The 21st century has been described as the “Asian Century.” For good and bad and for right and wrong reasons, the century in which we live appears to be centered on this vast continent both temporally and spatially. Not only is Asia home to myriad conflicts, but this very part of the world has registered staggering economic and strategic success stories as well. In light of the significance that Asia has come to assume, India and China and their respective economic, political and strategic successes and failures have drawn global attention.
As individual countries, their increasing currency in the international order is evident. Resultantly, the rivalry between these two burgeoning economies has generated much global interest. Their relations have been of concern not only to the countries in their common neighborhood but also in distant lands where they seek to take their influence to. One such country where both India and China are investing their resources and reputations is Afghanistan. However, unlike other countries and matters on which they compete and diverge, this landlocked country is being imagined as a possible theatre of cooperation between these two rising powers.
To understand why India and China look willing to cooperate both in and on Afghanistan, it is critical to understand their respective reasons for involvement in this country in the first place.
Chinese Checkers in Afghanistan
China’s assistance to Afghanistan, especially when compared to India, has been . Its interest in the international and multilateral activities concerning Afghanistan too had been minimal for the first decade following the US-led intervention there. Visits and exchanges along with minor economic agreements were amongst the only activities that took place between them at the bilateral level. Things, however, started to take a different turn beginning in 2011. These winds of change, if you may, were ushered by China’s own domestic insecurity as well as the US’ decision to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. What in the decade between 2001-11 was marked by disinterest and passive participation was transformed into a policy of active engagement both in and on Afghanistan. The stress on these two prepositions — in and on — stems from the different ways in which China approached this country. Where the former took the shape of bilateral economic investments, political exchanges, strategic cooperation and the like, the latter was about engaging in multilateral forums concerning Afghanistan.
China’s domestic requirements, in particular, have had a major impact on the recalibration of its approach towards Afghanistan. It has been that China’s foreign policy is like an external extension of its domestic concerns — “China does not have a foreign policy. We only have a domestic policy, even in our relations with other countries.” This outward expansion of internally serving goals has meant that Afghanistan became an area of concern for China only when the instability in Afghanistan started to impinge on its domestic security. The attacks in its frontier region of Xinjiang and in other major Chinese cities were seen as a result of rising extremism, which directly and indirectly, was related to the seething instability in Afghanistan. China’s interest in Afghanistan’s stability, therefore, had less to do with its external ambitions and image abroad. Rather, it was wary of the spill-over effects that instability in Afghanistan had on its own domestic environment. It was only later — following the drawdown of international troops in 2014 — that its involvement in Afghanistan took a more pro-active shape. It moved from being a “home-abroad” concern into a matter that was now of relevance to China’s projection of its intent and capabilities as a .
That being said, China still sees the US as the “” on Afghanistan. It has been that the Chinese assessment of the situation in Afghanistan coincides with that of the western nations, in particular the US. But of late, China’s interest in getting into the thick of things has been witnessed. Not only has it become a willing partner in multilateral negotiations on Afghanistan, but it is also taking suo motu cognisance of the need to promote reconciliation in this country. To this effect, it has become an active member of (relatively) new multilateral initiatives such as the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), the Moscow peace process, and the like. On its own, China has not only extended its “good offices” i.e. mediatory role between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it has also put in place new regional mechanisms like the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) to create multilateral consensus on Afghanistan. Besides these, China’s institutional baby, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), has meditated much on the “Afghan Question.” In fact, the Shanghai Five with which it had begun was “focused on mutual intraregional efforts to curb terrorism, separatism and extremism in Central Asia,” and whose focal concern was the instability in Afghanistan. Given the membership, mandate and the institutional mandate of the SCO, the “” can provide a more amicable platform for the major stakeholders in the Afghan conflict to wrap their heads around this issue.
India’s Status Quest in Afghanistan
A lot has been written about the role of India in Afghanistan. As South Asia’s largest and globally the fifth biggest donor to Afghanistan, to this country have been recognized and appreciated for the tangible effects they have produced. The path to this acknowledgement, however, was not smooth. Beset with global reluctance and regional insecurities, Indian assistance to Afghanistan was affected by indirect challenges and direct threats and actions. Notwithstanding the losses in men and material, India has been a major source of economic, humanitarian and social assistance to Afghanistan. But why did India persist in Afghanistan despite being given the short end of the stick for the greatest part? The answer lies in India’s imagination of its status as a rising power.
While the specifics of their possible cooperation are still not known, the fact that these two countries have repeatedly asserted their desire to combine their efforts in Afghanistan reflects their intent to make good of their promises.
As noted by , Afghanistan has been a “test-case” for India; a test-case, which in my opinion, has been both because of and for status. Status, which is essentially a social ranking of sorts, has motivated India to innovate, conform to, and deviate from the global norms of participation in the post-conflict reconstruction of any country.
A rising power with considerable economic clout, credible democratic success and a decent track-record at managing cultural diversity, India has advanced a solid case for its active and deep involvement in Afghanistan. At one level, its material assistance to Afghanistan remains unparalleled in South Asia and when compared with China. At another, India has instructive political, economic and social experience that is of use to Afghanistan as it is more locally attuned than the western models of state-building. Moreover, with the attacks on the US on 9/11, India’s stand on terrorism and its calls for actions against it demanded that India be converted into one of the (ideological) bulwarks against extremism. The undoing of its victimization, India felt, could happen when it was given due space to voice its concerns and be involved in the redevelopment of Afghanistan.
Viewing Afghanistan as its “,” India saw in its involvement in this country an opportunity to demonstrate its status as a responsible rising power. By building ideational alliances even in the face of constant international and regional resistance, India demonstrated its intent and capabilities to stay the course in Afghanistan for the material and social advantages that could come out of it. Its popularity amongst the masses of Afghanistan as well as its goodwill within the administrative and political circles there are indicators of its appeal. The fact that a hitherto reluctant US, which not so long ago was toeing the Pakistani line, now sees India as a in its South Asian strategy is an explicit approval of the work India has done in Afghanistan.
What’s with the China-India Bonhomie?
It is known that as rising Asian powers, India and China are rivals and competitors. These two are in competition not only for material ascendancy, but also for normative superiority as well. As two of the fastest-growing economies in the world with a combined population of almost 3 billion, the nuclear-equipped India and China have often found themselves in fierce competition with each other to command what look like coinciding spheres of influence.
While not at par with each other, a fact that both these countries recognize in their own ways and to different effects, this realization has, however, not dented their competitive orientation towards each other. Added to this, the Pakistan angle has further complicated what could have been a neat, one-on-one rivalry. But since no rivalry has ever existed without a third wheel, the insertion of Pakistan into their ties has beset them with a fair share of friction, dissonance and suspicion. Nevertheless, China and India share an economic relationship that makes it hard for them to leave each other. Barring one major war, conflicts between India and China have remained largely contained, and have often taken place along their borders and in multilateral-institutional theaters. Furthermore, apprehensive about the actions of the increasingly disinterested and wavering US global dispensation under President Donald Trump, both India and China recognize the need to manage their rivalries in a manner that can secure and advance the progress they have made in the last seven decades.
Managing their rivalries, as the towards status competition and management suggests, Afghanistan could very well become a ground where India and China can converge not only for the sake of this country but for demonstrating their respective individual ambitions and collective intent as well. What had begun with the , which was an act of informal diplomacy between the (formal) executives of these two countries, India and China have since then reiterated their commitment to pool their efforts both in and on Afghanistan.
While the specifics of their possible cooperation are still not known, the fact that these two countries have repeatedly asserted their desire to combine their efforts in Afghanistan reflects their intent to make good of their promises. But what makes these two competitive rising powers want to converge in Afghanistan? Among other reasons, including the faltering and fatigued US efforts in Afghanistan that are a source of concern for both India and China, their respective discourse and interests behind their involvement in this country are different. They are on different tracks but are not in conflict with each other. In other words, India’s imagination of its role in Afghanistan and what it can get out of it are dissimilar from those that animate China’s involvement in Afghanistan. But while they are on different pages vis-à-vis one another, these countries do not appear to be on a collision path. Instead, both India and China see stability in Afghanistan to be of vital interest to their respective national and trans-national concerns, and thus are willing to work towards its achievement. Their collective efforts in this regard, therefore, do not look like wishful thinking, but are strategic requirements that will not only meet their respective individual interests, and could also let some steam off in their otherwise competitive relationship.