The conflict in Afghanistan is becoming more complex by the day, spreading beyond its borders into south Asia. There are four main parties: the US, Pakistan, Afghanistan itself and the Afghan Taliban. Others, previously remotely involved, are increasingly drawn in—the most prominent being China.
China’s growth rate of close to 10 per cent per annum makes it a global economic hub with which to reckon, second only to the US. This may not however be socially sustainable as it perpetuates inequality in income, heavily concentrated in China’s southern coastal area. Moreover, the country’s ethnic cohesion is uncertain: apart from minority tensions, the Han majority is itself fractured among ethno-linguistic communities which have experienced sustained segregation.
Fear of becoming a target of non-state actors has put the authorities in Beijing on their guard. That fear was exacerbated by the recent violent attack in Tiananmen Square, allegedly by members of the Muslim Uighur community from Xingiang province in the north-west. While the Turkish Islamic Party claimed responsibility, the authorities blamed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a group affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Such incidents exacerbate the socio-economic problems which may in the final analysis prove destructive for the instrumental legitimacy on which the power of the Communist Party rests.
The state has for long has been concerned about the separatist movement in Xingiang—a concern enhanced by a fear of Afghanistan providing safe havens for Uighur militants. China sought to counter this by maintaining good connections with the Afghan Taliban and the Quetta Shura. For their part the Taliban are not keen on isolating China as it is the only non-Muslim country that has promised to give them political recognition and respite from UN sanctions—in return for not allowing any group to conduct any violent activity on its territory. This understanding seems however to be falling apart, with China fearing that Afghanistan may be slipping into another civil war, thereby creating space for militants to launch attacks on it. That may be why China supported the US-Taliban talks in Doha, however unsuccessful they proved.
There has been a change in the trilateral relationship among Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. Earlier, China’s relations with the Taliban were dependent on Pakistan but its relationship with Kabul is improving and in 2012 it granted Afghanistan observer status in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), a paradigm shift in regional diplomacy. China has also diversified its intelligence communications in the region, earlier confined to Pakistan, to deal with the Uighur militants in Xingiang province. Meanwhile, the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has become estranged in the last few years. Pakistan’s concept of strategic depth has also been watered down, owing to its domestic problems with the Taliban. The border dispute between the two states over the Durand line has added to tensions, feeding insurgency at the borders.
The most stable country in south Asia, India, is also China’s rival in the region, which inevitably brings to bear its existential rivalry with Pakistan. The main bone of contention between India and Pakistan since 1947 has been the Kashmir conflict. Yet Kashmir is not just divided between India and Pakistan: China is implicated too.
As an ally of China, in 1963 Pakistan ceded to it a northern area of Kashmir called Aksai-chin. Though China considers this a settled matter, India remains apprehensive about the China-Pakistan friendship. Stephen Cohen’s Shooting for a Century: Finding Solutions to The India-Pakistan Conundrum observes that for India Karakoram pass is critical to its security, concerned that China and Pakistan might seek to expand their influence through it. This also dictates the strategic importance of the Siachen glacier for India and its unwillingness to reach a settlement on it, despite positive signals from Pakistan.
Karakoram pass connects Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir with the Xingiang Autonomous Region. But China has also made incursions into the Ladakh area of Jammu and Kashmir, violating the Line of Actual Control, which clearly demonstrates its strategic design to expand its influence. Yet, keeping in mind its fear of spillovers from the Afghanistan conflict, it is highly unlikely China would press its expansion through Karakoram pass at the moment: the incursions seem rather to be an extension of politics in terms of bargaining from a position of strength. Peace in Kabul runs through Kashmir. This elicits more constructive Chinese participation in finding a sustainable resolution to the longstanding Kashmir dispute, rather than involvement in negative- or zero-sum bargaining
The economic stake of China in Afghanistan is equally significant. State-owned Chinese companies like MCC, JCCL and CNPC have all expanded their corporate interests there, investing in various ventures tapping into natural resources. China has not hitherto been directly engaged with Afghanistan’s transition, relying on the now-departing US and its troops to secure those investments, but China’s access to central and west Asia’s natural resources is also through Afghanistan. India’s focus on economic development means it is similarly concerned as to how it meets its energy requirements. In other words, India and China both have an interest in maintaining strategic depth in Afghanistan.
This regional balancing complicates the bilateral relationships between the countries involved, which include formidable axes of non-cooperation: Afghanistan-Pakistan, India-Pakistan and China-India. In such a scenario, increased engagement on the part of China and India, as two great Asian powers, needs to be gauged properly to create a balance of power so that it assists a smooth transition for Afghanistan. Chinese engagement in bilateral efforts in south Asia is already under way, on ‘counter-terrorism’ with India as well as Pakistan. India and China also signed a Border Defence Co-operation Agreement, which again shows a commitment towards pushing friendly ties, yet in a way that is not inimical to the other’s interests. But merely co-operating bilaterally would not suffice to overcome the negative effects of regional balancing.
A new balance of power could be achieved by multilateral participation in organisations like the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation and the SCO, while co-operating bilaterally on issues of common concern as far as the conflict in Afghanistan is concerned—through ‘counter-terrorism’, trade, development and even training and assisting the Afghan National Security Force so that it can viably take over from the International Security Assistance Force. This would also reduce the deficit in trust among the countries involved.
The regional nexus and the US
Another dimension of rebalancing at a global level which affects the balancing at the regional level is the bilateral relation between China and the US. The latter’s ‘pivot’ to Asia is not just about containment of China and indeed need not come at its expense. The US-China bilateral relationship is far more strategically important than many understand, encompassing more areas for co-operation than discord. These cover a wide range of activities, from the economic arena to issues of global concern for both. While relations may be fraught with tensions, as the US may not appreciate the expansionist design of China, it has always played a dominant role in Asia and it was in this scenario that China grew as a potential counterpart in the region. In fact, the US is encouraging China to increase its engagement in Afghanistan, in the context of the withdrawal of US troops.
The US rebalancing actually allows a balance of power in south Asia as the US presence prevents China from indulging in any miscalculation or provocation, while assuring its neighbours—especially India—that China’s ambitions are not in any way inimical. This in turn may lead to a greater regional co-operation on issues of common concern, while favouring the resolution of areas of discord.
Such a best-case scenario where great world powers are involved already seems to be under way, as China increases its presence in south Asia. Having made its presence felt, China will not withdraw. How that will play out post-2014 remains to be seen. But China’s increased engagement in south Asia is not only desirable but inevitable and the opportunities it raises need to be captured strategically.