Strategic contest in Afghanistan

As China’s involvement in Afghanistan amplifies in leaps and bounds, the subcontinent continues to drown in greater strategic ambiguity. In the recently launched Asian Competitiveness Annual Report 2018, China has stated its intention of extending the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) to Afghanistan. There was also a noticeable stress at the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) this year on extending China’s reach further in Afghanistan. The BFA was initially founded in 2001 on the lines of the World Economic Forum in Davos. In a meeting with his Pakistan and Afghan counterparts, Foreign Minister Wang Yi offered to extend the CPEC to Afghanistan. The state-run Xinhua news agency reported “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project under the Belt and Road Initiative, has not only improved local infrastructure but also is extending toward Afghanistan, reducing poverty, the hotbed of terrorism, and bringing better prospects for local people’s lives”. India, on the contrary, has voiced strong opposition to CPEC citing infringement of its sovereignty, as it is built through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). To this end, Gautam Bambawale, Indian Ambassador to China, reiterated that development projects need to stand on the premise of transparency, fairness and equality.

Earlier, there were reports revealing interactions between the Chinese and Afghan officials on the construction of a base in the Wakhan corridor, a mountainous strip on the edge of Afghanistan. On account of the rising threat of terrorism from the border areas of Afghanistan, Chinese authorities have ramped up their operation in the war-torn country. The three giants in Afghanistan, US, India and China, have stepped up their efforts to expand their strategic presence in the region. The Trump administration has taken a bold stance vis-a-vis conflict resolution in Afghanistan.

From initially announcing his intention to reduce forces on ground in Afghanistan, Trump has now rather heightened US involvement there. In this scenario, peace-building has been construed as a means to not just ensure elevated status for any foreign power that helps in the task but also gain greater legitimacy for it at both regional and global levels. This is what China seeks to gain from expanding CPEC to Afghanistan.

On a similar note, India has made consistent efforts to contribute to the state-building efforts of the Afghan government. The Trump administration has also hailed India’s role in Afghanistan’s development. China’s approach, on the other hand, has been to use the Afghan card to build its image not just in the region but also globally. Secondly, Beijing has approached the Afghan conflict through the lens of Pakistan, ensuring that Islamabad’s concern in the region is catered to.

Though the Xi Jinping administration has called out to India and the US to collaborate on a positive note, ensuring state-building in Afghanistan, its intentions have always been inclined towards its ‘all-weather’ friend Pakistan. This was revealed in the Nuclear Suppliers Group as well, and at other global forums where China has always had Pakistan’s back.

Recently, China hailed the visit of Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to Afghanistan, terming it as an ‘important step’ towards ensuring that the two countries engage proactively. In this context, it won’t be wrong therefore to construe that China intends to expand its strategic presence in Pakistan and Afghanistan through CPEC. On the pretext of enhancing regional connectivity, China has extensively promoted its grand plan of CPEC, which has been strongly opposed by India.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has further stated that “China and Pakistan are willing to look at Afghanistan on the basis of win-win, mutually beneficial principles, using an appropriate means to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan”.

In this scenario, tackling China’s policy in Afghanistan comes as a major concern for India. While ensuring its strategic presence, complemented with a global foreign policy vision, India also has the responsibility to take proactive steps in Afghanistan. As Islamabad continues its interference in the war-torn region, Delhi’s concern in Kabul heightens further.

Ensuring its policy is in line with its strategic vision of maintaining its status as a ‘responsible and democratic’ actor without acquiring the characteristics of a ‘big brother’ is the need of the hour. As the Modi government in India is mired in strategic inconsistencies in its foreign policy thinking, the public perception of the government has taken a hit. Delhi faces the dual challenge of maintaining stable ground at home while ensuring a dynamic foreign policy in the regional sphere as the country heads into general election next year.

Alongside, it is of immense significance for the big hegemons – US, China and India — to ensure consistency in their stances when it comes to peace building in the region, especially in Afghanistan. Though many a times China and India have vowed to join hands against a common enemy, such vows have mostly remained on paper, hardly materialising on the ground.

(The writer is a researcher at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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