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Abhimanyu Redhu asked: What is the significance of the growing Chinese engagement with Afghanistan for India, given the fact that China is also an ally of Pakistan?

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  • Vishal Chandra replies: It is precisely due to China’s known proximity to Pakistan that its engagement with Afghanistan is considered as significant. Beijing’s increased diplomatic and political engagement with Kabul should be seen as a welcome development, particularly in terms of strengthening the position of the democratically-elected and UN-recognised national government in Afghanistan. Both India and China enjoy a very stable, robust and a dynamic bilateral relationship with Afghanistan. India was the first country to formally enter into a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan in October 2011, closely followed by China’s Strategic and Cooperative Partnership with Afghanistan in June 2012. It is noteworthy that India and China were the first two regional or neighbouring countries with which Afghanistan entered into long term strategic partnerships, a clear indication of where both the countries figured in Kabul’s strategic calculus, and where exactly it has been looking for critical support in the long-term.

    While India has emerged as the leading ‘development partner’ of the Afghan people having pledged assistance worth $3 billion towards various capacity building and infrastructure development projects including several large, medium and small development projects spread across Afghanistan, China too has emerged as the largest foreign investor having won the Mes Aynak copper mining contract worth $3 billion back in 2007, though the project remains stalled due to various reasons. Last couple of years, both countries have in fact been exploring potential areas of economic cooperation in Afghanistan, which has gained further traction in the backdrop of the first Informal Summit held between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping in Wuhan in April this year and also with India joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a permanent member.

    Interestingly, Kabul has over the years, often with backing from the West, succeeded in engaging Beijing. In fact, since the formation of the National Unity Government and withdrawal of bulk of the Western forces towards the end of 2014, Beijing has cautiously moved to the centre of the Afghan reconciliation process. Last four years, Beijing has very much been a part of President Ashraf Ghani’s sustained effort at fundamentally transforming his country’s traditionally adversarial equation with Pakistan’s powerful military establishment. For Kabul, Beijing’s support is critical to not only revive its economy but also to prevail upon Pakistan’s military establishment to stop sponsoring and arming the Haqqani-Taliban network.

    Beijing’s active involvement in facilitating talks between Afghanistan and Pakistan, as part of a trilateral dialogue process, and earlier between the Afghan Government and the Afghan Taliban, along with Pakistan and the United States, as part of a quadrilateral process, has not yielded any tangible results so far; nevertheless, it is expected to remain engaged due to its continuing security concerns as well as rising economic stakes in the ‘AfPak’ theatre in view of President Xi Jinping’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

    Though Beijing’s approach particularly towards state-sponsored militant extremism and terrorism has been as discriminatory and selective as that of its ‘all weather friend’ Pakistan, it has at the same time been positioning itself for a larger role in the ‘ÁfPak’ theatre. While China and Pakistan’s interests continue to converge on the economic corridor connecting Kashgar with Gwadar Port, same may not entirely be the case when it comes to Afghanistan, the 'Heart of Asia'.

    For further analysis, please refer to my following IDSA publications:

    “Beijing: Kabul’s ‘Reliable’ Strategic Partner”, in Jagannath P. Panda (ed.), China’s Transition Under Xi Jinping, Chapter 21, IDSA China Year Book 2015, Pentagon Press, New Delhi, pp. 314-336.

    “The ‘Other’ Key Neighbours – Iran, India, China and Russia”, in Vishal Chandra, The Unfinished War in Afghanistan: 2001-2014, Chapter VII, Pentagon Press, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 182-287.

    Posted on June 22, 2018