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Afghan arena: exit America, enter China

As America reduces its military burden in Afghanistan, China’s deepening involvement there was marked by the launch of a new official forum in Kabul last week. Called the "China–Pakistan–Afghanistan Strategic Dialogue," the triangular engagement is likely to emerge as a major force shaping India’s north western frontiers.

The trilateral consultations were initiated by Beijing at a low-key track two level a couple of years ago. Beijing has now elevated it into an official framework. China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Jianchao, Afghanistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai and Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry co-chaired the Dialogue.

The first round of the forum saw China announce some major commitments to promote regional cooperation. Beijing is now ready to finance a 1500 MW hydro-electric power project in the Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan. To be managed jointly by Pakistan and Afghanistan, the project will feed into the power grids of both countries.

China has signalled its intent to promote two important trans-border transport corridors — a motorway linking Kabul with Peshawar and a rail link between Quetta and Kandahar. These infrastructure projects nicely complement China’s ambitious Silk Road projects in inner Asia and its massive investments in developing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

China’s audacious effort to integrate the economic spaces of Afghanistan and Pakistan follows Beijing’s recent initiative to facilitate political reconciliation between the Afghan government in Kabul and the Taliban. While the Taliban has not explicitly supported the Chinese led peace process, its delegations have been travelling frequently to Beijing.

Over the past decade, the United States had tried hard on both these fronts — internal reconciliation in Afghanistan and greater cooperation between Kabul and Islamabad. Skeptics will say China is unlikely to succeed where America and the West have failed, despite pumping in massive military and economic resources. They would suggest that China, like so many great powers before — including the United States, Russia, and the British Raj — will find it near impossible to manage deep contradictions that govern strategic life across the Hindu Kush.

Since the late 1970s when it embarked on reform and opening up, China been wary of being drawn into regional conflicts anywhere in the world and emphasised the principle of non-intervention.

China under Xi Jinping looks far more confident today and is prepared to take risks in the pursuit of its interests around. If Deng Xiaoping cautioned China against claiming a leadership role in the world a quarter century ago, Xi seems ready to take a calculated political shot at it.

“As the common friend and neighbour of Afghanistan and Pakistan,” China said last week in Kabul, it “sincerely welcomes the positive progress” in the trilateral dialogue and “welcomes Afghanistan and Pakistan to increase mutual strategic trust as well as enhance mutually beneficial cooperation.”

The three sides also reaffirmed that “terrorism, extremism, and separatism pose a major threat to the security and stability” of the region and agreed to “deepen counter-terrorism and security cooperation.”

One reason why China might succeed where others have failed in Afghanistan is the apparent convergence of its interests with that of Pakistan, its all-weather friend. If Pakistan's military leadership had deliberately sabotaged American plans in Afghanistan, the Pakistan Army believes China might help it achieve its long standing objective of securing political primacy across the Durand Line. As it comes to terms with American withdrawal, Kabul is betting that Beijing offers the last and only hope of getting the Pakistan Army to be reasonable.

Russia, which has drawn steadily closer to China in recent years and is warming up to Pakistan, is likely to back Beijing’s leadership role in Afghanistan. The United States, which is rushing to the exits, is happy to welcome China or any one else, who is ready to hold the even for a little while.

All this leaves India staring, in the near term, at a potential diminution of its role in Afghanistan, which flourished when the United States dominated India’s north western flank after 9/11. Delhi now needs a realistic adaptation to the unfolding power shift in the Great Game.


This post was originally published at the Indian Express