by Raffaello Pantucci
First published in The Diplomat, October 23, 2013
Two Asian giants met in Beijing this week, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh making a reciprocal visit to Beijing. The focus of the trip was economic cooperation and plans to get China-India trade to $100 billion by 2015, although it was the border disputes – and in particular the signing of a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement designed to defuse tensions – that captured the public attention.
What was missing from the agenda, however, was Afghanistan, a country in which Beijing and Delhi both have substantial mutual interests and where the two Asian giants could demonstrate their ability to responsibly manage the regional order.
Next year has the potential to be an inflection point in Afghanistan’s modern history. The Western withdrawal of combat troops from the nation after more than a decade of conflict will leave the freshly constructed administration to find its own feet. While a residual Western force will remain, it will be focused on training and counter-terrorism efforts. The emphasis from Western capitals will more than ever be on the administration in Kabul tending to its own affairs, looking to regional partners to help provide support and assistance. Whether they like it or not, local powers like China and India will be at the forefront of this effort, something already clear from the fact that the two nations are responsible for the largest economic investments in the country, in Hajigak and Mes Aynak.
Yet while both China and India are significant players in the country, there has been little evidence of direct cooperation or much forward planning in considering what is going to happen post-2014. This is unfortunate, as both nations are underestimating the degree to which they will find themselves having to seek cooperation with each other to guarantee a positive outcome in Afghanistan. Neither may want to shoulder the burden of a weak state pressured by a strong insurgency, but they will quickly find themselves as the powers with the greatest capacity to exert influence in an Afghanistan that continues to have the potential to be a regional spoiler. The best solution for all stakeholders is for China and India to work together to ensure a smooth transition to some semblance of stability.
Cooperation should focus on three pillars: economics, regional balancing and security assistance. All three will be key to guaranteeing Afghanistan’s future. Whichever government takes power in Kabul after President Hamid Karzai will find itself seeking support in each of these domains.
The economic sphere holds the most obvious potential for cooperation between Delhi and Beijing. Both may be fundamental competitors in the long run for Afghanistan’s natural resources, but both face substantial short and medium-term problems in securing access to them. Practical considerations like cost, government cooperation or security and, in India’s case, an inability to directly access Afghan territory, mean companies from both countries have made huge investments in the country with little evidence of tangible outputs in the near-term horizon. Still, Afghanistan’s touted $1 trillion worth of natural resources promises a welcome treasure for Chinese and Indian economies needing raw materials to fuel growth. At this early stage of Afghanistan’s opening, cooperating to ensure a level playing field will guarantee smooth access later on and provide both Chinese and Indian firms with a less complicated operating environment.
In practice, this means getting Chinese and Indian state-owned enterprises, those making the largest investments in Afghanistan, to ensure that their practices adhere to rigorous and ethical guidelines that are supervised by their respective central governments. When competing, they should both make sure they play by the same rules and therefore set themselves up for fair competition. Moreover, exploring ways in which to jointly develop infrastructure and coordinate projects will help all stakeholders profit from Afghanistan’s mineral boom.
Regional balancing complicates bilateral cooperation between India and China. It requires that China find a way to persuade Pakistan to accept a greater Indian role in Afghanistan, with India in return demonstrating a greater willingness to accept Pakistan’s inability to manage its domestic problems and to refrain from inflaming those problems.
The key here is regional dialogue and discussion, with forums like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation better empowered to discuss the regional dynamics around Afghanistan post-2014. One positive move would be for Chinese and Indian research institutions to co-host a pair of conferences at which they bring together regional thinkers to discuss the post-2014 regional order. Providing policy leaders with a forum in which they can sensibly think through the future regional dynamics surrounding Afghanistan could open some avenues for discussion.
The final element of security is in many ways the toughest one, and yet the one without which neither of the other two pillars can stand. Without a secure environment in Afghanistan, economic investment will be impossible and regional dynamics will be irrelevant in the face of internal chaos. A strong Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) needs to be built and the onus is on everyone to find a way of supporting it until it is able to stand up on its own. Until now this has rightly been a Western responsibility – in the wake of the U.S. and NATO invasion – but now others must contribute.
The U.S. and NATO will of course continue to provide support, but China and India need to find ways to increase their own contributions. For China, a paltry 300 police being trained is an unworthy sum compared to the economic investments China’s firms have made in Afghanistan – these investments will struggle to produce a return if insecurity prevails. India does offer some military training, but it is understandably restrained given Pakistani paranoia of Indian domination in Afghanistan. The answer is a joint effort whereby Chinese and Indian forces find some way to offer cooperative training missions, or at the very least parallel ones. This will both assuage Pakistani concerns (given its proximity to China), but also double the support that the ANSF is getting from outside powers. One possible focus could be an expansion of the security forces that are being developed to specifically protect mineral extraction at Mes Aynak. The development of a national natural resource protection unit, dedicated to providing security at extractive industries sites, might both offer a local employment vehicle while help develop security for Chinese and Indian investments.
China and India are two rising Asian giants. Both have already demonstrated a willingness to talk about Afghanistan in multilateral forums and at a bilateral level. The time is right to strike and lay out a joint agenda for Afghanistan’s future post-2014.
Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)