Afghanistan’s tryst with China begins – in Washington

  0 comments   |     by M.K. Bhadrakumar

Afghanistan has been accepted as a permanent member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Jin Liqun, president of the Beijing-based institution, formally presented a certificate confirming the country’s new status to Afghan Finance Minister Eklil Hakimi on Friday on the sidelines of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank meetings in Washington.

The Afghan government said in a statement on Saturday that the two sides “discussed the progress in Afghanistan’s membership in this bank, providing financial and technical facilities for solar energy, railway connectivity of five countries (Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Iran and China), financing infrastructure projects and some other important subjects.” It said it attaches great importance to Afghanistan’s AIIB membership and hopes it “paves the way for the implementation of major

national projects,” adding that Jin will visit Kabul in the near future “in order to begin the practical work of this cooperation.”

The annual World Bank/IMF meetings being chosen as the backdrop for the announcement is consistent with Beijing’s commitment to the AIIB conforming to western banking standards and its hopes for a collaborative relationship with established financial institutions in the West. Equally, the choice of Washington as the venue for the formal admission of Afghanistan into the AIIB is symbolic. Without a doubt, Kabul is all set to enter the orbit of the One Belt and One Road Initiative (OBOR). Afghanistan and China signed an OBOR memorandum of understanding in May 2016, expressing their commitment to “jointly promote cooperation on [OBOR] in a bid to realize the goal of common development, and translate the advantages of solid political ties, economic complementarities and people-to-people exchanges into pragmatic cooperation in an effort to promote increasing economic growth.”

Kabul estimates that Afghanistan is poised to benefit from a partnership with China through OBOR. At their last meeting in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, in June, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to boost bilateral cooperation within the framework of OBOR. Ghani said Afghanistan hoped to align its development with OBOR. China’s initiative calls for the integration of the region into a cohesive economic area by building infrastructure and broadening trade and investment. A central belt in OBOR traverses Central Asia and West Asia to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. In specific terms, the Afghan Foreign Ministry has prioritized exploring “concrete linkages between the US$43 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor and steps to transform Afghanistan into a regional hub.”

Afghanistan’s AIIB membership comes as Beijing hopes to activate the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers mechanism and carry out “cooperation in the fields of common interests, starting with practical cooperation” within the year, as outlined in the trilateral press communique following Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s shuttle diplomacy to Kabul and Islamabad in late June.

A Voice of America (VOA) commentary in May anticipated that China would propose extending OBOR to include Afghanistan. It noted, “The extension plan would involve extending the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, known as CPEC, to neighboring Afghanistan.” The commentary singled out a project to create a road linking Pakistan’s Peshawar to Kabul and to Kunduz, “and then deeper into Central Asia.”

Interestingly, the VOA underscored that OBOR “will bring more Chinese and Pakistani economic interests into Afghanistan,” which will help reduce regional tensions. So far so good. But then, earlier this month, US Defense Secretary James Mattis appeared to express opposition to OBOR during a hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee. Mattis said, “In a globalized world, there are many belts and many roads, and no one nation should put itself into a position of dictating ‘one belt, one road’.”

It appears that to the extent that China’s calculus might bring economic benefits to Afghanistan and probably even help stabilize the overall situation, the US would welcome its integration into OBOR. On the other hand, the US cannot be oblivious to the fact that China has multiple objectives in its OBOR strategy – ranging from it being an outgrowth of its decades-long project to integrate Xinjiang Autonomous Region to utilizing the region’s peculiar geopolitical position to create traction for a China-centric Eurasian geo-economic system.

Suffice to say, while the US and China would have a convergence of interests in stabilizing the Afghan situation, the geopolitical calculus points in a different direction. The contradiction is difficult to reconcile. The bottom line is that the matrix of common interests among regional states that OBOR visualizes makes redundant a long-term western military presence in Afghanistan. On the other hand, paradoxically, the US’s “basing strategy” in Afghanistan – to keep bases and troops indefinitely – requires that the region (which comprises Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan) remains in a state of suspended animation.

Interestingly, in his Senate testimony, Mattis echoed India’s opposition to the CPEC. The US attributes centrality to India in its entire South Asia strategy and will be more than pleased if India gains further ground in Afghanistan on its own steam. New Delhi understands that it has had a much freer hand since the US intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval traveled to Kabul on Monday. Doval met Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah,  held discussions with his Afghan counterpart, Hanif Atmar, and exchanged views with the interior and defense ministers,  the chief of army staff, the heads of the National Directorate of Security and the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, and senior National Security Council officials.

An Indian Foreign Ministry press release highlighted that “both sides welcomed the opportunities created by the new US strategy for bringing peace and security in Afghanistan. It was agreed to further strengthen strategic dialogue and consultations for achieving the shared objectives.” It is the clearest indication possible that the US rejects the Pakistani “pre-condition” that as quid pro quo for its cooperation, Washington should exorcize India’s growing influence in Kabul.

 M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.

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