Friends, foes, or frenemies?
Chinese interest in Afghanistan by means of collaboration with India is one that invites greater critical deliberation
Sino-Indian relations have been characterised by two things: trade since antiquity, and territory in the modern times. Economic interest along with security concerns marks the politely difficult relations with China. Compounding that is the unbridled Chinese ambition to be a hegemonic entity. This grand go-getting determination is fuelled by the collective Chinese trauma from being colonised and humiliated by the West and Japan. It is the aspiration to restore their honour which suffered a lethal attack during its days of colonialism that is causing China to belligerently expand its presence and establish its hegemony beyond the Chinese vicinity. A new area ventured into in partnership with India is Afghanistan.
India has been a benevolent neighbour to Afghanistan, supporting and helping rebuild the war-ravaged state. India has invested significantly in capacity-building in Afghanistan at various stages and extended valuable economic and political support. Much to Pakistan's disfavour, the common chronic offender to both development-seeking neighbours, positive relations between India and Afghanistan can potentially contain the non-stately activities sponsored by the Pakistani establishment. Flanked by provoked and aggravated separatist conflicts with ethnic communities in Balochistan and Kashmir, Pakistan-nursed terrorism has now farther-reaching dimensions as development and economic interest take precedence over ideology – on the surface. Chinese interest in Afghanistan (which is studied to be replete with natural resources worth at least $3 trillion) by means of collaboration with India is one that deserves greater critical deliberation.
This collaboration seeks to identify projects that will improve the lives of common Afghan citizens and concurrently pave the way for a joint connectivity project through Afghanistan linking China with Iran later in the future. This proposal is not likely to be a part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor given India's strong reservations against this project as it disregards India's territorial integrity by including the disputed PoK region. India has also signed up for joint projects with USA in Afghanistan and had even co-hosted an entrepreneurship meet there last year. India and Russia remain engaged in dialogue over the situation in Afghanistan. While India and China have partnered for joint hydrocarbon projects in Sudan, Syria, and Colombia, undertaking a joint project in a South Asian country will be a first of its kind.
In 2017, India had decided to undertake 116 high-impact community development projects in 31 provinces of Afghanistan. The investments will be made in areas of health, education, agriculture, irrigation, drinking water, renewable energy, flood control, micro-hydro power, sports, and administrative infrastructure. It is also decided that the ongoing programmes (among the biggest of such initiatives in the global arena) of education, capacity-building, skills and human resource development of Afghanistan will continue for a five-year period extending to 2022. With such massive initiative and investment in Afghanistan by India, it is expected that Afghan loyalty will be for India before China. But given the perturbing frequency of kidnapping of Indian engineers in Afghanistan, it is a possibility that such deterrence is a deliberately encouraged development.
China is known to be adept at executing dept-trap diplomacy. Sri Lanka's Hambantota deep sea port has pretty much prepared grounds for China to colonise Sri Lanka for the next entire century. To USA's discomfiture, Djibouti, home to the US military's main base in Africa, looks about to cede control of another key port to a Beijing-linked company. With the Belt and Road Initiative, China has marked its presence in strategic locations of developing countries; and by extending the much-needed financial and economic support to these countries, China is extracting more and more influence in these strategic regions. As a result, with mounting debt, these countries cede economic power to an increasingly rapacious China.
China's economic invasion in needy territories intends to support the local economy only secondarily. Primarily, it is the Chinese interest in access to natural resources and/or market for its low-cost export goods. In this age, the strength of a nation is its economy and a sound economy is the product of all state machineries functioning optimally in tandem. This economic structure can rest securely on foundations of a smoothly functioning society despite all its diversity. Ensuring that remains the bigger task. China epitomises the pragmatism that economic strength must precede military might so that economic terms may be dictated with the deterrence of military might. International relations are too dynamic as they are susceptible to changes tweaked by the mighty and dominant economy. But internal security and self-sufficiency of the domestic economy are the factors that will facilitate leveraging maximum benefits from changes in the international scenario. Everything between India and China ultimately boils down to matters of economy and territory. Maintaining a fine balance between economy and territory, it is for India to decide the extent to which China will be a friend or a foe.
(The author is Senior Copy Editor with Millennium Post. The views expressed are strictly personal)