Wednesday, March 6, 2013

India-China shibboleths take time to dissipate

Two years back at a rare colloquium with Delhi’s China watchers, when I mentioned that from an Indian perspective China should be regarded as a ‘factor of stability’ in relation to the worsening Afghan situation, eyebrows were raised and vague traces of condescending smile began spreading on many familiar faces suggesting I was an innocent abroad trespassing into a mystique land where I might lose my way. 
Today, we are a lot closer to that maverick idea, which was obviously struggling to be born. No doubt, the proposed idea of an ‘Afghan dialogue’ between India and China took its time to mature, but its raison d’etre was never in doubt. 
This may sound a paradox, but India and China do share a lot of common ground on the Afghan problem. First and foremost, both are stakeholders in Afghanistan’s stabilization. Both have searing experiences of terror radiating from the Afghan-Pakistan border regions and they shudder to think of Afghanistan becoming a revolving door for international terrorists. 
Neither India nor China abhors Islamism as such but both are acutely conscious of the dangers posed by radical Islamist groups. Thus, Afghanistan as a country of observant Muslims is an idea that neither would have a problem with, but both India and China disfavor a takeover in Kabul by the Taliban. 
Neither is a great game player in the big league, associated with the rival projects of Russia’s Eurasian Union or the United States’ New Silk Road Initiative, but both could take advantage of the regional stability and development that these enterprises of the great powers may come to offer.
Most important, neither India nor China will get involved on the ground militarily in Afghanistan, while the anticipated post-2014 security vacuum worries them. Arguably, both countries would tacitly welcome the continued commitment — military and civilian — of the ‘international community’ to the stability and security of Afghanistan although they remain sceptical about long-term military presence by outside powers.
But then, there is also going to be an element of competition. India seems destined to ‘lose’ in the competition over accessing the vast resources of Central Asia and Afghanistan. The dismal truth is that India has no transportation route connecting Afghanistan. And none is likely to be available for the foreseeable future. 
This is where China scores. The fact remains that China has an integrated regional vision whereas we seem to lack it, as evident from the volatile ties with Pakistan and the indifferent relationship with Iran. Thus, Gwadar becomes not only a fantastic gateway for Xinjiang (and Central Asian countries) but also holds the potential to create a template in the overall matrix aimed at harmonizing the Chinese and US regional objectives in Central Asia. 
Having said all that, there are specific Chinese concerns in Afghanistan. Let me quote from a commentary in the Global Times newspaper recently:

“For China, there are two worst-case scenarios. The first is one where the US stabilizes Afghanistan, establishes a steady government, and then builds frontline bases. This way, the US could drive a wedge into Central Eurasia, and contain China from both sides. This was one of the collateral strategic goals of the US entry into Afghanistan in 2001. However, Afghanistan has proved a strategic burden, not an asset, to the US, dissipating many of China’s traditional security concerns.
“The second scenario is one where Afghanistan falls into anarchy with the US exit, becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism and drug trade. This will pose serious nontraditional security challenges to China.
“If it remains an onlooker, Afghanistan may be in turmoil and China may suffer, but if China intervenes actively, it may sink into mire like the US, and become the main target of international terrorism. As a result, China should take the initiative in Afghan affairs, while avoiding the failure of the US intervention.”

I took the liberty of quoting extensively from the commentary (here) to underscore that China has genuine compulsions to enter into an ‘Afghan dialogue’ with India.
Suffice to say, a lot of common ground exists for kickstarting a Sino-Indian ‘Afghan dialogue’. Such a dialogue, if it gains traction, would also serve the purpose of building mutual confidence and trust regarding each other’s regional policies in general. Which, in turn, could have positive fallouts for India-China normalization.
The normalization process is proceeding well. As I wrote earlier too, 2012 has been a truly transformative year and our policymakers have done exceedingly well. As recently as in 2006-2007, we were marvelling at the idea of a quadripartite alliance of Asian democracies under the US’s mentorship; as recently as in 2009, we were contemplating how to fasten the ‘global commons’. (Robert Kaplan wrote a full book on it.)
Indeed, both were geopolitical projects with a barely hidden ‘anti-China’ bias. We have come a long way from there, thanks largely to fortuitous circumstances. Yet, some of our pundits conceive the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as our country’s ’sphere of influence’. The doctrine of ‘Indo-Pacific’ — comprising the swathe of the globe stretching from the Strait of Hormuz to Vanuatu — is probably intended as a red herring to China. Shibboleths don’t dissipate easily. We hardly jettisoned one — ’string of pearls’ — with great hesitation.  
Posted in Diplomacy, Politics.
By M K Bhadrakumar March 5, 2013

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