The informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping on April 27-28, 2018 at Wuhan, China, sought by India, was well publicized. The MEA brief issued on April 28, elaborated among other issues, agreement for proper management of the bilateral relationship conducive for development and prosperity of the region, creating conditions for the "Asian Century". Modi and Xi also agreed that India and China, given their vast developmental experiences and national capacities, should join hands to take the lead in offering innovative and sustainable solutions to 21st century challenges.
India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale briefed the media on April 28 on decisions taken to issue strategic guidance to the respective militaries to strengthen communication, to build trust and understanding, to implement various confidence-building measures, and to strengthen existing institutional mechanisms to prevent and manage situations in border areas.
The Wuhan Summit was considered a breakthrough after the Doklam standoff but, ironically, Chinese don’t mean what they say. China is back in Doklam with greater strength. The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) made 30 intrusions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) during May 2018. In June; 50 PLA troops transgressed two km into Sikkim, resulting in a four-hour standoff; 14 violations were reported between August 4 and 19 in Ladakh, the deepest being 18 km. There were four violations in Uttarakhand, one four km deep. In August the PLA, dressed as grazers, pitched tents at Demchok across the LAC and, despite a flag meeting between both sides, some tents remain with PLA grazers. In October, uniformed PLA troops crossed the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh.
These indicate Chinese border violations have increased since the Wuhan Summit. The MEA brief made no mention of Afghanistan. However, an April 28 news report said Modi and Xi had agreed to undertake a joint India-China economic project in Afghanistan.
The report also said China held a trilateral meeting with foreign ministers of Pakistan and Afghanistan in December 2017 and announced plans to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan.
There was much curiosity about what the joint India-China Joint Project in Afghanistan would be until reports that, as a follow up to Wuhan, the first joint India-China joint project for Afghanistan was kicked off on October 15, 2018 through the China-India Joint Capacity Building Program for diplomats from Afghanistan at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in New Delhi.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said, “I am very happy we are chartering a new course with the beginning of a training program for 10 diplomats from Afghanistan in partnership with China”. Chinese Ambassador Luo Zhaohui, reading a message from Foreign Minister Wang Yi, said, “This Joint Capacity Building Program is an essential part of international efforts to assist Afghanistan and marks the start of China-India-Afghanistan cooperation. It is a testament to the joint aspiration and endeavour of China and India, both major, responsible developing countries, to contribute to regional peace and stability.”
But India has for years run courses for foreign diplomats, including Afghans, so all that has happened in this program is inclusion of China.
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Afghan mujahideen training camps were shifted from Pakistan to Xinjiang in China. PLA trained and supported them during the war, equipping them with anti-aircraft missiles, rocket launchers and machine guns. In recent years, China has provided similar support and weaponry to Afghan Taliban for fighting the US-NATO forces in Afghanistan, even providing PLA advisors.
In September 2018, Janan Mosazai, Afghan Ambassador to China, announced China will train Afghan soldiers in China, joining plane crews already training in China. China is extending financial support to establish a military base in Badakhshan province of Afghanistan, as also financing and training a new Afghan mountain brigade to be housed there. Naturally, PLA troops will also be located there. PLA troops already patrol inside eastern Afghanistan; albeit Beijing’s cover story is engagement in joint law enforcement operations in border areas to prevent terrorist activities. China has completed a 75 km long road through the Wakhan Corridor.
China is the only country extracting commercial oil and copper mining in Afghanistan for several years. There is no Taliban interference because China has supported and armed the Taliban. Since 2010, China increased its economic aid and investment in Afghanistan after winning a $3 billion contract to extract copper from the Mes Aynak mines in Afghanistan during 2008. In September 2017, China extended $12 million for development projects only in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province.
China is Afghanistan’s biggest foreign investor today, mainly for resource extraction and infrastructure building. China’s role has grown in the telecom sector from supplying Afghanistan with telecom equipment in 2007 to the construction of fiber-optic links in 2017.
In this backdrop, running a joint India-China program to train Afghan diplomats may be good for projecting China as a benign power but it is a far cry from initiating a joint economic project in Afghanistan.
Is our lackadaisical attitude and inability in timely completion of projects abroad holding us back from taking the initiative for a joint India-China economic project in Afghanistan? Have we even discussed options with China and Afghanistan that would be good for Afghanistan’s economy, create employment and benefit all three, especially where China-Taliban collusion provides inherent security for such a project?
China recently invested $4 billion to become the second-largest investor in Chile, giving China effective control over nearly half the current global production of lithium, which is a critical component for electric car batteries. Afghanistan has vast reserves of lithium that can be extracted, refined and marketed. Can India take on such a project in Afghanistan jointly with China? This is just one example, but the question is will India take the initiative or be content with what China dictates?
(The author is a retired general of the Indian Army. He can be contacted at email@example.com)