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India and China have agreed to start a dialogue on Afghanistan, lending an interesting twist to hedging among regional powers ahead of the planned withdrawal of NATO troops in 2014.
An in-principle agreement on official-level dialogue has been reached, sources said, and dates for the first meeting are being worked out. Already, the two countries have dialogue on Central Asia, West Asia and Africa.
Earlier this week, National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon travelled to Moscow for the first three-way dialogue between India, Russia and China on Afghanistan in an effort to build on common security concerns.
What is notable about the planned bilateral conversation is that it grew out of a Chinese proposal for a dialogue on South Asia, much on the lines of what the two had initiated on other regions.
However, India was not too keen on opening up conversation about its own neighbourhood with China, a key security factor in many of the South Asian countries, apart from the fact that New Delhi felt that there was not much in common to discuss in the region. Delhi was also apprehensive about, say, the Tibetan question coming up. India therefore made a counter proposal to hold a dialogue on Afghanistan.
As of now, India has an institutionalised dialogue on Afghanistan only with the US.
While Pakistan is not officially part of the dialogue with China, it's likely to be discussed. India expects that China, just like any growing regional power, will seek to re-define its role in Afghanistan after the US and its allies reduce their military presence. Already, China has invested in the mining sector and, through Pakistan, aims to corner infrastructure projects.
From a security standpoint, China is focused on its western borders to quell any problems from Islamic fundamentalist groups in Xinjiang. To that extent, engagement with Afghanistan is a logical extension of its Pakistan policy.