Will the China-Pakistan-Taliban troika in Afghanistan make India irrelevant?
The study has been authored by Hemant Adlakha
What does China-Taliban “bonhomie” in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan indicate for India? Numerous speculative analyses have emerged in recent times and many more will follow. So far, disappointingly, the usual clichéd routine and unimaginative interpretations are being offered, i.e., now is the time India should discard its policy of non-alignment; in addition to the Taliban take over, a friendly, pro-Beijing Taliban is not only a foreign policy setback but it is also a blow to India’s national security concerns; it will mean India being pushed into deeper conflicts with both Beijing and Islamabad, and so on.
Let us view the situation from another perspective. Why is there a broad consensus among China’s scholars that an “ambitious” India must be rendered “inconsequential” in an Afghanistan full of uncertainties? Why are analysts in Beijing asserting that Afghanistan is merely a small part of India’s strategy? Following the chaotic American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, there has been a “tsunami” of editorials, op-ed pieces and commentaries in the Chinese offline and online media. Within hours of the United States (US) completing the troop withdrawal, an article titled (in Chinese) “India suffers a severe strategic blow in a changing Afghanistan” was uploaded on the website of popular digital news platform, guancha.cn. What is interesting drew 200,000 visitors – an unusually high number on India-themed commentary. The article was based on an Indian analysis by a former lieutenant general on a digital news and current affairs platform, entitled “India backed the wrong horse in Afghanistan, and has gone into a strategic sulk now.” Though the article in Chinese emphasised the claim by the Indian analysis that “India’s actions in Afghanistan stem more out of pique for the triumph of radical Taliban and its mentor Pakistan, and less due to the lack of strategic options. However, the guancha.cn picked up the Indian article for entirely different reasons – reasons perhaps India’s strategic affairs or China-watcher community are yet to pay attention to.
First, though true that after the US initiated the peace talks with the Taliban in Doha in 2018, all major countries involved in Afghanistan except India have engaged with the Taliban to safeguard their respective interests. Moreover, as soon as Washington disclosed President Trump was contemplating a possible full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Beijing instantly swung into action and began holding consultations with Islamabad on its future Afghan strategy. A sputniknews.cn editorial (in Chinese) had then commented: “Following reports in the US media of the [Trump] administration planning to vacate half of its 14,000 forces in Afghanistan, the US plan to withdraw troops has emerged as a major agenda for China and Pakistan.” Second, in December 2018, when asked about the hurriedly called meeting between the foreign ministers from China and Pakistan in the Chinese capital, the Chinese spokesperson denied at a foreign ministry press briefing that the two ministers were meeting to discuss the issue of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. At the time, Japan’s Nikkei Asia too had reported that China was courting the Taliban since 2018 on possible projects in Afghanistan. “There are verbal agreements between Beijing and Taliban about investments. Once the Taliban government gains global recognition, China will start building infrastructure projects in war-torn Afghanistan,” the Japanese news agency said. Third, it is also important to note what are the key components in China’s strategy to safeguard its investments in the Af-Pak border region and in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) under the Belt and Road Initiative? Two factors. First, to keep India out of Afghanistan; second, if at all India manages to adjust its policies and restores contact with the Taliban, make the Indian role under the Taliban ruled Afghanistan inconsequential, as stated by a now retired senior People’s Liberation Army colonel in a guest column in the New York Times. Marginalising India in the post-US era Afghanistan will result in more than one advantages for China, the colonel wrote. Namely, the Indian opposition to BRI’s signature CPEC initiative will become totally ineffective; this will further facilitate China to smoothly expand Beijing’s efforts in financing and building infrastructure across the region, which in turn will extend the Belt-and-Road access to markets in West Asia; the Taliban-Pakistan-China “troika” will ensure India is not allowed to create trouble in both Pakistan’s troubled Baluchistan region and “engineer” terrorist strikes especially targeting Chinese construction projects and the Chinese personnel.
It is in this backdrop, the increased relevance of the Taliban commitment made to Beijing recently must be understood. Furthermore, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson has recently recalled how China-Afghanistan cooperation under the BRI framework has always delivered tangible results. “China and Afghanistan are traditionally friendly neighbors. It [the Taliban] also believes that the BRI can contribute to national and regional development and prosperity, and hopes to continue to support and participate in it,” the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said recently.
On the other hand, the Chinese media is filled with news reports and commentaries about China-Pakistan-Taliban “troika” joint initiatives under BRI, especially in the areas falling within or under the CPEC. Recent reports in Chinese and global media confirm China is willing to expand its multi-billion dollar BRI into Afghanistan. As was also reported in an Indian financial daily, “China is fully aware that the Taliban too believes the initiative [BRI] is good for development and prosperity in the war-ravaged Afghanistan.” Finally, in Beijing’s view, India must blame itself for the mess it is in following the chaotic withdrawal by the US in Afghanistan. According to Qian Feng, a professor at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University: “India's past strategy has pushed itself into embarrassment. It cannot make a U-turn in its Afghan policies, nor can it cast aside the geopolitical influence of the US and its Western allies.”
The study has been accessed by clicking here.
(The study has been authored by Hemant Adlakha)