Lt General (Retd) R K Sawhney, Distinguished Fellow, VIF
Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow, RUSI
As NATO and Western powers begin to take a backseat in Afghanistan’s future, one of the most pressing questions is what role the region can play in helping Afghanistan to become a prosperous and stable nation. Numerous efforts are already underway through multilateral and bilateral forums, yet the key to regional cooperation for Afghanistan’s future lies through closer interaction between Beijing and New Delhi. Drawing on a research project spanning a number of workshops in Beijing, New Delhi and Qatar and involving influential thinkers and experts from China, India, the UK and Afghanistan, this paper will try to map out specific ideas that policymakers in Beijing and New Delhi can explore as avenues of cooperation. Post-2014 Afghanistan will remain a major regional concern for at least the short to medium term. The earlier China and India can develop workable collaborative undertakings, the sooner they can forge a stable and prosperous neighbourhood.
Heralding 2014 as the ‘Year of China-India Friendly Exchanges,’ Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi declared, ‘Since the beginning of the 21st century, China and India have both embarked on a modernization drive and become the world’s most dynamic emerging markets.’ This declaration was followed by the visit to China of Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh who, in the middle of election season, visited Beijing as part of a blossoming strategic dialogue between the two countries. While longstanding tensions over a disputed border and differing relationships of both countries towards Pakistan continue to act as irritants to bilateral relationship, the past year has seen some notable diplomatic successes that both sides seem eager to carry over into the new Modi administration.
Both sides have made progress on the border dispute through the creation of a code of conduct – the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement – that promises regularised dialogue between special representatives from both sides. An agreement was also signed to renew and even enhance their hydrological information sharing, which, while going nowhere to address the deeper concern over China’s damming of the Yarlung Zangpo or Brahmaputra (as it is known in India), at least allowed authorities on both sides to claim they are talking about the problem. Progress has also been made through a regularised counter-terrorism dialogue, which now allows Special Forces from both sides to conduct regular joint-exercises. In April, a visit to India by a senior PLA delegation headed by Deputy Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Qi Jianguo also paved the way for closer military-to-military ties that have been in deep freeze during recent years. The trend in the Sino-Indian relationship, despite the occasional hiccups, is towards closer coordination on a wide spectrum of issues. And while the election season in India placed something of a hiatus on any major initiatives between Beijing and New Delhi, both sides agree that there exists a potential for a better relationship between the two Asian powers. Commenting to media persons prior to going into meetings with his visiting Indian counterpart, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin stated ‘we are confident that promoting the China-India friendship is a shared consensus of all political parties in India.’1
Coming to the present, the Chinese government have extended their greetings and best wishes to the new Indian Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi on his resounding victory in the just concluded elections. Vice Minister Liu pointed out that Modi was ‘not an unknown quantity’ to China.2 The new Chinese administration under Xi Jinping has placed a particular premium on its border relationships and there has been a clear signal in the past few years that China is increasingly focused on what Professor Wang Jisi has termed the ‘March Westward.’3 Both powers have increasingly looked to their common Central Asian backyard as an area in which they see possible trade links, as well as a region in which security concerns might emanate from.
There is a perceptible convergence of interests of both countries in Afghanistan where both Asian giants have invested a great deal and are increasingly seeking to find ways of cooperating together. So far, this cooperation has remained at a largely rhetorical level, but as NATO and western interest draws down, the two Asian powers will increasingly find themselves in a position to help steer Afghanistan into a more prosperous and stable future. This task may not be as daunting as it seems. On quite a few issues, there is a sufficient amount of unanimity on Afghanistan between China and India. Both countries agree that the rehabilitation of Afghanistan should be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led”4; and there is a strong convergence on the importance of investment and economic development. Even cooperation on Afghanistan’s security, where the picture is obscured by the differing attitudes that both countries hold towards Pakistan and its militant proxies, Delhi and Beijing see eye-to-eye on a number of fundamental issues. Both confront a similar domestic threat from terrorism and extremism and worry about overspill from Afghanistan, yet neither country sees the answer to this problem in sending troops. Cooperation between China and India, therefore, is best structured using a three-pillar approach: security, economics and politics, with a fourth pillar of regional cooperation playing a supporting role that feeds all three main pillars. Taken together, these three aspects offer a stable platform upheld by China and India on which Afghanistan can construct its future.
The key to Afghanistan’s future is security. Without security, economic and political stability is unlikely to come about and the country will remain unattractive to external investors. The recent first round of the election campaign was relatively secure, demonstrating that the nation’s security forces are becoming more capable at maintaining their own security, but they still face considerable difficulties. Ultimately, Afghanistan is a country with significant economic potential that has so far remained underdeveloped in part due to an environment that is dominated by warlords or insurgents. But the problems of insurgency and warlordism are in part fed by an underdeveloped economy that weakens the central state. The elimination of these problems and the solution to this dilemma is not immediately apparent, but Afghanistan’s long-term stability is ultimately contingent upon the as yet distant goal of a strong economy - something that will be dependent to some degree on the cessation or reduction of violence. For China and India, bolstering what green economic shoots are visible needs to be a priority to guarantee the country’s long-term stability.
However, in the short-term, more direct measures can be taken by both China and India to strengthen the government and the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF). India has already instituted a program with Russia to bolster ANSF capability5 and China has provided some soft military and policing support in the form of equipment6. And both China and India already play a role in supporting and training the ANSF: following Zhou Yongkang’s visit in September 2012, China agreed to train some 300 police personnel over four years7while India has provided training to at least 650 Afghan Special Forces and officers.8
But when taken within the context of broader ANSF numbers, which currently stand at 352,000 and will probably shrink to 228,500 (in line with the 2012 Chicago declarations),9 China and India’s contributions to training are minimal. So while both China and India are the countries most likely to feel the immediate impact of the growth of instability from Afghanistan (given their physical proximity), their contributions do not reflect this fact. This is at least in part because neither power is eager to involve itself within the difficult quandary of Afghan security too deeply – having watched as NATO and the West have struggled for the past decade. The way forward is to strike a path that means China and India contribute more to Afghanistan’s security, but do it in a way that supports an Afghan-led solution.
In practice, this could mean maintaining a light touch in terms of deploying kinetic forces, but expanding the number of all ranks that China and India train for the ANSF. The current numbers are small, and both countries have suggested that they are willing to contribute more. These words need to be turned into practice. If both countries increase their current contribution to an annual figure rather than a cumulative total over a period of years, this would provide a boost to the ANSF’s capability both physically and psychologically. Focusing these training missions on units that might be of direct support to Chinese and Indian interests might be a way of strengthening the rationale for the missions. This could involve training an elite unit to provide diplomatic security at embassies or consulates, or to provide training for ANSF on border-securing and crisis management. If this plan succeeds, China and India could grow the program by training a mineral assets protection force – potentially drawing on the over 100,000 men currently under arms who are due to be de-mobilized. These forces could then provide security at the many Chinese or Indian-owned mining sites around Afghanistan. These sites are likely to be a focus of future Chinese and Indian economic activity in the country for the immediate future and will also form a substantial part of the tax base for the future Afghan economy. Both countries could discuss their future cooperation in security in post-2014 Afghanistan reconstruction through the many already existing mechanisms, including the Diplomatic level Strategic Dialogues, or the Defence and Security Consultation between the Ministries of National Defence.
Of course, China and India do not agree on all security-related issues, and these differences can feed into mutual suspicion or even hostility. Beijing and Delhi maintain opposing views on whether the Afghan Taliban can be reconciled; to what extent the insurgency is being directed by the Pakistani state – as opposed to rogue elements within it; and whether Kabul should prioritise a predominantly counter-insurgency-based army as opposed to one capable of fighting conventional war.
Yet at the same time, China, India and Afghanistan also agree on the need to counter terrorism from Afghanistan and the threat posed by a renewed and strengthened Taliban. As President Xi Jinping put it after meeting President Karzai in Sochi, Russia, on the fringes of the Winter Olympics, ‘China is ready to strengthen cooperation with Afghanistan in fighting the ‘three evils’ of separatism, extremism and terrorism as well as transnational crime.’10 India has regularly found itself the target of terrorists in Afghanistan, with its Embassy hit by suicide bombers in 2008 and 2009, its consulate in Jalalabad in 2013, and its consulate in Herat was attacked in May 2014. In 2010 a guesthouse known to be popular with Indian doctors in the city was attacked by a suicide bomber and shooting attack. A number of Indian nationals died in these incidents that were clearly aimed at Indian interests, highlighting how India finds itself in the particular crosshairs of the anti-state insurgency in Afghanistan. While China has been spared this level of direct attacks, the reality is that Chinese nationals also work under threat in the country and some have died11. Both clearly see the threat of terrorism in and from Afghanistan as a problem and cooperation in countering it would be a sensible next step. This concurrence in concern about terrorism has already been translated into practical action elsewhere, with China and India having already undertaken three rounds of ‘Hand in Hand’ bilateral training and counter-terrorism training drills.12
It is unlikely that China and India will be willing to deploy forces in great strength on the ground to counter terrorist threats in Afghanistan (or to help stem the insurgency within the country), but working together to help develop a specific Afghan counter-terror force that is able to deal with specific threats both nations see brewing on the ground against their interests offers a way they might build on this bilateral cooperation in a regional framework. The existing bilateral channel for counter-terrorism training exercises could be used for this purpose; yet the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) could also be made to play a greater role in Afghanistan. Under Chinese chairmanship in 2012, Afghanistan was finally brought into the organization when it was granted Observer Status. And while India is also still only an Observer in the organization, India’s diplomats have never hesitated to highlight the potential benefit the SCO could bring to Afghanistan. In a speech at the Heads of Government meeting in December in Tashkent, Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh called ‘for a greater role’ for the SCO in ‘rebuilding Afghanistan.’ She also conveyed that ‘India has always held the position that full-scale cooperation by the SCO could be vital for stabilising Afghanistan.’13 Reflecting this, at Sochi in February, President Xi told President Karzai, ‘China is also ready to push the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to play a bigger role on the Afghan issue.’14
In practice it is easy to wonder about the practicality of these statements. The SCO has historically been relatively ineffective: but the organization does provide a useful forum in which members can negotiate over border disputes, conduct training drills and exchange information about terrorist groups and organised crime. These are all issues that China and India (as well as Afghanistan and most members of the SCO) see as common concerns that lie at the heart of potential Sino-Indian cooperation on Afghanistan. The idea could be to push the SCO to become more than simply a regular meeting place, but rather a centre for regional coordination on security measures to help stabilize Afghanistan. Concerns might be raised by other SCO members who prefer to keep their relationship with Afghanistan at a bilateral level: but these issues can be mitigated by the fact that not all SCO activities have historically included all members. For example, China regularly undertakes bilateral military training exercises with individual SCO members, and not all powers have opted to participate in some activities. And finally, China and India could both play a more active game politically within the SCO to try to influence the organization – appointing senior, well-connected and effective diplomats to roles within the organization, or as representatives to meetings. This would create the impetus from within that is required for the SCO to offer practical solutions to Afghanistan’s problems.
Encouraging security cooperation will help Afghanistan in the short-term, but as highlighted before, the long-term solution for a stable and prosperous nation is a thriving economy. This is also an area in which Chinese and Indian interests overlap. Both are currently invested heavily into Afghanistan, through aid (where India is the largest contributor) as well as through infrastructure projects and investment in the country’s mining potential. This trend is set to accelerate as the Xi Jinping administration in China develops its ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’, which envisages the creation of a vast network of transport arteries and trade routes between China’s western region of Xinjiang, Central and South Asia and, ultimately, Europe. India, meanwhile, launched its own ‘Connect Central Asia’ strategy in 2012 that envisions Afghanistan as a regional trade hub, crisscrossed by energy pipelines and air, rail and road links which it is hoped will one day link up with the subcontinent.
On the ground, Chinese state owned firms MCC and Jiangxi Copper have taken the lead in trying to exploit the Mes Aynak copper mine in Logar province, while in the north, CNPC has paired with the Afghan Watan Group to develop the oil fields in the Afghan part of the Amu Darya basin. India has trodden more gingerly into Afghanistan’s mining sector, with SAIL AFISCO holding back on committing to the contract it won to exploit the Hajigak Iron ore mine, waiting to hear the resolution of Afghanistan’s mining legislation.15 The Chinese firms, which invested and started working on the projects in Amu Darya and Mes Aynak, have increasingly found themselves facing problems on the ground and sought to hold off much further work until the political situation becomes clearer and the mining law is passed16.
The problems China and India face in these cases are very similar. First, of course, there is the security situation. This in part can be resolved by some of the security measures highlighted above, in particular in the fostering of a specific ‘Minerals Security Force’ that could draw on the substantial numbers of demobilized ANSF men and the dissolution of a 17,000-strong guard force (that protects military supply convoys, international aid programs and foreign installations) that are expected in the wake of the West’s drawdown in Afghanistan. Yet the problems that both sides face also concern Afghanistan’s young and inefficient bureaucracy. While there are many smart Afghans who have returned home to help their country grow, the country continues to suffer from a brain drain. This problem is particularly prevalent in the white-collar class that provides the managers, technocrats and scientists who act as the motor for a modern economy. This is a community that China and India could take an active role in helping grow, offering scholarships for young Afghans to take courses at Chinese and Indian technical colleges, with a surety built into the program that guarantees they spend at least three years working in Afghanistan after they finish the course.
A secondary problem that Chinese and Indian firms often encounter is local corruption, be this in terms of partners that fail to deliver or those that offer themselves as short cuts through the system. As the two largest external investors in Afghanistan’s mining industry, China and India have an opportunity to establish some of the ground rules of how business is done. Since India and China are the biggest investors and potential consumers of Afghan resources and goods, both countries should look to cooperate and discuss their respective views for Afghanistan’s economic future, and work with the Afghans to help them map out national development master plans, urbanization plans, five-year like economic development plans, stock markets, market based rules and regulations, quarantine criteria and other practical economic structures. Both countries could highlight their respective support for Afghanistan’s economic development by holding in turn an annual Afghanistan Investment Forum. Given that Chinese and Indian investment in Afghanistan is being led by state owned enterprises, the respective governments in Beijing and New Delhi are in a position to issue edicts to their firms seeking to invest in Afghanistan that they have to adhere to some basic code of conduct that prevent them from paying bribes or using corrupt methods to undercut competition. While both nations already have strong codes of conduct in place for their companies operating abroad, the reality is that in a difficult country like Afghanistan, these measures can sometimes get lost in the difficult terrain. But establishing strict rules for national firms, and agreeing them between Beijing and New Delhi means that two of Afghanistan’s largest prospective investors (and likely competitors in mineral mining tenders) will be on the same page from this perspective and this may help reduce problems and accusations of corruption on larger mining concessions.
Yet Afghanistan’s economy will not thrive if it is only able to mine and export its natural wealth. The extractive industry is not very labour intensive, and the overwhelming majority of Afghanistan’s economy is built on agriculture and textiles. However, at the moment, bad infrastructure and unfair competition from neighbouring countries stifles the ability of Afghanistan’s farmers to profit from their work and encourages communities to grow more profitable opium instead.
Greater collaborative efforts could also be undertaken in infrastructure development in Afghanistan. Longer-term collaboration in this direction could see regional infrastructure being developed at a multilateral level, strengthening regional trade and cooperation between China, India and, Afghanistan.
At a multinational level, China and India are already engaged in the many World Bank (WB) and Asian Development Bank (ADB) driven initiatives in the region: CAREC, CASA 1000 or even TAPI. The Heart of Asia process (to be hosted in Tianjin, China this year) runs in parallel to the WB and ADB initiatives, and is aimed at reconnecting Afghanistan to its region. Even the SCO, which was founded on the principle of border security and counter-terrorism, has been looking into developing more as a vehicle for regional cooperation on joint resource exploration; infrastructure projects and regional finance. Both China and India work alongside each other in all of these formats – but greater coordination between both countries on their positions in these organisations would improve the chances of projects being implemented. Currently, there has been little progress towards achieving this – something that is likely driven by uncertainty over Afghanistan’s future, but is also due to a lack of leadership. As the Asian giants with the wealth and companies to actually implement these ambitious infrastructure projects, China and India should play a more forward role in making them move from rhetoric to action. This is something that would fundamentally be to both China and India’s full advantage, not only because of the positive effect these projects would have on Afghanistan’s stability, but also because they would help secure Chinese and Indian access to the Afghanistan’s mineral wealth – something both countries need to support their domestic economic growth. It would further help provide their national firms another region in which they can win major and lucrative infrastructure projects – projects that will help connect China and India to Middle Eastern markets and their further potential.
The third important pillar for a stable and prosperous Afghanistan in the longer-term is political reconciliation. This is possibly the most difficult pillar of all three, partially because the current political process in Afghanistan is highly uncertain. It is hard to know what impact the presence of NATO and western forces has on this process and to what extent their removal might change the political environment. Similarly, Hamid Karzai, a politician who has built up considerable negative political capital abroad currently dominates Afghan politics. What Afghan politics will look like with the change of government is unclear, making it difficult to make any quick judgements on how political reconciliation process will unfold post-2014.
But Karzai or no, some realities on the ground will not change. In particular, Pakistan’s fraught relationship with Afghanistan will continue to play a significant role in the country’s future and the political process in the country. This is something that both China and India can play a role in mitigating – for China, to continue to use its close relationship with Pakistan as a way of ensuring that Pakistani concerns and interests in Afghanistan are maintained, while the new government in India could reiterate that their relationship with Afghanistan is not in any way directed against Pakistan.
Ultimately, both China and India believe that the reconciliation process should be Afghan-led. And while outside powers like Pakistan undoubtedly have a role to play, they cannot maintain a veto over the process. Both China and India should help Afghanistan in facilitating this process to the extent possible. Using their regional great power status, Beijing and New Delhi can use their joint influence to bring Afghanistan’s other border partners like Iran or Turkmenistan into any political process.
Standing on the cusp of western withdrawal from Afghanistan, China and India will soon find themselves in a position where they are called upon to help resolve Afghanistan’s problems. This may be because they will be seen as the only regional actors with the capacity to take effective action or perhaps because they are the countries that stand to lose most if things in Afghanistan turn out badly. Either way, both Asian powers need to start thinking now about what they can do to help Afghanistan in the future. The outline offered here is by no means a comprehensive one, but rather a framework with practical ideas that decision makers and policy actors in Beijing and New Delhi could use as the basis for their future interactions with Afghanistan. Kabul has shown that its security capability is growing and has responded positively to many of these ideas and actively called for both nations to help the country in this difficult transition period, but what has been missing are some ideas for what shape cooperation between the two needs to look like.
As the two biggest and most prosperous BRICS countries, the question of what role China and India will play in the future world order is a question at the heart of current conversations about international relations and politics. By focusing on Afghanistan as an area for collaboration and cooperation, Beijing and New Delhi offer a glimpse into what the future might look like and what the world can expect from an increasingly Asian world order, as well as helping a deeply troubled Afghanistan to finally come out from its long night.
Dr Shisheng Hu , Director of South Asia and Oceania Studies at the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR)
Lt Gen (Retd) Ravi Sawhney , Distinguished Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF)
Raffaello Pantucci , Senior Research Fellow, Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI)
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Published Date: 1st July 2014, Image source: http://www.bilaterals.org