Afghanistan’s role in China-India competition in Central Asia

Actors involved in Afghanistan and Central Asia geopolitics (Credits: CC BY 4.0, mapchart.net)

Recent separate summits between China, India and Central Asian republics stressed New Delhi – Beijing’s competition in the region and their attempt to influence local dynamics exploiting the current situation in Afghanistan, economic cooperation, investments in infrastructural projects, and security cooperation against terrorism.

India and China compete in Central Asia, as recent online separate summits between New Delhi, Beijing and Central Asian republics have highlighted. Among the main topics of cooperation, both the summits stressed the necessity of cooperating to contrast terrorism, monitor the current situation in Afghanistan and guarantee security and stability in the region. 

On Tuesday, January 25th, 2022, it was organised the first presidential online summit ‘China – Central Asia’ on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations between Central Asian republics and Beijing. Considering the request of the President of the Republic of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, and the President of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan, Sadyr Japarov, the parties agreed to raise cooperation to fight terrorism, separatist, and illegal drug trade in the region and provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan whose situation is still complex and challenging and can negatively influence Central Asian stability and security.

On Thursday, January 27th, 2022, India and Central Asian republics participated in the online summit ‘India – Central Asia’ and agreed on creating a high-level joint group on Afghanistan. As the Deputy Foreign Minister of India, Rinat Sandhu, reported at the end of the India-Central Asia summit, all the parties involved agreed to continue close consultation on Afghanistan, provide humanitarian assistance and create a high-level joint group on Afghanistan. In addition, the meeting participants also reaffirmed the importance of UN Security Council Resolution 2593, which unequivocally requires that the territory of Afghanistan not be used for shelter, preparation, planning or financing of terrorist acts, and calls for concerted action against all terrorist groups, the document states.

Geopolitical scenario

  • India and China are competitors in Central Asia and Afghanistan because New Delhi and Beijing want to extend their influence in the entire region which plays a strategic role in the Eurasian geopolitical chessboard. Since the U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban rise to power, Beijing and New Delhi have attempted to exploit the situation to strengthen their partnership with Central Asian republics, promoting security and counter-terrorism cooperation.
  • Afghanistan still matters in Central Asian dynamics. Since Afghanistan share borders with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, the internal security situation in the Afghan territory affects regional dynamics and Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkmen domestic stability and security. For Central Asian republics, especially Tajikistan, stabilising Afghanistan and avoiding the Afghan territory becoming a ‘safe paradise’ for terrorist groups is a primary goal linked to their national stability and domestic politics. In this regard, Central Asian republics have often tried to involve regional and international actors such as the Russian Federation, China, India, Turkey and Iran in cooperation agreements to guarantee military support and regional stability.
  • India and China’s significant military involvement in Central Asia represents a threat for Russia. Moscow considers Central Asia part of its lebensraum (vital space) and blizhnee zarubezhe (near abroad), a region where the Kremlin has exploited the historical past to continue promoting its influence. In this regard, the Russian Federation has influenced Central Asia by establishing the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), promoting bilateral economic and cultural cooperation with each Central Asian republic and attempting of establishing more military bases on the ground. The Russian involvement in Central Asia became evident at the beginning of January when an internal political crisis exploded in Kazakhstan, threatening its stability and the Kazakh President Kasim-Jomart Tokayev’s Government and pushed Moscow to military intervene sending its troops according to a CSTO’s chapter (Geopolitical consequences of the political crisis in Kazakhstan, Geopolitical Report Vol.15 Issue 1).

Why does it matter?

  • India attempts to overcome Beijing’s economic influence in Central Asia and Chinese-Pakistan cooperation. New Delhi aims at strengthening partnerships with Central Asian republics and Russia exploiting the Afghan situation to contrast the Chinese regional economic presence by the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese-Pakistan economic cooperation, and Islamabad’s influence in the Afghan dynamics. Before the Taliban rise to power, New Delhi had good relations with Kabul, promoted the trilateral agreement (India, Afghanistan, Iran) to establish the port of Chabahar to allow the Afghan and Indian trade, and cooperated with Moscow to boost transport and trade exchange through the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) (Russia and India partnership on Afghanistan and Indo-Pacific, Geopolitical Report Vol.9 Issue 3). After the U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, the local Afghan situation changed in favour of Pakistan and China. Therefore, India changed its foreign policy, improving relations and partnerships with Russia and promoting cooperation with Central Asian republics, especially Tajikistan, which shares borders with Afghanistan and China (Russia discussed with India security cooperation in Afghanistan; Indian interests in Tajikistan in the emerging regional dynamics, Geopolitical Report Vol.12 Issue 12).
  • The Russian Federation might perceive a major Chinese military involvement in Central Asia as a threat to its lebensraum. Since the U.S. troop’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Beijing has become decisively active in promoting security and stability in Central Asia. In this regard, China reached an agreement with Tajikistan to establish a military base in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) to counter any security or terrorist threat (Chinese military base in Tajikistan: regional implications, Geopolitical Report Vol.12 Issue 13). Chinese authorities justified the military cooperation’s intensification between Beijing and Dushanbe because both countries share borders with Afghanistan. Furthermore, Beijing cited the presence of Uyghur fighters among the ranks of the Islamic State-Khorasan who operate in Afghanistan as a direct threat to Chinese national stability (Uyghur militants in Afghanistan: a possible threat for China, Geopolitical Report Vol.13 Issue 12). China did not limit the cooperation with Tajikistan but also extended its security influence in Kyrgyzstan since Bishkek plays a strategic role in the Belt and Road Initiative (China and Kyrgyzstan strengthened security cooperation). Considering the rising role that Beijing is playing in Central Asian regional security, Moscow might become concerned about Beijing’s military presence in the region since the Russian Federation has always attempted of avoiding any foreign military presence in its blizhnee zarubezhe (near abroad). If the United States and NATO were the main threats in the past regarding a possible external military presence in Central Asia, nowadays the People’s Republic of China is emerging as the significant threat even though both Moscow and Beijing have often stated that the two countries have strong relations. Therefore, Central Asia might become the ‘battleground’ where China and Russia will discover their differences and rivalry that can create friction and contrast between the two parties.
  • Since Tajikistan needs stability at the Afghan-Tajik borders, Dushanbe evaluates external support from different regional and international actors. Tajikistan needs stability to guarantee its slow socio-economic development, attract foreign investments, and avoid the spread of political Islam as the main opposition to the current Government. In this framework, Dushanbe seeks cooperation with the Russian Federation, which has a military base in the country and with China, which owns nearly half of Tajikistan’s 3.2 billion dollars foreign debt pile (more than 1.2 billion dollars). In addition, Tajikistan reached agreements on security and energy cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Iran thanks to the common cultural background and Tehran’s desire to become actively involved in Tajik and Central Asian dynamics (Iran e Tajikistan rafforzano la cooperazione nei settori energia e sicurezza). Dushanbe has always cooperated with the United States since Washington established its diplomatic mission in Tajikistan to guarantee economic development and security. Undeniably, in 30 years of U.S.-Tajik relations, the White House has provided $1.8 billion in assistance to the people of Tajikistan to promote economic development, food security, health, clean water, education, security, access to electricity, and people-to-people connections between our countries (Geopolitics of the U.S. strategy in Central Asia, Geopolitical Report Vol.13 Issue 9). Tajikistan is also looking for another potential partner in the West, the European Union, as the recent visit in Dushanbe of the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy  Josep Borrell highlighted (Tajikistan and the European Union discussed an expanded cooperation agreement, Geopolitical Report Vol.13 Issue 10).
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