China’s growing role in Afghanistan, Kashmir

November 21, 2009 at 10:46 pm (Global Issues) ()


China is beginning to act more like a global superpower by playing an increasingly important role in its South Asian neighborhood, with growing interest in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

The United States, as the reigning superpower deeply involved in South Asia, essentially acknowledged China’s stature in the region when the following paragraph found its way into the joint communique issued by President Barak Obama and President Hu Jintao at the end their recent summit in Beijing:

“The two sides welcomed all efforts conducive to peace, stability and development in South Asia. They support the efforts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight terrorism, maintain domestic stability and achieve sustainable economic and social development, and support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan. The two sides are ready to strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in that region.”

Coming a week before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washinton, these developments have already caused consternation in New Delhi, prompting Times of India to complain in the following words:

“China , Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan… US president Barack Obama ran through the gamut of nations as he articulated another elegant Asia policy speech in Tokyo this week. Conspicuous by its absence was India. Was India not on his radar? Or was it such a close ally that he skipped naming it at a public function? It left New Delhi wondering. Just two days later, bam! He did something even more astonishing by acquiescing in a Chinese demand to let Beijing assume the role of a monitor in South Asia, an area where China is seen by India as part of the problem, not the solution.”

China’s rapidly growing gigantic economy is hungry for natural resources from around the world, and the neighboring Afghanistan’s potential for mining such resources is not lost on China. In addition to helping bail out the ailing US economy, China is using some of its vast cash reserves of $2 trillion to offer supplier financing as well as insurance for the non-Chinese partners to cover political and credit risk in the emerging markets. With bilateral trade volume of about $7 billion, Pakistan is only one example of Chinese interest. Others include politically-risky Afghanistan, and many nations of Sub-Saharan Africa where the Chinese are financing and building major infrastructure projects. In Afghanistan, China has committed nearly $2.9 billion to develop the Aynak copper field, including the infrastructure that must be built with it such as a power station to run the operation and a railroad to haul the tons of copper it hopes to extract. The Aynak project is the biggest foreign investment in Afghanistan to date, according to Reuters. The trade between Africa and China has grown an average of 30% in the past decade, topping $106 billion last year. China has already become Latin America’s second largest trading partner after the United States.

Clearly, Afghanistan is very important to China as well as Pakistan. And it is in the interest of both nations to try and counter the rising Indian influence in Afghanistan, facilitated by the regional US presence, that poses political and economic risks to both China and Pakistan. The following excerpt from US General Stanley McChrystal’s recent assessment of the war in Afghanistan has got the attention of Pakistan and China:

“Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant development efforts and financial investment. In addition, the current Afghan government is perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian. While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani counter-measures in Afghanistan or India.”

It will be interesting to watch how the competing interests and alliances play out in Afghanistan, especially after the eventual American exit from the region.

China’s growing role in Kashmir can be gauged from the fact that the top Kashmiri separatist leader in the Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the Chairman of Hurriyat Conference in Indian-occupied Kashmir, has been invited to visit Beijing. He said he accepted the invitation and hoped to give Chinese diplomats and other officials a “perspective” on the situation in Kashmir. This is the first time ever that Beijing has invited any Kashmiri separatist leader to visit China.

Media reports indicate that India and Pakistan have had two rounds of meetings in Bangkok in the past three weeks as part of the back-channel diplomacy on Kashmir. The dialogue was held between former Pakistan High Commissioner Aziz Ahmed Khan and former RAW chief A S Dullat.

Mirwaiz confirmed to the Indian Express in a recent interview that the four-point formula proposed by former Pakistani President Musharraf is being revived to try and settle the Kashmir issues. The Musharraf formula envisions soft or porous borders in Kashmir with freedom of movement for the Kashmiris; exceptional autonomy or “self-governance” within each region of Kashmir; phased demilitarization of all regions; and finally, a “joint supervisory mechanism,” with representatives from India, Pakistan and all parts of Kashmir, to oversee the plan’s implementation.

“India is not ready for the joint-management part of the proposals which talk about joint control of foreign affairs, currency and communications in Kashmir,” Mirwaiz told the Indian Express. “There’s a broader agreement on the other aspects of this settlement model”.

The Hurriyat chairman said the new momentum in back-channel engagements among India, Pakistan and Hurriyat is because the US is pushing for movement in Kashmir to address Pakistani concerns. “There are several geo-political factors that are in play and persuading New Delhi to act,” Mirwaiz said. Apparently, the engagement has the blessing of China as well.

On contacts with New Delhi, Mirwaiz said that he would wait for back channels to produce something tangible before entering into a public dialogue with the India government. Mirwaiz met with Pakistani High Commissioner Shahid Malik last week. Meanwhile, former Hurriyat chairman Abdul Gani Bhat has been in Delhi for the past 10 days. He, Mirwaiz said, has maintained “communication” with “people from the government.” Bhat has also met twice with the Pakistani High Commissioner.

If the ongoing efforts on Kashmir make significant progress, the results of improved India-Pakistan ties will have a salutary effect on the entire region, raising the US hopes to see light at the end of the tunnel in Afghanistan.

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