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Daniel Markey is a senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Among the most consistent themes we heard throughout our travel in India and China was anxiety over developments in Afghanistan. While not a huge surprise—after all, there’s plenty of concern about Afghanistan’s trajectory here as well—it was useful to be reminded how New Delhi and Beijing perceive their interests, to hear their misgivings about U.S. drawdown plans, and to learn more about how India and China are attempting to manage the situation as it unfolds.
Afghanistan’s history as a hub for anti-Indian terrorism (with Pakistani sponsorship), location bordering energy-rich Central Asia, opportunities for trade and investment, and longstanding cultural ties all motivate Indian interests there. In at least some Indian policy circles, there is also a tendency to read the impending U.S. military departure from Afghanistan as part of a broader shift: the waning of U.S. power and influence, or at least the narrowing of Washington’s global ambition. The contrast with New Delhi and Beijing is sharp; in both of those rising Asian giants, uncommonly powerful, energetic leaders are now at the helm.
Resigned to the reality that U.S. forces are leaving Afghanistan sooner than many Indians think wise, New Delhi has agreed in principle to work with Russia to provide weapons to friendly Afghan forces. The crucial unanswered question is whether India will choose to make the arrangement operative. Since 9/11, Washington has always opposed Indian military involvement in Afghanistan, fearing that Pakistan would interpret it as a provocative escalation and start another round of externally-sponsored civil war. But as U.S. forces withdraw, sooner or later Washington will lose its effective veto power over Indian policies. If Afghan politics and security start to unravel, India will make its own calculations about the costs and benefits of greater intervention, whether by overt or (given the apparent predilections of its new national security advisor, Ajit Doval) covert means.
India is, however, doing more than just hedging against downside risk in Afghanistan. For years, New Delhi has contributed to a range of Afghan development projects. These include private sector efforts to encourage Indian investment in Afghanistan and to improve Afghan capacity to promote foreign investment on its own. As valuable as these private initiatives may be, they remain small-scale; all involved are painfully aware that they float on the waves of broader political and security developments.
China, like India, fears the consequences of an unstable Afghanistan and worries that the U.S. commitment will come up short. The good news is that Beijing has come to perceive that its near-term aims in Afghanistan are consistent with those of the United States: fighting terrorism and avoiding a relapse into civil war. To the extent the two sides disagree, it is over the specific sources of threat. China, for instance, views Uighur separatists as a more pressing concern than al-Qaeda.
Beijing appears remarkably eager to cooperate with the United States in Afghanistan. After years of standing aloof from regional multilateral efforts, Beijing is now deeply invested in the Istanbul Process, a ministerial-level dialogue that brings together all of Afghanistan’s neighbors and major donors. Having decided to host the next conference in Tianjin, Chinese officials are eager to make it a meaningful event. They plan to link the group’s efforts to China’s own long-term scheme to develop a “New Silk Road” running through Central Asia all the way to Europe.
The success of that grand project will hinge, especially in the conflict-prone territories of South and Central Asia, on whether China learns how to translate its massive foreign investments into local good will and sustainable development. To this end, some Chinese officials suggest Beijing is trying to expand its regional expertise and capacity to understand the political dynamics in developing states. Such efforts have been spurred, in part, by China’s disastrous failure to anticipate Myanmar’s 2011 decision to suspend the Myitsone Dam project. With billions of dollars of Chinese investments already on the line in Afghanistan (and tens of billions planned for the vaunted China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), progress along these lines cannot come fast enough.
The more immediate problem for Beijing is Afghanistan’s ongoing political uncertainty. Without a new government in Kabul, Chinese officials have already been forced to postpone the Istanbul Process conference once, and are likely to have trouble holding to the presently scheduled date of August 29, given anticipated delays in Afghanistan’s election audit and negotiations between the presidential contenders. Beijing’s hope—one undoubtedly shared by U.S. officials—is to use the meeting as a means to confer the international community’s blessing on the next Afghan government. One way to deal with the problem would be to invite both of Afghanistan’s presidential contenders to Tianjin, but Chinese officials are clearly reluctant to move ahead with what would be a diplomatically cumbersome alternative.
The news that Beijing has appointed a new special envoy for Afghanistan provides further evidence of China’s decision to play a more active role in Afghanistan. It also suggests that Beijing intends to strike a more conciliatory and constructive posture on its western periphery than it has on its eastern front. For the United States, this is a welcome, if belated, development, and one worth encouraging.
Follow Daniel Markey on Twitter: @MarkeyDaniel