Two years back at a rare colloquium with Delhi’s China watchers, when I mentioned that from an Indian perspective China should be regarded as a ‘factor of stability’ in relation to the worsening Afghan situation, eyebrows were raised and vague traces of condescending smile began spreading on many familiar faces suggesting I was an innocent abroad trespassing into a mystique land where I might lose my way.
Today, we are a lot closer to that maverick idea, which was obviously struggling to be born. No doubt, the proposed idea of an ‘Afghan dialogue’ between India and China took its time to mature, but its raison d’etre was never in doubt.
This may sound a paradox, but India and China do share a lot of common ground on the Afghan problem. First and foremost, both are stakeholders in Afghanistan’s stabilization. Both have searing experiences of terror radiating from the Afghan-Pakistan border regions and they shudder to think of Afghanistan becoming a revolving door for international terrorists.
Neither India nor China abhors Islamism as such but both are acutely conscious of the dangers posed by radical Islamist groups. Thus, Afghanistan as a country of observant Muslims is an idea that neither would have a problem with, but both India and China disfavor a takeover in Kabul by the Taliban.
Neither is a great game player in the big league, associated with the rival projects of Russia’s Eurasian Union or the United States’ New Silk Road Initiative, but both could take advantage of the regional stability and development that these enterprises of the great powers may come to offer.
Most important, neither India nor China will get involved on the ground militarily in Afghanistan, while the anticipated post-2014 security vacuum worries them. Arguably, both countries would tacitly welcome the continued commitment — military and civilian — of the ‘international community’ to the stability and security of Afghanistan although they remain sceptical about long-term military presence by outside powers.
But then, there is also going to be an element of competition. India seems destined to ‘lose’ in the competition over accessing the vast resources of Central Asia and Afghanistan. The dismal truth is that India has no transportation route connecting Afghanistan. And none is likely to be available for the foreseeable future.
This is where China scores. The fact remains that China has an integrated regional vision whereas we seem to lack it, as evident from the volatile ties with Pakistan and the indifferent relationship with Iran. Thus, Gwadar becomes not only a fantastic gateway for Xinjiang (and Central Asian countries) but also holds the potential to create a template in the overall matrix aimed at harmonizing the Chinese and US regional objectives in Central Asia.