x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

New great game in Afghanistan tugs at China and India

Once again the highlands of Central Asia, from the Karakoram Range to the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan, are the cynosure of the region's eyes.

One month ago, Chinese and Indian troops were eyeball-to-eyeball in a lonely, treeless, snowed-over valley called Depsang in the eastern Ladakh region of India's northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. Soldiers were involved in a staring match that lasted three weeks until the Chinese People's Liberation Army pulled back to its side of the contested border between the two Asian powers.

Last Sunday evening, as the temperature in Delhi zoomed towards 45 degrees, the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, landed in the Indian capital on his first stop abroad and as part of a four-nation tour that also took him to Pakistan and Switzerland. He arrives in Germany today.

With the intrusion in the Depsang Valley fresh in their minds, the maintenance of peace and tranquillity on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) was on top of the agenda between India's prime minister Manmohan Singh and Mr Li.

Indian officials confirmed they had warned the Chinese of diplomatic repercussions if they didn't pull back from Depsang, a euphemism for calling off Premier Li's visit to India. Since it was the Chinese who had proposed the visit in the first place, barely 10 days before the violation of the LAC in mid-April, the Indian sources said they remained baffled by the contradictory signs from Beijing.

The Chinese premier had barely left Delhi for Mumbai when Afghan president Hamid Karzai landed in the Indian capital from Jalandhar in Punjab. Mr Karzai's first stop, to receive an honorary doctorate from Lovely Professional University, a private school of learning where hundreds of Afghan students are studying.

With the endgame in Afghanistan drawing closer by the day and America announcing it would leave behind nine bases when it withdraws most troops by April 2014, the Punjab university honour was an obvious ruse for Mr Karzai to come to Delhi and talk to the Indian leadership about the post-2014 scenario at home.

Last week, an Afghan leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity admitted the heightened nervousness in Kabul as the results of elections in neighbouring Pakistan came in thick and fast. The Afghan leader pointed out that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province that borders Afghanistan, had in any case been won by Imran Khan's Tehreek-i-Insaaf party, which had promised to open talks with the Taliban. Nawaz Sharif had also agreed with that strategy.

In the Afghan analysis, the Pakistan army, whose pervasive influence Mr Sharif hopes to mitigate at least in relations with India, will continue calling the shots on the Afghan-Pakistan relationship. In a mark of the rising tension, none other than Mr Karzai recently called upon Pakistan to stop unwarranted shelling across the border and using Taliban insurgents as proxies to carry out attacks inside Afghanistan.

The Afghan official pointed out that Mr Karzai's visit to Delhi was to push the Indian leadership into putting some meat into the bones of the Security Partnership Agreement signed with India in August 2011. The Afghans not only want India to train Afghan army and police personnel in India, but also "train the trainers" in logistics and repair work.

Once again the highlands of Central Asia, from the Karakoram Range - which stretches from Pakistan to China, skirting the Wakhan corridor and Tajikistan - to the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan are the cynosure of the region's eyes. As the US draws down from Afghanistan, ending a 13-year presence in that country, the Afghan leadership is growing increasingly skittish at the idea of being doubly challenged by Taliban insurgents at home, as well as those connected to Pakistan's establishment next door.

Afghanistan featured peripherally on talks between Mr Li and the Indian prime minister; the focus was on preventing Depsang-like incursions across the LAC into Indian territory from occurring again, as well as finding ways to settle the boundary issue over which India and China fought a bitter conflict in 1962.

Nevertheless, both countries agreed that an "Afghan-owned and an Afghan-led" peace and reconciliation process must be adopted.

A conversation on Afghanistan has already begun, not least because China has bought the rights to mine copper ore in Mes Aynak in northern Afghanistan as well as gold and oil deposits elsewhere. For the time being, at least, the Chinese have quietly resisted a public role in the post-2014 scenario, in deference to the lead role its all-weather friend and partner Pakistan hopes to play in Afghanistan once the Americans leave. China is also happy to watch its chief rival, the US, lick its wounds as it withdraws battered.

But Beijing also seems to be concerned about rising Islamic insurgency and Uighur nationalism in Xinjiang, its western province that borders Central Asia as well as Afghanistan.

For now Beijing seems to believe that Pakistan will be able to control these "fringe elements" that are a continuing cause of instability in its periphery.

But the Afghans are not so sure. This has been Mr Karzai's 15th visit to Delhi since he became president. As the endgame of the war in Afghanistan begins, the Afghan search for watertight commitments from the region's players to respect its sovereignty intensifies. A new chapter in the regional Great Game is already underway. India, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan are all looking for ways to play.


Jyoti Malhotra is a political and foreign affairs analyst based in Delhi

On Twitter: @jomalhotra