China is quietly but surely pursuing its strategic interests in Afghanistan. It is time India worked out the implications for itself
A few years ago, Pakistan made an extraordinary proposal to Afghanistan regarding the extraction and marketing of Afghan mineral wealth which is, according to the United States Geological Survey, worth around $1 trillion. It suggested that an Afghan, Pakistani and Chinese consortium be established to undertake this activity. It was a serious and thought out proposal for it was made by a very senior Pakistani Minister. The Afghans were not certain if Pakistan had taken China on board before making the sounding but some in Kabul saw this as a manifestation of a Sino-Pakistan nexus on Afghanistan. The Afghans rejected the Pakistani idea altogether.
This episode holds a lesson for the Indian strategic community which is focussed on U.S. and Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan. This is unexceptionable but our security establishment should also pay close attention to China’s policies, both direct and along with Pakistan, towards Afghanistan as they may intersect Indian approaches and interests. A middle official level dialogue between India and China on Afghanistan has occurred but far greater scrutiny of Chinese actions is needed.
China has always looked at Afghanistan with caution and circumspection but never with indifference; it has actively but quietly pursued its interests in a country with which it shares a short boundary in the high mountains at the eastern edge of the Wakhan Corridor. On the Chinese approach in the 1960s, the American scholar Dupree notes, “the Chinese moved from behind the bamboo curtain to woo the Afghans socially, politically, and, in a lesser degree, economically.” During the Afghan Jehad against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, the Chinese supported the Afghan Mujahideen. Barnett Rubin, an authority on the Afghan Jehad, writes, “the operation was not just a CIA operation; it was a joint operation of the CIA, the ISI, the Al Istakhbarat al-Ama (General Directorate) of Saudi Arabia. The Chinese were also involved (although they were and are rather discreet about this). These were four intelligence agencies that met every week in Islamabad. A lot of weapons from China went into Afghanistan as well but were not paid for by the Chinese.”
Ironically, the success of the Afghan Jehad invigorated China’s main internal security threat — Xinjiang’s Uighur militancy and quest for throwing off the Chinese yoke. In the 1990s, as the Taliban gained strength and territory in Afghanistan and as their alliance with the al-Qaeda deepened they began to give sanctuary and support to Central Asian Islamic militant groups and others including the Uighur groups. It is generally believed that a thousand Uighur militants came to Afghanistan but in 2003 a senior Chinese official gave this writer a much higher figure.
China turned to Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to expel the Uighur militants from Afghanistan. The “all weather friend” interceded; Chinese officials met senior Taliban leaders who made promises to rein in the Uighur militants. The promises were not kept. Following 9/11, the Taliban were ousted by the Coalition and Northern Alliance forces in November 2001. They retreated into Pakistan and the Uighur militants went with them.
China went along with international efforts on Afghanistan after 9/11 but remained restrained in its public articulation on the Taliban and low key in Kabul after the establishment of the Hamid Karzai led Interim Administration. On his part, Mr. Karzai began to assiduously woo China, a courtship he has continued throughout his presidency. He visited Beijing in January 2002, ahead of his visit to India which came in end February of that year. Since then he has visited China on numerous occasions, including for four state visits; the last was a few weeks ago in September. Through these years bilateral ties have been upgraded: from “good neighbourly” to “comprehensive cooperation” to “establishing strategic and cooperative partnership.” Economic relations have been strengthened with the award of major projects in the mining and hydrocarbons sectors. Contacts in the security and intelligence sectors have intensified. A section of the Kabul elite is strongly supporting the Chinese connection and some have developed economic stakes in it. However, China’s relations with Pakistan, Pakistan’s connections with the Taliban and continuing Taliban sympathy for the Uighur cause complicate the relationship.
Over the past six years, Afghanistan has provided China with evidence of Pakistan’s actions to destabilise Afghanistan. Predictably the Chinese have simply ignored all the material given to them. In these interactions China’s focus has remained on the Uighur militants. Uighur militancy in Xinjiang has been vigorous and bloody over the past decade. China views Afghanistan, according to Chinese scholar Zhao Huasheng, “as an inescapable part of Xinjiang’s security.”
China’s current approach towards containing Uighur militancy is two-pronged:
The effort with the Taliban to expel the Uighur militants from FATA continues. With this aim the Chinese have not criticised the Taliban on any count. Instead they have said that they are a durable political group and hence have followed the Pakistan line and supported a process of reconciliation between them and the Afghan government. The Taliban June statement assuring that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used against any country would have given satisfaction to China as it did to the U.S. in the context of the al-Qaeda.
Secondly, China has focussed on the development of Xinjiang as an industrial base and as a pole in the trade and transit networks it is putting in place in Central Asia and beyond. The Central Asian states have been co-opted in this grand design. Russia has not opposed it either. The prospects of economic benefits and an absence of ideological affinity have denied Uighur militancy sympathy in Central Asian countries except within Islamist groups in the region.
The ambitious Gwadar-Kashgar Trade and Transit Corridor Project which China and Pakistan will undertake has also to be seen in this context. The project which involves the development of the Gwadar port and which will no doubt eventually seek to enmesh Afghanistan has obvious geo-strategic implications for India as it goes ahead with Iran to develop the Chabahar port and its links with and through Afghanistan to Central Asia and beyond.
China is conscious of an inevitable element of competition between the two transit systems. Hence, it is paying close attention to the Chabahar port and developments in western Afghanistan, especially around the Indian-built Zarang-Dilaram Highway that connects the Chabahar port with the strategic Kabul-Kandahar-Herat Road.
The Aynak Copper mines will be developed by China at a cost of over $4 billion. The project envisages the construction of a railway to evacuate copper to Xinjiang via Tajikistan. It is currently stalled because of security concerns but it will eventually be built and will be a model for other mining projects that will be undertaken by China. All this will be designed to integrate a major part of the Afghan mining activity with the economy of Western China.
China takes a long-term view of its interests but pursues them relentlessly. It will do so in Afghanistan too. India has built a fund of goodwill in Afghanistan through the example it holds as a democracy as well as its popular assistance programme. With these assets it is well placed though it will have to navigate the next few years through the minefield of the consequences of the U.S. forces drawdown. In the long term, India will need to evolve new strategies to safeguard and advance its interests in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, it has to make a success of the Hajigak iron ore project and ensure that transport systems are established to move the product through Chabahar.
(The writer is a former ambassador to Afghanistan)