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China and the Moscow conference on Afghanistan

By M K Bhadrakumar

When it comes to coverage of Afghanistan, Indian media persons are almost like babes in the woods. There is a lot of misconception about Russia’s role in Afghanistan. The basic assumption seems to be that the US and Russia are locked in a no-holds-barred struggle for supremacy in the Hindu Kush. This assumption emanates out of the touching faith that India must bandwagon with the US at any cost in any given scenario, because we are “natural allies”, aren’t we? Besides, the Russian-Pakistani “thaw” makes Russia a “natural enemy” too. Simple minds, simple logic.

However, Indian analysts overlook that there are three players in the Central Asian steppes. And the missing shadowy player is China. Our analysts must be very clear in their minds whether they want India to be in the American camp. Let me explain why. The fact of the matter is that in the entire 2-hour testimony by America’s top commander in Kabul, General John Nicholson before the US Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington last Thursday, he said not a single critical word about China’s role in Afghanistan  as if there was a prior understanding between him and the redoubtable chairman of the senate committee, Senator John McCain.

Yet, without doubt, both Nicholson and McCain know that today China has a much bigger presence inside Afghanistan than Russia and that China’s contacts with the Taliban by far predate Russia’s (2016). China even hosted in Urumchi a couple of years back a meeting between Taliban, Afghan government and Pakistani military. China and the US were pioneers in 2015 in the formation of the Quadrilateral format (along with Pakistan and Afghanistan) to reconcile the Taliban. Interestingly, the Chinese Communist Party tabloid Global Times this week featured an opinion-piece with the self-explanatory title Can China, US cooperate on Afghan issues? It appeared 4 days after the famous phone conversation between the US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on February 9 during which the latter stressed that the “necessity and urgency of strengthening China-US cooperation is further increased in the face of the current complicated international situation and various challenges.”

Xi went on to flag “the responsibility China and the United States need to assume as the world’s major countries.” He then added, “China will strengthen coordination and communication with the United States in international and regional affairs to jointly safeguard world peace and stability.” Trump agreed that “the two countries, as cooperative partners, can make joint efforts to help the bilateral relationship reach an unprecedented level.” (Xinhua) The Global Times article on February 13, incidentally, appeared just ahead of the 6-nation conference in Moscow, due to take place today, February 15, where China is indeed a participant. Yet, the three core points made in the article must be noted carefully:

             China knows very well the importance of international cooperation on the Afghan issue. In order to find more solutions, China has started consultations with Russia and Pakistan. But, Russia lacks the drive to resolve conflicts in Afghanistan. Public information suggests that Trump’s policy on Afghanistan may not change radically… But Trump will come up with new tactics toward Afghanistan and they would include strengthened military operations, large-scale intelligence warfare and international anti-terrorism alliance… It is true that China and the US have disagreements on the reconciliation process since China prefers a diplomatic solution that urges all parties in Afghanistan to negotiate. No matter how divided they are, China and the US need to coordinate and manage the disagreements under a sound Sino-US relationship… Trump proposed to develop a constructive Sino-US relationship that benefits both sides. This is a positive step toward improving the bilateral relationship. But, more actions are needed. In terms of the Afghan issue, the result of the reconciliation process largely depends on Trump’s foreign policy.

Actually, this is the second time China has voiced scepticism about Russia’s role in Afghanistan. A news analysis by Xinhua soon after the Russia-China-Pakistan “trilateral” meeting in Moscow late December said the following: “The Moscow-held trilateral talks on Afghanistan would have no impact on reducing the war and militancy in Afghanistan,” political expert Nazari Pariani told Xinhua. Pariani…also said that the Russian contact with the Taliban would further complicate the already complicated peace process in Afghanistan. He also argued that since many Taliban militants had fought the former Red Army soldiers during the then Soviet Union occupation of Afghanistan, they would oppose contact with Russia on Afghanistan. The analyst also explained that the Afghan government had softly rejected Russia’s contact with the Taliban and holding the trilateral talks with the participation of China and Pakistan in Moscow.

It proves that it would be very difficult for the trilateral meeting of Russia, Pakistan and China to yield substantial results… “Russia, as a rival of the United States, by bringing Pakistan, a major ally of the United States in the region, and China is obviously attempting to form a regional power, while Pakistan by siding with Russia at this stage wants to demonstrate its importance in the region and particularly on the Afghan issue…”So, what is going on? Clearly, this is not a zero sum game of US versus Russia. It is far more complicated than that. The beauty about the great game is that it is never played along set barricades. Nor is it played to the finish. Seldom, if ever, is it taken to a flashpoint. You don’t corner the adversary; you simply leave an exit door open and walk away. The great game keeps simmering. There are long periods of slumber followed by sudden spurt of activity. The ebb and flow gives respite to reflect, recoup and re-engage. Reflecting on it, like Tennyson wrote, if you have a sharp ear, you can hear, when the sea is calm and the tide is full and the moon is far, “the grating roar / Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, / At their return, up the high strand, / Begin, and cease, and then again begin, / With tremulous cadence slow, and bring / The eternal note of sadness in…”

That is why Afghanistan becomes such an infinitely sad story for those of us whose lives accidentally got intertwined with the destiny of that unhappy land. What do I see in the Hindu Kush? One, the US is likely hoping to persuade China to use its influence on Pakistan to facilitate the reconciliation process. China fervently hopes that it gets the invite to work with the US because it will also give traction to their mutual engagement and make them joint stakeholders in the security and stability of the South Asian region (where India is situated.) On the other hand, Russia too has been pressing its case for long that it has common grounds to cooperate with the US to fight terrorism. Russia would like to forge a global partnership with the US that covers not only Afghanistan but also Syria, Iraq, Libya, Algeria. Russia too senses that such cooperation will lead to a genuine Russian-American reset and dialogue  and, perhaps, even an “equal relationship”.

It is hard to see the US preferring Russia to China within the prevailing co-relation of forces in world politics (and given the civil war in Washington between the Cold Warriors and Trump.) For the present, it is China that has multiple “win-win” options. But, the matrix is not immutable, since historical forces are at work  and, secondly, since Trump still remains the president, although wounded. Now, one last point: Where do India’s interests lie in all this? Should we become a poodle trailing the Sino-American wagon? If so, where might that take us? To Kashmir? Think hard. Do we want to? If not, what is our alternative? Most importantly, if the US happens to have a problem with thermonuclear Russia (which is the only country on the planet capable of destroying America in flat 30 minutes), does it have to be OUR problem too? Think a bit harder. Afghanistan becomes the ultimate brain teaser for our media persons.



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