Authors: Shahid Ali & Wang Li
On August 21 (Monday), U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled his new Afghanistan strategy in a national address, calling a rapid exit of the US troops from Afghanistan “unacceptable” and pledging a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions. Evidently, Trump ruled out a quick exit of the US troops, saying that a “nasty withdrawal” would create a vacuum that terrorists including the Islamic State and al-Qaida would instantly fill.
That means that the Untied States have been facing “immense” security threats in Afghanistan and the broader region, which made him stop following his “original instinct” to “pull out” the troops. Ahead of Trump’s speech, he had already agreed on Defense Secretary Mattis’ plans to send about 4,000 more troops in Afghanistan. This meant Trump’s strategy for the United States was not nation-building but focusing on “killing terrorists.”
Meanwhile, President Trump in his speech heavily accused Pakistan’s close links with the militant groups involved in launching cross-border attacks on U.S and Afghan forces. He even reasoned that “Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror… Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people.” In the wake of Trump’s grim accusation of Pakistan, China’s FM Wang Yi met with Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua and affirmed Beijing’s support to Islamabad, followed by a formal statement as follows: “Pakistan is at the forefront of the counter-terrorism efforts. For many years, it has made positive efforts and great sacrifices for combating terrorism. We believe that the international community should fully recognize the efforts made by Pakistan in fighting terrorism.”
Actually, Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a shuttle diplomacy during June 24-25 towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he frankly had a vital task on mediation at the two sides’ request to promote the improvement of bilateral relations and support the Afghan reconciliation process. As he stated that China never interferes in the internal affairs of other countries, never imposes China’s will on others and never involves in geopolitical imbroglio. During his visit, he had candid and in-depth talks with the leaders of the two countries ended with a joint communiqué involving the core points: the three countries are to jointly safeguard regional peace and stability. Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed to establish a bilateral crisis management mechanism to which China would provide full support. The three countries agreed to resume the coordination group of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the U.S. and to devote to domestic peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan and call on Taliban to join in the peace process at an early stage. Finally, China reaffirmed its support to resume the liaison group between the SCO and Afghanistan in order to play a constructive role in promoting the reconciliation process of the region en block.
Now the question is why China is eager to act a “responsible role” in the Afghanistan issue? And what is China concerned with the current reality in this war-worn land?
Some scholars like Jeffrey Kaplan argued that Afghanistan is a “failed” state, and the Taliban has actually controlled the area of resources and many other parts of China-planed infrastructure projects. Rather, tribal militias, bandits groups and conflict zones dot the whole landscape of today’s Afghanistan. In addition, some held that China’s approach to have dialogue with the Taliban and then to have negotiations with the Kabul regime were perceived as a challenge to the United States. If the American troops withdrew to their barracks and away from active combat, China will be then left in a position of making many promises but having none of capacity of securing projects that traverse territory not under Kabul’s government control. What these people argued are due to, on the one hand, their unawareness of Chinese efforts to cooperate closely with Pakistan, Afghanistan and other SCO members; and on the other hand, China has been involved with the Group of Four, along with Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States, seeking peace talks in the country. We can argue that China’s approach to the issue of Afghanistan has since been cautious and cooperative.
President Trump’s new Afghanistan and South Asia Policy assigns a greater role to India to assist the U.S to bring an end to its longest “war without a victory”. He further argued that “We want them (India) to help us more with Afghanistan”. According to many analysts, the U.S. decision to engage India to play a more active role in Afghanistan is a part of U.S strategy to counter the growing China and Russia in terms of vicissitudes in Eurasia. Furthermore, The U.S. emphasis on giving India a larger role in Afghanistan at the expense of Pakistan would enable New Delhi to snip a strategic advantage over China. Strategically, China has high stakes in Afghanistan in view of a more active and broader Indian role and a greater US-India coordination in Afghanistan which could bring serious consequences for China’s core interests in the region. Given this, it is imperative for China to play a more constructive role in Afghanistan for protection and development of its “Belt & Road Initiative”.
Geopolitically, Afghanistan is not only a neighbor of China, but also is deemed as one of the key exits of China’s “Belt & Road Initiative” to the broader areas of the Central Asian and the Middle East. In fact, it is well-known that President Xi Jin-ping has extended China’s “grand century project” to Afghanistan which has met with enthusiastic desire from successive administration in Kabul. As the most reliable ally of China, Pakistan has agreed to work with China involving Afghanistan into the key projects such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the CASA 1000 electrification which offers the prospect of desperately needed infrastructure and energy development into a country wracked by generations of bloody conflict. Equally, according to US Pentagon report in 2012, the potential supply of lithium was so great in Afghanistan that the country could become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium” once it is exploited properly. Added to this are vast deposits of gold, iron, copper and cobalt. As a rising economic superpower, China needs both natural resources and regional security in Afghanistan.
Domestically, China and Afghanistan have the shared border of 60 miles, but the latter is adjacent to China’s Muslim communities in Xinjiang. Although Beijing has insisted on having dialogue with the Taliban groups, Uighurs from China has increasingly appeared in ISIS propaganda video, denouncing Chinese approaches to the Muslims that made China becoming more controversial in Islamic circles. There is a dilemma in all this. In Ningxia, another of China’s region of Muslim people, who have lived in harmony with the majority of Chinese and their religious life is much more peaceful than many Muslim polities. But in terrorism, the medium is the message and few outside of China have ever heard of Chinese Muslims citizens. It is also true that well-trained Uighur terrorists were reported to cross the border into Chinese side, but many of them were either arrested by the Afghani authorities or driven back by the Chinese borders guards. In this case, Afghanistan does indeed play the role of what China needs badly.
According to my survey recently, most of the students from Afghanistan who are now in China believed that for China Afghanistan can be strategically valuable due to its geographic pivot at the crossroad of South Asia and the Central Asia. Its vast resources are untapped and present great potential opportunities. No doubt, the notorious security dilemma and corruption challenges have deterred many Foreign Direct Investments. But China has played the key role in supporting peace talks between the government and the Taliban by encouraging the latter to join the nation-building. Obviously, peace and security in Afghanistan not only contribute to the war-wracked country, but also helps China feel secure regarding in its western border region—like Xinjiang. To that end, China has sped up its cooperation with Afghanistan in terms of providing military aid and security training for counter-terrorists efforts. In 2015, Chinese FM Wang Yi addressed at Shanghai forum that China had will and capability to play a constructive role in the Afghani reconciliation and the post-war reconstruction. Thereby, “China can become a better interlocutor for peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region than the US.”
There is a cliché existed that the American involvement into Afghanistan led them into disastrous imbroglio while the Soviet misadventure in the same country ended with great humiliation. Whether the Chinese approach to Afghanistan will be any more promising than those of the U.S. or USSR is questionable. Yet, as a rising power, China unquestionably seeks its own glorious moment on the world stage. The prospects for the success of the “BRI” in Afghanistan are currently uncertain. However, people who are pessimistic or suspicious of China’s motive and approach have ignored three key points as such. First, China’s involvement into the land of Muslim population is unlike those of the United States and the Soviet Union, for it is more economic win-win method backed up by its growing strong military. Second, now China has strategic partnership with nearly all the neighbors of Afghanistan that means China is not alone in dealing with the regional security issue. Evidently, Beijing has worked consistently on the prospect of inviting the SCO into Afghanistan. Third, after several generations of both civil wars and foreign wars, the Afghan people are desirous of peace, stability and the decent life. Yes, God alone knows the outcome, but no one can deny people’s will and wishes.
Whether Pakistan’s membership in the IAEA Board of Governors is a major diplomatic achievement?
Pakistan has once again been elected a member of the IAEA Board of Governors (BoG) for the next two years on September 20, 2018. The Board of Governors of the IAEA is one of its policy making organs. The BoG not only examines the financial statements, it also makes recommendations for the IAEA budget. It finalizes the membership applications, accepts safeguard agreements and contributes in the safety standard publications. The approval of Director General of the IAEA with the approval of General Conference is also the responsibility of the Board. Pakistan has been chosen 19 times to the Board in the past and has played an important role in the formulation of the agency’s policies and programmes. It also has the honor of chairing the Board thrice in 1962, 1986 and 2010.
A prominent Pakistani nuclear expert Dr. Naeem Salikin his book “Nuclear Pakistan Seeking Security and Stability” writes that Pakistan’s cooperation with the agency has been reciprocal. In other words it not only benefitted from the agency but also Pakistan’s nuclear expertise and its human resources proved to be invaluable contribution to the agency. Pakistani scientists and engineers have contributed to the IAEA work in numerous fields including in the area of nuclear safety and security. It also hosted nuclear safety and security workshops with the cooperation of IAEA on the regional level. Pakistan has been beneficiary of the IAEA assistance and its nuclear establishment is fully committed to increasing this cooperation in various fields ranging from nuclear power development to that of agriculture, medicine and livestock. Pakistan’s Country Program Framework (CPF) 2014-2019 provides assistance in the wide range of areas as nuclear safety and security, nuclear power development, industrial application, human health under the technical cooperation program of the IAEA.
Since the inception of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons it has faced allegations and hostilities which have not been faced by any other nuclear state in the world. Although, the formation of the NSG in 1974 was the result of Indian violation of peaceful use of nuclear material for military purposes but the irony is that now the founders of NSG are advocating India for the membership of NSG. China is the only state which understands that India is not the only country but Pakistan is also capable of producing highly enriched uranium and plutonium for civil and military purposes and it can easily assist developing states in advancing their nuclear infrastructures and technology. All nuclear power plants of Pakistan are under the IAEA safeguards while the US is extending exceptional treatment to India by letting it keep its eight reactors out of IAEA safeguards that are producing fissile material in large quantities, and intentionally ignoring this.
In this regard, Pakistan advocates a non-discriminatory approach towards the non-NPT nuclear weapons states for their entry into the NSG. Nevertheless, it is the prime time for Pakistan to fight its case through the IAEA as it is going to formulate policies of IAEA for future. It should also try to introduce the policies which treat all nuclear states equally because discriminatory behaviors and policies undermine the credibility of the non-proliferation regimes.
In a nutshell, Pakistan has been facing enormous amount of propaganda regarding its nuclear safety and security and the amount of literature projecting Pakistan’s perspective is inadequate and small. Therefore, it’s imperative that Pakistan projects its perspective concerning its nuclear safety and security. Pakistan has been in full compliance with the agency regime for over fifty years now. Pakistan’s cooperative and positive behavior towards the promotion of peaceful uses of nuclear technology and non-proliferation regimes requires equal treatment. Keeping in view the stringent nuclear safety and security record of Pakistan and its advanced nuclear fuel cycle capability, it should be considered eligible to be provided the nuclear fuel cycle services under the IAEA safeguards. Pakistan can make its membership in BOG a major diplomatic achievement by advocating its perspective with full determination.
Can India Balance Between Beijing and Washington?
On October 10, 2018, a Senior Chinese Diplomat in India underscored the need for New Delhi and Beijing to work jointly, in order to counter the policy of trade protectionism, being promoted by US President, Donald Trump.
It would be pertinent to point out, that US had imposed tariffs estimated at 200 Billion USD in September 2018, Beijing imposed tariffs on 60 Billion USD of US imports as a retaliatory measure, and US threatened to impose further tariffs. Interestingly, US trade deficit vis-à-vis China reached 34.1 Billion USD for the month of September (in August 2018, it was 31 Billion USD). Critics of Trump point to this increasing trade deficit vis-à-vis China as a reiteration of the fact, that Trump’s economic policies are not working.
Ji Rong, Spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in India said that tariffs will be detrimental for both India and China and given the fact that both are engines of economic growth it is important for both to work together.
The Chinese diplomat’s statement came at an interesting time. US President, Donald Trump on October 2, also referred to India as ‘tariff king’. Even though the India-US strategic relationship has witnessed a significant upswing, yet the US President has repeatedly referred to India imposing high tariffs on US exports to India (specifically Harley Davidson motorcyles).
It also came days after, after India signed a deal with Russia (October 5, 2018) for the purchase of 5 S-400 Air Defence system, during the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Chinese envoy’s statement also came days before India attended the China dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Significantly, India and China also began a joint training programme for Afghan Diplomats on October 15, 2018 (which would last till October 26, 2018).
Trilateral cooperation between India, China and Afghanistan was one of the main thrust areas of the Wuhan Summit, between Chinese President, Xi Jinping, and Indian PM, Narendra Modi, and this is one of the key initiatives in this direction.
There are a number of factors, which have resulted in New Delhi and Beijing seeking to reset their relationship. The first is difference between New Delhi and Washington on economic ties between the former and Iran and Russia. Washington has given mixed signals with regard to granting India exemptions from Countering America Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
US ambiguity on providing waivers to India
While sections of the US establishment, especially Jim Mattis, Defence Secretary and Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo have been fervently backing a waiver to India, there are those who oppose any sort of waiver even to India. NSA John Bolton has been warning US allies like India, that there will be no exemption or waiver from US sanctions targeting Iran’s oil sector. On October 4th, Bolton while briefing the press said:
“This is not the Obama administration … is my message to them (the importers),
Trump himself has not been clear on providing India a waiver, when asked about this issue, he said India would know soon about the US decision (Trump has the authority to provide a Presidential waiver to India from the deal with Russia). A State Department Spokesperson also stated, that the US was carefully watching S-400 agreement with Russia, as well as India’s decision to import oil from Iran, and such steps were ‘not helpful’. With the US President being excessively transactionalist, it is tough to predict his final decision, and with growing differences between him and Mattis, one of the ardent advocates of waivers for India, it remains to be seen as to which camp will prevail.
US protectionism and New Delhi’s discomfort
Differences between Washington and New Delhi don’t end on the latter’s economic ties with Tehran and Moscow. India has on numerous occasions stated, that while strengthening strategic ties with the US, it was concerned about the Trump administration’s economic policies. This was clearly evident from the Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s speech at the SCO Meet (October 12, 2018) held at Dushanbe, Tajikistan where she pitched for an open global trading order. Said Swaraj:
“We have all benefited from globalization. We must further develop our trade and investment cooperation. We support an open, stable international trade regime based on centrality of the World Trade Organization,”
Even if one to look beyond Trump’s unpredictability, there is scope for synergies between New Delhi and Beijing in terms of economic sphere and some crucial connectivity projects.
For long, trade has been skewed in favour of China, and this is a growing concern for India. Trade deficit between India and China has risen from 51.1 Billion USD in 2016-2017 to 62.9 Billion in 2017-2018 (a rise of over 20 percent).
The imposition of US tariffs has opened up opportunities for China importing certain commodities from India. This includes commodities like soybeans and rapeseed meal. In a seminar held at the Indian embassy in Beijing in September 2018, this issue was discussed and one on one meetings between potential importers (China) and sellers (India) was held. India urged China to remove the ban which had imposed on the import of rape meal seeds in 2011.
Connectivity and Afghanistan
Another area where there is immense scope for cooperation between India and China is big ticket connectivity projects. During his India visit, Uzbekistan President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev invited India to participate in a rail project connecting Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has welcomed this proposal, saying that this would strengthen cooperation between China and India in Afghanistan. India-China cooperation on this project is very much in sync with the China-India Plus Model proposed by China at the BRICS Summit in July 2018.
India and China can also work jointly for capacity building in Afghanistan. New Delhi has already been involved in providing assistance to Afghanistan in institution building and disaster management, and if Beijing and New Delhi join hands this could make for a fruitful partnership. The India-China joint training program for Afghan diplomats is a significant move in this direction. India and China can also look at joint scholarships to Afghan students where they can spend part of their time in China and the remaining time in India.
Both India and New Delhi for any meaningful cooperation in Afghanistan can not be risk averse, and will have to shed their hesitation. Beijing for instance has opted for a very limited ‘capacity building’ , where it will work with India in Afghanistan. While Kabul had expected that both sides will invest in a significant infrastructure project, Beijing with an eye on its ally Islamabad’s sensitivities opted for a low profile project.
New Delhi should not be too predictable in it’s dealings with Washington DC, and has to do a fine balancing act between Beijing and Washington DC. While on certain strategic issues are synergies between India and the US, on crucial economic and geo-political issues, there are serious differences, and India’s ties with Beijing are crucial in this context. New Delhi and Beijing should seek to expand economic ties, and the latter should give more market access to Indian goods. Apart from this, both countries should work closely on connectivity projects. If both sides build trust, the sky is the limit but it will require pragmatism from both sides. Beijing should not allow the Pakistani deep state to dictate it’s links with India (especially in the context of cooperation in Afghanistan). New Delhi on its part, should not make any one issue a sticking point in its complex but very important relationship with Beijing.
The “Neo-Cold War” in the Indian Ocean Region
Addressing an event last week at London’s Oxford University, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said some people are seeing “imaginary Chinese Naval bases in Sri Lanka. Whereas the Hambantota Port (in southern Sri Lanka) is a commercial joint venture between our Ports Authority and China Merchants – a company listed in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.”
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has denied US’ claims that China might build a “forward military base” at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port which has been leased out to Beijing by Colombo. Sri Lanka failed to pay a Chinese loan of $1.4 billion and had to lease the China-developed port to Beijing for 99 years. Both New Delhi and Washington had in the past expressed concerns that Beijing could use the harbor for military purposes.
The USA, China, and India are the major powers playing their key role in the “Neo-Cold War” in Central Asian landmass and the strategic sea lanes of the world in the Indian Ocean where 90% of the world trade is being transported everyday including oil. It is this extension of the shadowy Cold War race that can be viewed as the reason for the recent comment made by the US Vice President Mike Pence that China is using “debt diplomacy” to expand its global footprint and Hambantota “may soon become a forward military base for China’s expanding navy”.
According to some analysts, the deep-water port, which is near a main shipping route between Asia and Europe, is likely to play a major role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
In his book “Monsoon” Robert D. Kaplan (2010), a senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security notes the following:
[…] the Indian Ocean will turn into the heart of a new geopolitical map, shifting from a unilateral world power to multilateral power cooperation. This transition is caused by the changing economic and military conditions of the USA, China and India. The Indian Ocean will play a big role in the 21st century’s confrontation for geopolitical power. The greater Indian Ocean region covers an arc of Islam, from the Sahara Desert to the Indonesian archipelago. Its western reaches include Somalia, Yemen, Iran, and Pakistan — constituting a network of dynamic trade as well as a network of global terrorism, piracy, and drug trafficking […]
Two third of the global maritime trade passes through a handful of relatively narrow shipping lanes, among which five geographic “chokepoints” or narrow channels that are gateway to and from Indian ocean: (1) Strait of Hormuz (2) Bab el-Mandab Passage (3) Palk Strait (4) Malacca and Singapore Straits and (5) Sunda Strait.
While Lutz Kleveman (2003), argues that the Central Asia is increasingly becoming the most important geostrategic region for the future commodities, Michael Richardson (2004) on the other hand explains that the global economy depends on the free flow of shipping through the strategic international straits, waterways, and canals in the Indian Ocean.
According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) report published in 2017, “world chokepoints for maritime transit of oil are a critical part of global energy security. About 63% of the world’s oil production moves on maritime routes. The Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca are the world’s most important strategic chokepoints by volume of oil transit” (p.1). These channels are critically important to the world trade because so much of it passes through them. For instance, half of the world’s oil production is moved by tankers through these maritime routes. The blockage of a chokepoint, even for a day, can lead to substantial increases in total energy costs and thus these chokepoints are critical part of global energy security. Hence, whoever control these chockpoints, waterways, and sea routes in the Indian Ocean maritime domain will reshape the region as an emerging global power.
In a recent analysis of globalization and its impact on Central Asia and Indian Ocean region, researcher Daniel Alphonsus (2015), notes that the twists and turns of political, economic and military turbulence were significant to all great players’ grand strategies:
(1) the One Belt, One Road (OBOR), China’s anticipated strategy to increase connectivity and trade between Eurasian nations, a part of which is the future Maritime Silk Road (MSR), aimed at furthering collaboration between south east Asia, Oceania and East Africa; (2) Project Mausam, India’s struggle to reconnect with its ancient trading partners along the Indian Ocean, broadly viewed as its answer to the MSR; and (3) the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, the USA’s effort to better connect south and south east Asian nations. (p.3)
India the superpower of the subcontinent, has long feared China’s role in building outposts around its periphery. In a recent essay, an Indian commentator Brahma Chellaney wrote that the fusion of China’s economic and military interests “risk turning Sri Lanka into India’s Cuba” – a reference to how the Soviet Union courted Fidel Castro’s Cuba right on the United States’ doorstep. Located at the Indian Ocean’s crossroads gives Sri Lanka the strategic and economic weight in both MSR and Project Mausam plans. MSR highlights Sri Lanka’s position on the east-west sea route, while Project Mausam’s aim to create an “Indian Ocean World” places Sri Lanka at the center of the twenty-first century’s defining economic, strategic and institutional frameworks. Furthermore, alongside the MSR, China is building an energy pipeline through Pakistan to secure Arabian petroleum, which is a measure intended to bypass the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca altogether.
A recent study done by a panel of experts and reported by the New York Times reveal that how the power has increasingly shifted towards China from the traditional US led world order in the past five years among small nation states in the region. The critical role played by the strategic sea ports China has been building in the rims of Indian Ocean including Port of Gwadar in Pakistan, Port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Port of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar and Port of Chittagong in Bangladesh clearly validates the argument that how these small states are being used as proxies in this power projection.
This ongoing political, economic and military rivalry between these global powers who are seeking sphere of influence in one of the world’s most important geostrategic regions is the beginning of a “Neo-Cold War” that Joseph Troupe refers as the post-Soviet era geopolitical conflict resulting from the multipolar New world order.
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