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Common interests in Afghanistan test China-India ties

Few in New Delhi are expecting Beijing to change its Afghanistan policy significantly to suit Indian interests.

The counter-terrorism dialogue between China and India finally took a serious turn this year as the two powers discussed the issue of Afghanistan for the first time. The impending departure of Nato forces from Afghanistan and the spectre of looming chaos seem to have persuaded Beijing that it cannot ignore the "Af-Pak" challenge forever. The two decided to initiate a long-overdue dialogue on Afghanistan which took place last month.

Since 2002, China and India have held talks on counterterrorism, cooperation widely viewed as an opportunity to find common ground on a major security challenge facing both New Delhi and Beijing. But these hopes were quickly laid to rest when nothing of substance emerged from these dialogues.

The reason for the failure is not difficult to decipher. From the Indian perspective, a main source of terrorism is Pakistan; many in New Delhi argue that Islamabad has continued to view terrorism as a tool of national policy to further their interests vis--vis India. For China, Pakistan is an important asset in its South Asia policy. As a consequence, where New Delhi had expected to make common cause with Beijing against Islamabad and Rawalpindi, there was only disappointment at the outcome of these dialogues.

But as concerns rise in the region about the consequences of the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan next year, China is showing nascent interest in coordinating with India on this issue.

China and India have both made major investments in Afghanistan since 2002. The impact of Afghanistan's destabilisation will be felt not only in Kashmir but also in Xinjiang, where the East Turkestan Islamic Movement is leading a separatist charge. China has also indicated that it is not sure if Pakistan's security establishment actually continues to have control over the Taliban and other extremist groups in the context of the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Pakistan.

China and India both have reiterated that a regional approach is necessary to maintain peace and stability in Afghanistan. According to some reports, the two sides have agreed to support the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to play a greater role in Afghanistan and discuss antiterror cooperation within the framework of the Istanbul Process agreed upon in 2011.

Towards that end, trilateral consultations between China, India and Russia were recently held in Moscow, and to maintain regional balance these were followed by China-Russia-Pakistan talks in Beijing.

Though it is indeed encouraging that Beijing appears to be recognising the need to work with India on Afghanistan, there is ample reason to believe that New Delhi will be treading cautiously as it moves forward with its dialogue with Beijing.

Since 2001, China had adopted a hands-off policy towards Afghanistan, preferring the US to do most of the heavy lifting. China did not want a serious involvement in Afghanistan but it also did not want a victory for the extremists, given its negative effect on China's problems with Uighur separatists in Xinjiang. Apart from the $3 billion (Dh 11 billion) Aynak copper mine project, China has made little effort to project its economic power in Afghanistan.

But as the departure of western forces from Afghanistan approaches, China has upped its game. It was in 2007 that the state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corporation secured a 30-year lease on Mes Aynak in Afghanistan's Logar province. Though progress has been slow and Afghan insurgents have targeted the mine, Beijing is expecting to extract $100 billion worth of copper from the site.

Meanwhile, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has also helped Afghanistan in setting up the country's first commercial oil production site, which is likely to extract 1.5 million barrels of oil annually from 2013.

China's huge appetite for resources will make sure that Afghanistan, with over $1 trillion in potential mineral wealth, gets adequate attention from Beijing. With China's backing, Afghanistan became an observer in the SCO and China has signed a strategic partnership agreement with Kabul. More significantly, Beijing has access to the Taliban through Pakistan, having been the only non-Islamic nation in touch with Mullah Omar in the late 1990s.

The deteriorating internal security situation in Pakistan has strained Sino-Pakistan ties in recent years. China Kingho Group, one of China's largest private coal mining companies, pulled out of what was to be Pakistan's largest foreign-investment pact, citing concerns for the security of its personnel.

Amid worries about the potential destabilising influence of Pakistani militants on China's Muslim minority in Xinjiang, Beijing has also taken a harder line against Pakistan. The flow of arms and terrorists from across the border remains a major headache for Chinese authorities, and Islamabad's inability (or failure) to curb extremism makes it difficult for the Chinese to trust Pakistan completely.

But it is equally the case that China, at least publicly, has continued to emphasise that its relationship with Pakistan is more important than isolated incidents of violence.

In this context, few in New Delhi are expecting Beijing to change its Afghanistan policy significantly to suit Indian interests. The road to stability in Kabul lies through Rawalpindi, and China has few incentives to challenge Pakistan's security establishment's traditional view that continues to look at Afghanistan for chimerical "strategic depth" against India.

Notwithstanding recent positive signals from China, New Delhi is unlikely to find a partner in Beijing in the management of post-2014 turmoil in Afghanistan.

Harsh V Pant is a reader in international studies at King's College, London

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