By Edward Schwarck
October 01, 2014
Their border disputes and maritime rivalry aside, China and India may be able to make common cause in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is going out of fashion among governments in the West, as attention shifts to a disintegrating Middle East and a new battlefront in Eastern Europe. But something may be moving in to fill the void. China and India held their first bilateral talks on Afghanistan in April 2013, and discussed the issue most recently during Xi Jinping’s visit to New Delhi last week, where both sides agreed to “strengthen strategic dialogue” on building “peace, stability and prosperity in Afghanistan,” which was identified as a “shared interest.”
The China-India relationship is still riddled with suspicion from the 1962 war, and a smoldering border disputeand rivalry in the maritime sphere complicates relations further. But as Western forces are drawn down in Afghanistan at the end of this year, cooperation may be the best way to establish the regional stability that the country needs for its future growth and security. The pressing question is not, therefore, if such cooperation is desirable, but whether the two Asian giants are capable of working together to produce a robust and viable framework for the country’s future.
Convergence of Interests
Cooperation grows from common interests, and China and India are united in the common threat that both countries face from the surge in terrorism that would likely accompany state collapse in Afghanistan. India perceived a terror threat emanating from the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate for much of its existence, and an attackin May on India’s consulate in Herat by four heavily armed militants – reportedly members of Pakistan-based Lashkar-i-Taiba – suggests that this threat is still alive. While Beijing is not overtly concerned with instability in Afghanistan (it weathered the Taliban decade by simply closing its borders) spillover into the poorly governed spaces of Central Asia – or worse, Pakistan – could provide a means for terrorist groups to link up with Uyghur fighters in Xinjiang.
Afghanistan also figures in the regional strategies that both countries are unveiling. Beijing’s “Silk Road Economic Belt,” emerging as a hallmark foreign policy under Xi Jinping, will comprise a cross-border logistics infrastructure linking China’s western regions with resource-rich Central Asia and, eventually, the markets of Europe. Meanwhile, India’s “Connect Central Asia” policy envisions Afghanistan as a regional trade hub crossed by energy pipelines and air, rail and road links that will one day transport the resources of Central Asia to the subcontinent. In other words, both countries have a vision for Afghanistan and its neighborhood as a thoroughfare for regional trade and prosperity.