Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping look out over the East Lake in Wuhan in this photo taken on April 28, 2018. Their talk was aimed at reducing border tensions but it appears to have had limited effect. Photo: AFP/ Govt handout

At their recent informal summit at Wuhan, China, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed for the two countries to undertake a joint economic project in Afghanistan. 

This will be the first such joint project undertaken by the two countries anywhere in the world. 

There is no doubt that this project, along with other measures, will help reduce the trust deficit between the two Asian giants. But anyone who says that this project, whose modalities are yet to be worked out,  will “upset” China’s all-weather friend Pakistan or is a “snub” to Pakistan cannot be serious.

China and Pakistan have enough joint economic and defense projects in and along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – a PLA Navy base in Gwadar, the upcoming military base in Jiwani, and the PLA Brigade Base close to Skardu. In addition, they closely collaborate in the nuclear and defense production fields. 

Both China and Pakistan have tried to persuade India to join the CPEC. For Pakistan to be “upset,” “jolted” or snubbed by a joint India-China economic project in Afghanistan is only wishful thinking.

China has reportedly tried enhancing its sway in Afghanistan with help from Pakistan and through the China-Pakistan-Afghanistan trilateral – which has not worked. So China wants to enhance its influence in Afghanistan with India’s help.

A joint project no doubt would help both countries, but many may be unaware that some 15,000 Chinese nationals were in Afghanistan even before the US invasion in 2001. China has been part of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group comprising the US, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan, from its very inception.

China is the only country drilling commercial oil in Afghanistan and mining copper. The Chinese Mining Company (MCC) bagged a long-term mining contract in Afghanistan at a throwaway price in 2009 – it was equated to buying Manhattan for fistfuls of shiny beads.

China has already built a road linking to Afghanistan through the Wakhan Corridor. It is in talks to extend the CPEC to Afghanistan, is progressing the China-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Iran Railway, and is helping Afghanistan set up a Brigade Base in the Badakshan region adjacent to the Wakhan Corridor. The base will see a strong People’s Liberation Army presence, in the garb of construction, training, equipping and the like.

China doesn’t really need India to increase its “influence” in Afghanistan. Any joint venture would help both economies. But yes, the major takeaway from a joint venture with India would be for China to project itself as a benign power. The question of China “snubbing” Pakistan does not arise, given China’s strategic aims. Besides, hasn’t Pakistan leased Gilgit-Baltistan to China for 50 years, a region that is China’s strategic pivot for progressing operations to the west and south?

The joint economic project with China in Afghanistan is of advantage to India, is naturally good for the Indian economy, and logically, it should provide inherent security from terrorist attacks allegedly backed by Pakistan.

The project should also set the tone for more bilateral/trilateral Indian projects in Afghanistan in collaboration other countries such as Iran, the US, Russia, Afghanistan, China and Central Asian nations. But these will depend on whether India takes the initiative or not. And ideally, India should take the initiative rather than waiting for China to do so.

In 2010, the Pentagon predicted that Afghanistan could become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium,” amid revelations that mineral deposits in Afghanistan were loaded with that element. China is already outpacing the US and others in a global race to secure supplies of lithium. A Sino-Indian project in Afghanistan to extract lithium and possibly set up manufacturing units would be good for both countries and help boost Afghanistan’s economy.

Prakash Katoch

The author retired as lieutenant general from the Indian Army's Special Forces.

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