Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra 24 August 2018
India-China relations have palpably taken a positive turn post-Doklam standoff following an informal meeting between the Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Modi in the Chinese city of Wuhan in April 2018 followed by a meeting on the sidelines of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit Qingdao in June 2018 and BRICS summit meeting in July 2018 where leaders from both sides underlined the need to continue the spirit and momentum of earlier two meetings.
These meetings were essential steps as these attempted at resetting bilateral relations by emphasizing on the areas of cooperation despite the downturn in their relationships in the recent past due to Indian resistance to Chinese construction activities in the disputed territory of Doklam lying in the intersection of Bhutan, China, and India.
These meetings are reported to have gathered some momentum in bilateral relations as they are veered to achieve certain milestones which were far from conceivable earlier, for instance, India-China joint partnership in economic projects and capacity-building in Afghanistan-which would be first of its kind if implemented, signing of agreement to settle issues pertaining to Brahmaputra River dispute and agreement to set up a hotline between their military headquarters to strengthen communication and build trust and mutual understanding to bring more predictability in their military maneuvers and movements to avoid any future Doklam like situation were reportedly some of the critical outcomes of the meetings.
From the Chinese perspective, it seems to be a move to include India into its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in forging economic partnership and connectivity in Afghanistan while New Delhi has desisted from joining the Chinese initiative in the broader South Asian landscape not only on account of its fear of encirclement and but breaching of India’s sovereignty was also a recurring concern (as the project runs through the Gilgit-Baltistan region without India’s consent which it considers as its integral part). Economic partnership with China in Afghanistan would also ensure India’s economic engagements from Pakistani wrath in no small extent, and therefore, it would put both countries in a win-win situation.
Chinese attempts at forging close ties with India also seem to be byproducts of frosty US-China relations with the US President Trump poised to wage a trade war with Beijing. China has liberalized its trade with India on specific items, for instance, Beijing has not only made it easier for India to export non-Basmati rice but it has also removed import duties on anti-cancer drugs since May 2018. In one of the significant developments in bilateral relations China was witnessed for the first time restraining from objecting to Pakistan’s inclusion in the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) ‘grey list’ on the ground of
Islamabad’s failure to freeze assets of terror outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad which fell squarely with India’s anti-terror campaigns at international forums. This will place Islamabad’s banking and monetary transactions under the global scanner. India’s gesture towards China changed significantly post-Doklam to push bilateral diplomacy with China as there were not only reports pertaining to instructions to officials and political figures to dissociate from events with which Dalai Lama was associated, Modi also cleared dust related to Chinese suspicions over Indian intentions in the Indian Ocean by distancing New Delhi from any group or policy aimed at containing China at the Shangri-La Dialogue forum in Singapore on June 1, 2018. Both India and China share common concerns in Afghanistan and seek a stable and peaceful Afghanistan not only to safeguard their economic investments; they equally share the threat of spilling over of terrorism from unstable Afghanistan to Kashmir and Xinxiang regions respectively.
Notwithstanding these developments in bilateral relations, the Pakistani factor will come into play in determining the depth of ties and deciding whether both will be able to implement what they have agreed to in the meetings. Both are yet to finalize the specific area of economic partnership in Afghanistan while it is reported that they would first work in the broad field of enhancing the state’s capacity-building. While Afghanistan may witness a surge in India-China joint economic partnerships, India would still be a minor security player in Kabul. China not only acquired a mediating role in Afghan reconciliation efforts with Pakistani assistance, but Beijing also took concerted efforts at aligning the Afghan and Pakistani interests in Afghanistan by brokering strained relations between the two governments.
China and Pakistan along with Afghanistan have launched a trilateral engagement at the foreign ministers level to discuss security issues about Afghanistan. China is reported to have planned to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan before engaging India in the joint economic partnership initiatives. China has invested heavily in the CPEC project (starting estimation of which was $46 billion which was subsequently revised) in constructing roads, port and building other connectivity infrastructure in Pakistan. While China and Pakistan see enormous bilateral economic and strategic gains from developing Gwadar port, it is further reported that Beijing is engaged in building a small city for half a million Chinese nationals in the port town of Gwadar which would cost it around $150 million. It is unlikely that China would ignore Pakistani security considerations and unflinchingly move ahead with India and put its investments in jeopardy.
Although both India and China share common threat perceptions from festering anarchy and terrorism, threat perceptions in Afghanistan differed so far as the source is concerned. China like Iran and Russia perceives a more significant and immediate threat from ISIS rather than the Taliban while India keeps insisting that terrorism from any group in Afghanistan and Pakistan must be dealt with firmly. India seems to be more concerned about the influence of the Taliban in Afghanistan given the group’s ability not only to become a political stakeholder; it fears that the radical Islamic group might come to power corning other political voices.
Chinese fear in Afghanistan stems from the fact that there are reportedly around 5000 ethnic Uighurs belonging to the Muslim minority community of the Xinjiang province have joined the ISIS in Syria as claimed by the Syrian ambassador to China. As a result, Pakistan, Russia, and China are reported to have invigorated their reconciliation efforts intended to prop up the Taliban as a political stakeholder and as a hedge against increasing sway of ISIS in Afghanistan and they believe that the US is not genuinely interested in Afghan peace and stability and look over the threat posed by ISIS.
Russia has announced its plan to host a peace conference with the Taliban on September 4, 2018, to which the Afghan government has already denied sending a delegation on the ground that it has breached the principle that any peace process must be initiated by Afghanistan and must be Afghan-led. The US has also turned down the invitation to Russia-led peace efforts and argues that it is unlikely to bring peace in Afghanistan. War, peace, and security in Afghanistan are complicated issues, so is India-China partnership in Afghanistan.