India, China could find common ground in Afghanistan

The first is their shared interest in investing huge amounts in Afghanistan to extract mineral resources.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:11 pm IST

Published - April 18, 2013 01:04 am IST - NEW DELHI:

When India and China sit across the table in Beijing on Thursday for their first-ever >focussed dialogue on Afghanistan , they will find two major points of commonality.

The first is their shared interest in investing huge amounts in Afghanistan to extract mineral resources.

The second is their influence on Afghanistan — direct in case of India and indirect for China via Pakistan — that could enable both put their economic plans in motion.

The environment before the talks is conducive. While back-to-back visits by the two Prime Ministers is not on the cards, both sides are working on a series of interactions between the senior leaderships.

The India-China border remains tranquil and misplaced reports about Chinese intrusions, especially in the Ladakh area, have now ebbed after New Delhi traced the source.

On the Brahmaputra, the Ninth Inter-Ministerial Expert Group report broadly mirrored the previous one — that no instance of water diversion has occurred from the main course of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries.

Doubts remain especially over construction activity at three places on the river and a road passing through the Great Bend area which is being continuously upgraded. In his first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sought a joint monitoring group to allay Indian fears about dams that would impede the Brahmaputra’s flow.

China has not replied so far and India will continue to press them on this. But New Delhi’s strategic fears have so far been assuaged. The Indian assessment after last month’s maiden Manmohan-Xi meeting in Durban was that Beijing wished to add to measures being taken to keep the border incident-free, expand economic engagement to address India’s complaints of a ballooning balance of trade deficit and enlarge areas of bilateral consultations on global and security issues.

It is against this backdrop that India and China will seek to know each other’s plans in Afghanistan. The first prerequisite for stable investment environment will be to minimise the possibility of violence. India has bagged a large chunk of the Hajigak iron ore mine while China had won tenders for a copper mine and has now been allocated oil blocks in the Amu Darya basin in northern Afghanistan.

Politically, India is fairly well placed in Kabul. It does not expect Kabul-Delhi equations to change after the 2014 presidential elections though the picture about candidates in the fray is yet to become clear. India’s capacity building programmes have done well. China has started off with some of its own in the medical field but would be unable to match India’s core expertise in this area.

Where China scores over India is its ability to influence the behaviour of violence-prone groups through its close ally Pakistan. As the copper and iron ore mines are located in areas where the ability of these groups to conduct hit-and-run operations is high, China could be in a better position than India to reign in these forces while Kabul tried to resolve their grievances.

The new Chinese leadership has taken over in a situation which was different when the previous change occurred 10 years ago. The new leadership is aware that China today is much more in the limelight by virtue of its global standing. The present leadership would therefore be taking steps to correct impressions about passivity in Afghanistan. The two countries thus not only have common grounds to check instability in Afghanistan but share concerns about the country turning into a militant hub with implications for the security situation in Kashmir as well as Xinjiang.

But much will also depend on the many irons in the fire in Afghanistan. One indication is the speeding up of the number of trilaterals and multilateral conferences, overt and secret. India itself has two trilaterals on hand — two rounds held with the U.S. and Afghanistan and the first one in the offing with Russia and China. China, Russia and Pakistan too have held a meeting that saw high-level participation while Islamabad has held parleys with Kabul and Washington.

With several factors in play, Thursday will see a limited exercise of India and China for the first time gauging their interests in Afghanistan, especially in discussing disruption-free linkages in trade and communications between them and Afghanistan.

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