Spearhead Analysis – 20.03.2017
By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
At the six-party meeting held in Moscow recently, India and China along with other participating countries attempted to reach an agreement over the contentious issue of peace-building in Afghanistan. Expressing concerns over terror activities, India offered developmental support to Afghanistan and opposed China’s push to initiate talks with the Afghan Taliban as a prelude to peacemaking. The two regional powers continue to be at loggerheads over a series of bilateral issues. Owing to the nations’ growing influence, in a lot of ways, the future of Asia Pacific will be shaped by how Sino-Indian relations evolve. Afghanistan is fast becoming the center of an emerging conflict of interest since the two regional giants have adopted starkly disparate positions on the Afghan issue.
Beyond having tense bilateral relations because both seek to expand their individual spheres of influence, the rift between India and China is also exacerbated by a mutually felt unease about having the other side seem as the more ‘responsible’ regional power. Hence, geopolitical concerns are not alone driving bilateral negotiations—perhaps a more subtle compulsion to maintain relative standing in the international community is also an equally important factor for India and China.
For India, the Afghan conflict is of critical importance; strengthening ties with Afghanistan will fit well under Narendra Modi’s larger plan to ‘isolate’ Pakistan diplomatically, and maintain a security and psychological advantage over Pakistan. To that end, Delhi has also delivered four Mi-25 attack helicopters to Afghanistan. This transfer marks the first time India has presented offensive combat capability to Afghanistan as a gift—a step to which Pakistan is known to have demurred.
Beijing has, on the other hand, looked to Afghanistan with concerns of its own. The online propaganda video circulated by the Islamic State’s media house of al-Furat on February 27, 2017, featured Uyghur militants posing threats to come to China to “spill rivers of blood as revenge on behalf of the oppressed” and to “plant the caliphate’s flag.” Apart from the impending security threat, the Afghan conflict is also of critical importance to China due to Afghanistan’s position as an important gateway to Central Asia and a possible key player in the “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
Nonetheless, the primal concern for India and China in Afghanistan is that of: ‘status’. A ‘status consideration’ can be understood as the belief a state has of its standing in the internationally community, which can be estimated from its interaction and exchange with other states. Hence, underlying state decisions there is an evaluation of how the two sides come across internationally from the policy standpoint they adopt in attempting to resolve the Afghan conflict, and which power ends up playing a bigger role. The choice of conduct when it comes to attending peacemaking institutional arrangements has hence been a manifestation of a larger objective to appear better than the other– fundamentally driven by status aspirations and a competitive need to seek recognition from other powers in the global realm.
India’s exclusion from the trilateral talks on Afghanistan in Moscow last year instilled deep disenchantment in the Indian leadership towards Moscow. Russia, in discussion with China and Pakistan, sought to initiate peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The Indian foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar, took up the matter of exclusion with Russia on the sidelines of the Heart of Asia conference. India’s national security adviser, Ajit Doval, raised similar concerns on a visit to Moscow for strategic and counter-terrorism talks. It was expected that the bilateral relationship between India and Russia will tense as a result.
Perhaps in order to avoid this, India was extended an invitation to the six-party talk. Moscow showed a desire to engage India on the Afghan issue— acknowledging Delhi’s position as a major stakeholder in the peace-building process. The talk further included Iran and the Afghan government, both of which face seething security concerns. Including India in the multi-party conversation was a fitting way for Russia to ensure India’s rising status was accommodated.
India has however held on to its position on the Afghan issue, declaring the Taliban to be the biggest threat to security stemming from Afghanistan.
When China hosted a delegation of top Afghan Taliban leaders as part of its efforts to encourage the militant group to join the peace process, China was called a prime stakeholder in Afghan peace and stability by one of the leaders. Regional experts are of the view that China has been actively partaking in the peace process, particularly after the vacuum left due to the failure of American policy and following the drift and confusion in the US-Afghan policy.
While it can be said that India and China have used different institutional platforms in a way to be recognized for their conceived roles, it is also important to highlight the way the two sides have signaled status to other stakeholders: China by drawing support from Russia and-India’s regional competitor-Pakistan, and India by strengthening ties with the US and Russia.
Amid growing status concerns, the two sides have also highlighted the resources that each power has a unique comparative advantage in: India has emphasized its commitment to development, contributing over $2 billion since 2001 together with training police and military units. China, on the other hand, with an aid contribution of over $1.5 billion, has also taken an additional step in holding joint patrols with the Afghan authorities – seeking to reduce the impact of a complete US draw-down from Afghanistan.
The two Asian giants must find a way to enhance their bilateral partnership, while also accommodating for their respective status concerns if a solution to the Afghan conundrum is to be reached. A heightened status conflict between India and China must be avoided in order to ensure Afghanistan’s sovereignty and domestic stability is not bargained away in the process.Meanwhile it is important for Pakistan to mend relations with Afghanistan so that it is correctly positioned for future developments.