Talking of interests

Delhi must build on India-China talks on Afghanistan without any illusions on China's Afghan calculus

The first official conversation between India and China on Afghanistan, in Beijing last week, had been long overdue. That Delhi and Beijing had not talked to each other until now on such an important issue points to the huge gaps in their expanding political engagement in recent years. The rivalrous nature of Sino-Indian relations has meant there has been little incentive for an honest engagement on regional security issues. Worse still, China's enduring strategic partnership with the Pakistan army has prevented Beijing from talking to Delhi on issues deemed sensitive for Rawalpindi. Afghanistan has always been on top of that list.

China's readiness to talk to India on Afghanistan, therefore, is a step forward. These bilateral consultations come as Afghanistan prepares for multiple transitions in the next two years. For one, the US is preparing to end its military occupation by 2014 and is handing over responsibilities to Afghan security forces, whose effectiveness is widely doubted. Second, next year's elections are likely to see a new leader replacing President Hamid Karzai, who has been Afghanistan's voice for more than a decade. Third, there are multiple channels in play, trying to promote a political reconciliation between the international community and the Taliban. Together, the three factors make Afghanistan's future an extremely uncertain one.

The India-China dialogue is part of a wider process in which all of Afghanistan's neighbours are talking to each other. It is built on the recognition that potential chaos in Afghanistan will unleash forces of violent extremism that threaten the security of both India and China. While this conversation is welcome, Delhi should have no illusions that India is a priority partner for Beijing in dealing with Afghanistan. Beijing sees itself as a great power addressing a regional issue by consulting with relevant parties. Beijing is presenting the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a regional forum built by China for more than a decade, as the main multilateral mechanism to cope with the changing dynamic in Afghanistan. And Beijing has every reason to rely on Rawalpindi to secure its growing interests in Afghanistan. Geography and strategic ambition make the Pakistan army the main external actor shaping Afghanistan's future. Dialogue with India might have its value, but partnership with Pakistan remains absolutely central to China's Afghan calculus.

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