPEC will help Afghanistan reduce its dependence on foreign aid. Through connectivity, China is keen to increase its economic leverage in Afghanistan; it has also bilateral and trilateral mechanism to improve peace situation in the country. China-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral talks and China-Russia-Afghanistan-Pakistan dialogue–are two-major mechanism for peace in the land locked nation. In the past years, China has also held bilateral talks on Afghanistan with India and Pakistan.

While these moves are aimed at leveraging its political influence over the insurgency-hit country, China has also included most of Afghanistan’s neighbours and nearby countries in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in order to coordinate policies towards Afghanistan. In this background, December 26 incident in Beijing where Afghanistan’s foreign minister, Salahuddin Rabbani remark that China is “a forever and reliable partner of Afghanistan,” rattled the US initially, but would the Trump administration allow China to get a major chuck of the pie for which American forces have been fighting since 2001 is a million dollar question. Nonetheless, Afghanistan has turned into playground for international players, where each one is trying to woo the land locked nation more for strategic region than other purposes. In its own characteristic style, China is actively engaged in the country.

The US needs to recognize that Afghanistan has almost reached its tipping point. With parliamentary polls there just around the corner and China pumping in money, time and energy in the insurgency hit nation. While the Trump administration needs to come to terms with the fast-changing geopolitical realities in Afghanistan, India will have to understand that China is going to throw more challenges in the region; it has surplus money and ability to give speed to its political and economic activities in the region in days to come. India should let the brains do the talking. Being open about what Delhi will do or intends to do in the future would not help. It is important to be diplomatic. It should learn the art of subduing the enemy from within and with ease.