China could be tapping India as its leading partner for the reconstruction of Afghanistan as no other country is showing intent to rebuild the strife-torn nation, says influential Chinese scholar Hu Shisheng.
“Afghanistan is our problem. Although the problem was created by the U.S., we are finally facing the consequences. China and India, as major powers especially in the region, have to show the international community that we can shoulder responsibility (of reconstruction),” said Mr. Hu, a senior researcher at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR).
In an interview with The Hindu following the Wuhan summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the scholar pointed out that Beijing and New Delhi had to “fill the vacuum” as the Trump administration was not showing any intention to rebuild Afghanistan. “The Trump administration would not be focusing on reconstruction. It is intent on fighting terrorists and also focusing on the (Afghan) peace process. So who will then fill this vacuum.”
Mr. Hu stressed that growing pressure from the Trump administration was spurring Eurasia-centred “regional cooperation”. “(Donald) Trump’s pressure on Pakistan, China and India is visible. That could be one of the driving forces that could be pushing these countries to move in a coordinated way to counter this pressure.”
He pointed out that in tune with the growing geopolitical shifts, China and India could be undertaking a joint “pilot project”, when asked to comment on the announcement at Wuhan that New Delhi and Beijing would launch their first joint economic initiative in Afghanistan.
The scholar said “he was not aware” of the specific details of the project announced in Wuhan, but pointed to an earlier joint think-tank study which had recommended a major project by China and India in Afghanistan.
“When India was bidding for the Hajigak iron project in Afghanistan, three think tanks — CICIR from China, the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) from India and Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) — came up with a proposal. “Because China’s Aynak copper project was quite near to Hajigak, we discussed how China and India could work together for the safe transportation of the ores from their mining sites to Chabahar in Iran, via a road link that had already been established by India to the Indian ocean port,” Mr. Hu observed.
“We also discussed setting up a refining facility for these raw materials because of the proximity of the mines to each other.” Mr. Hu asserted that “it does not matter” if India conceived the proposed Afghanistan project outside the framework of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). “Ever since your former President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to China in 2016, there was no other occasion when Chinese leaders personally mentioned BRI before an Indian leader.”
India has opposed BRI on the grounds that one of its projects infringed on India’s sovereignty as it passed through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). According to the Chinese scholar, Pakistan was unlikely to oppose a joint China-India joint project in Afghanistan.
“This kind of social and economic development, I don’t think Pakistan will view it with visible suspicion, because developing Afghanistan will also finally benefit Pakistan.” But he acknowledged that China may have decided to work with India to assuage Pakistan’s sensitivity to “Indian presence (in Afghanistan), whether it is diplomatic, economic or security”.
While China was looking at India’s partnership in Afghanistan’s reconstruction, it was also engaged with Kabul and Islamabad on the security track to help stabilise Afghanistan. “We are encouraging Afghanistan and Pakistan to deal with each other bilaterally through information sharing and coordinated anti-terror cooperation. After all, security in Afghanistan is a precondition for anything else.”
Mr. Hu said a merger of Indian and Chinese connectivity projects could establish a giant area of “sub-regional cooperation,” which would also benefit Afghanistan. “India is pushing forward the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal project, The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, and also connectivity between India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, while China is pushing the idea of China Myanmar corridor construction, and also building the railway between China and Nepal.
“Finally the connectivity programmes of the two countries can merge with each other into one sub-region integral,” he said.