If there is one tangible takeaway from the recent Wuhan Summit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, it is
the agreement to work jointly on an economic project in Afghanistan. This would be seen as a setback by Pakistan which has been working
hard to exclude India from a region it considers as its strategic backyard.
Pakistan's reaction to the development will be keenly watched as Islamabad is in talks with Beijing to extend its economic corridor with China (CPEC) to Afghanistan. An India-China initiative — in a country where Pakistan-backed terrorists have targeted Indian nationals and projects would be at odds with Islamabad's expectations.
Prior to the summit, Beijing had invited Indian officials who deal with Afghanistan and had reportedly proposed both sides getting involved in a joint development project. If this means anything, it is that China is unwilling to have its options cramped by Pakistan's reservations about India's role in Afghanistan.
India has been playing for high stakes in Afghanistan and no one knows this better than the India-watchers in Beijing. The Indians have
pledged over $2 billion on a wide array of reconstruction projects that range from building roads and dams to constructing the building of the Afghan parliament and a slew of grassroots projects.
New Delhi sees Afghanistan as a bridge to Central Asia and a potential hub of regional prosperity. That the Chinese have decided to
facilitate Indian involvement makes one wonder about its strategic thinking.
Clearly, the Xi administration in China is not in favour of putting all its eggs in Pakistan’s basket. It is inherently suspicious of Pakistan’s terror machine, especially because it too has been a victim of Muslim insurgency in its western region of Xinjiang where it is
still grappling with the challenge to its authority.
Keen as the Chinese are to step into American shoes in Afghanistan, they see the Afghan government wariness about Islamabad’s role as a
roadblock in their efforts to assume a greater role in the region.
India, meanwhile, is viewed with greater friendly feeling in Kabul and the Chinese see no harm for tactical reasons in involving
New Delhi in a limited way to establish greater trust with the Afghans.
However, this is not to say that there would be a setback to China-Pakistan ties in the context of Afghanistan. One isolated project in tie-up
with India would only send out a message to Islamabad that the Chinese will not work to their bidding. Unless the Pakistanis make an issue of it with them, their own collaborating with Beijing would not be affected.
Until this day, there has not been a single project undertaken with trilateral cooperation between China, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
During the Cold War, Kabul had excellent relations with Beijing but many issues in ties with Pakistan: Afghanistan’s support for
“Pashtunistan” and territorial disputes linked to the Durand line being the prime among them.
The first goal of China is to boost trilateral people-to-people exchanges. Afghanistan and Pakistan regularly exchange think tank,
journalist, and parliamentary delegations. Sino-Afghan exchange programmes are also on the rise.
According to the Chinese Embassy in Afghanistan, in 2016, they had sent 26 Afghan delegations to China. But there is a very limited number of exchanges fostering a trilateral “connectivity of minds.”
Whether the Sino-Indian proposed joint venture in Afghanistan would take off and lead to more such ventures remains to be seen. There is
no doubt that India has high stakes in Afghanistan and the Chinese are looking at a share in the Afghan reconstruction pie. But there are many imponderables.
The Indian development of the Chabahar Port in Iran had the avowed intent of giving the Afghans access to the sea. Now the Iranians have invited the Chinese to partake in that project alongside India.