China-India-US cooperation in Afghanistan could have huge potential

India’s decision to boycott China’s Belt and Road Forum has reinvigorated the much-needed debate on the strategic relationship between the two Asian giants. This debate comes on the heels of the February 23, 2017 India-China Strategic Dialogue in Beijing, where the two states found, among their divergences, a convergence on Afghanistan that contradicts some of Delhi’s received wisdom.

Many in India view relations with China through the prism of its close alliance with Pakistan. That relationship is growing even stronger as China starts to invest a promised $46 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). CPEC links China’s overland Silk Road Economic Belt to the Maritime Silk Road, which together comprise the Belt and Road Initiative. And yet that vital project violates Indian sovereign claims by creating facts on the ground in territories claimed by India as portions of the state of Jammu and Kashmir illegally occupied by Pakistan.

CPEC and China’s rhetoric around its alliance with Pakistan may give the impression that China and Pakistan have convergent if not identical strategic views, which would compel India to oppose Chinese initiatives. The Pakistan military certainly sees the relationship as vital to strengthening it against India. It welcomes India’s rejection of CPEC and BRI, which hinders the development of China-India relations and assures that India does not benefit from BRI.

Chinese officials say they are committed to trying to persuade India to join. They have always claimed that BRI should be a platform for cooperation, not a point of conflict. India is right to point out, that in that case, China should have consulted India much earlier, before confronting it publicly with an unacceptable fait accompli.

Instead of cooperating directly with BRI, India is pursuing its own connectivity projects, which could be seen as competitive. The best known is Chabahar, an Iranian port on the Arabian Sea that India, Iran, Afghanistan, and Japan have jointly agreed to develop and link to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Chabahar, in Iranian Sistan-Baluchistan, would provide an alternative route to the port of Gwadar, in Pakistani Balochistan, and could enjoy an advantage since its northward connections are through a stable Iran rather than Afghanistan. Prime Minister Modi is reportedly planning to discuss linking Chabahar northward through Russia when he attends the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June.

Iran and Afghanistan, however, do not share India’s view that Chabahar competes with CPEC and BRI. Afghanistan has signed on to both and stands to benefit if the two networks connect. Iran has been actively lobbying China to connect BRI to Chabahar. President Rouhani proposed to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that after the lifting of some sanctions due to the Iran nuclear agreement, now is the time to link the two by building the long-planned Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline.

In his public statement after the China-India Strategic Dialogue, Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar hinted at another way India and China could approach regional and security cooperation indirectly, rather than buying directly into each other’s mega-projects at this early stage: they could cooperate in Afghanistan: “On Afghanistan, they [the Chinese] certainly seem to suggest to us that their approach and policies are in tandem with us, not on a different page. At the end of the discussion [at the dialogue in Beijing] there was an understanding on how India and China can cooperate in capacity building in Afghanistan.”

Such a proposal has huge potential. China and the U.S. began such cooperation in Afghanistan about five years ago. The projects are small, including the joint training of diplomats and agricultural workers, but they marked an extraordinary departure from the Chinese practice of limiting foreign assistance to bilateral channels. China’s offer to cooperate with India in Afghanistan sends a strong implicit message to both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

China has never proposed such cooperation in Afghanistan with Pakistan. Its offer to India constitutes an explicit and public recognition of India’s legitimate role in Afghanistan, something that Pakistan has opposed and sought to portray as a threat to its national security. Such cooperation would serve the interests of China, India, and Afghanistan and show that the two Asian giant economies are determined to make Afghanistan a platform for peace and cooperation. At an India-China-US discussion I attended in Delhi, one participant suggested that India invite China to provide assistance to the agricultural university it is building in Kandahar.

Three years after the US and China began cooperation on small capacity building programs in Afghanistan, they were able to bring the Afghan government along with both Pakistan and the Taliban at the Muree meeting in July 2015. India, Russia, and Iran were understandably suspicious of an effort that did not include them, and, indeed, it failed. Russia’s regional Moscow process on Afghanistan may now give way to a Kabul meeting on June 6. In their different ways, all of these processes aim to build regional cooperation for the peace and stability of Afghanistan and for secure connectivity in continental Asia. Even small steps toward China-India cooperation in Afghanistan could advance this process and build confidence for additional steps.

This article was originally published by The Indian Express on May 26, 2017

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May 26, 2017
Barnett Rubin