Enter the dragon

CHINA IN AFGHANISTAN : Along with Pakistan, China continuously seeks to limit the ever-increasing Indian stakes in Kabul by keeping it out of Afghan d
Last Updated 12 August 2016, 18:06 IST
There are two contradictory strains that tug at the Sino-Afghan dynamics. The first is the need to control and avoid the spillover of radical Islamic groups into the restive Chinese province of Xinjiang (which has the Chinese Uighur Muslim population). The second is to counterbalance the growing geostrategic imbalance, along with China’s “all weather” friend, Pakistan. Islamabad is seen as the principal supporter of the Afghan Taliban.

However, staying out of the Afghan theatre is not an option for the Chinese, given the solidification of the alternative Western-Indian-Iranian axis, interest within the Afghan government in Kabul and the ultra-radicalisation of militancy in Afghanistan which includes the China-centric East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). The ETIM has been designated as a terror organisation by the United States and the United Nations.

The 76-km Sino-Afghan border harbours the famous “Wakhan Corridor” that was the creation of the Great Game in the 19th century between the imperial powers in Russia, Britain and Afghan-istan. Earlier requests by the Afghan authorities to the Chinese to open the corridor to facilitate an alternative supply route for the Afghan-NATO forces expectedly fell on deaf ears given the Chinese animosity to Western interests and concerns on its own sovereignty.

A violent flare-up in the near proximity of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) on the Pakistan-Afghan border is reflective of the Chinese concern to safeguard the multidimensional Corridor with stable relationships in the regi-on. This, given the backdrop of the mammoth Chinese investments in the $49 billion CPEC initiative. The CPEC dangerously skirts the Afghan territories.

As it is, Pakistan is seen as an unnecessarily meddling and irascible neighbour that cannot be trusted in Kabul. Hence, the urgency for the Chinese to cool the tempers and arrest the geostrategic and geopolitical slide against the Pakistanis, and by its strategic default extension, against Chinese irrelevance, too. The recent signing of the tripartite agreement between Tehran, New Delhi and Kabul on using the Chabahar port in Iran as a transit hub is seen as a strategic counter to the Sino-Pakistani interests in the Gwadar port which links the CPEC up to the Chinese hinterland.

Last year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, US Secretary of State John Kerry and CEO of Afghanistan Abdullah Abdullah met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. This paved the way for the quadrilateral format and talks on the Afghan Peace Plans, with Pakistan in tow. However, Pakistan’s subsequent inability or deliberate undoing of not getting the Afghan Taliban to the negotiation table upset the Chinese applecart, leaving Beijing to undo the damage done by the Pakistani intransigence and perennial hostility towards the government in Kabul.

In parallel, China, too, had been courting the Taliban covertly by hosting their representatives for many years. Even last month, the Chinese were supposed to have met Abbas Stanakzai, head of Taliban’s Qatar-based office, who discussed their “occupation” by the US-backed Afghan government forces. This is to enable them maintain a toehold of Chinese influence, relevance and equation within the Afghan Taliban and to have a say in the regional confabulations.

Duplicity of action

The Chinese have been understandably discreet about their parleys with the Taliban while in parallel suggesting to the Afghan government about its willingness to “deepen counter-terrorism intelligence, joint drills, personnel training and other areas of practical cooperation.” This was in tandem with its famed “chequebook” diplomacy in the region, where the Chinese offered substantial commercial investments to aid the rebuilding of Afghanistan.

The duplicity of the Chinese action is typical realpolitik where the need to ass-ert Chinese relevance in the region drives it to engage and entertain the Taliban. This is to the consternation of the government in Kabul while simultaneously offering the economic-military carrots to a cash-strapped Afghan government.

This is in return for strategic influence and understanding to protect its own infrastructural investments and interests like the CPEC and to ensure the reigning-in of the ETIM elements within Afg-han soil itself. Domestic issues like cont-aining the Uighur militancy posits its own actions against itself while pandering to the Afghan Taliban simultaneously.

Along with Pakistan, China continuously seeks to limit the ever-increasing Indian interests and stakes in Kabul by successfully keeping India out of the Afghan discussions, whenever it can, like it did during the quadrilateral talks. Now, given the recent flare up and military muscle-flexing in the South China Sea, and with the unfavourable decision by the International Court of Arbitration against the Chinese interests, the criticality of an alternative trade, commerce and energy corridor for the Chinese survival becomes even more so. The stakes for CPEC rise significantly and will draw in the Chinese even more prominently into the Afghan theatre.

Recently, Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan met head of the Afghan Army Chief Qadam Shah  Shaheem and alluded to the delicate duality of the Chinese concerns by acknowledging the Afghan government’s “valuable support in combating the East Turkestan Islamic Movement terrorist forces and on issues related to China’s core interests.”

He then expanded the scope to encompass a more holistic security dimension by stating, “I hope the two militaries can continually enrich the shape and content of cooperation and make greater contributions to safeguarding both countries' security and creating a favourable environment for joint development.”

The Chinese are past masters in strategic realpolitik, and balancing their hegemonic instincts and aspirations necessitates the willy-nilly entry into the Afghan scene to protect their own interests and ambitions. In doing so, their moves would typically run inimical to the Indian interests, as the ground situation is playing out currently. The Chinese are aware of the vulnerabilities, sensitivities, limitations and the new strategic equations in the region and therefore, the Chinese footprint and interests will surely see an escalation in the days to come.

(Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Puducherry)
(Published 12 August 2016, 18:06 IST)

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