Chinese Commitments in Afghanistan: A Strategic Calculus

Aadil Sud, Research Intern, ICS

Afghanistan has long been a country on the periphery of Chinese policy due to its inherent instabilities, the presence of foreign coalition forces and the influence of the West acting as a buffer against overt Chinese involvement. Well aware of Afghanistan’s reputation as a ‘graveyard of empires’, China has refrained from serious involvement with the country, supporting the Afghan-led, Afghan-owned policy propagated by the West instead. However, with the imminent withdrawal of coalition troops, China has found a security and diplomatic void it is suited to fill, adding to its pre-existing investments in the country.

Since 2014, the National Unity Government has lobbied China for their assistance on issues of security, economic and regional integration. The prospects of peace in Afghanistan has since motivated China to ramp up its commitment to the nation. China’s Central Asian policy has the possibility of replication here, with economic commitments under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), military aid through arms sales and training, and reciprocal security assistance – with China aiding in dealing with the Taliban, and the Afghani government working to mitigate cross-border Islamist influence in Xinjiang, helping them combat their ‘three evils’ of terrorism, separatism and extremism. These commitments have led many to question the future role of China in Afghanistan’s post-coalition future. Namely, can China effectively integrate their relations with Afghanistan, in line with their own goals in the region?

Economic Integration with Afghanistan

Over the past few years, China has initiated numerous projects in Afghanistan’s key sectors – mining, transportation infrastructure, and agriculture. While the country is seen as geographically strategic, the BRI initially bypassed it. However, since 2016, both countries have jointly promoted this cooperation. Afghanistan acts as a link between China and Southern, Central and Western Asia, with the countries being connected in north by the Sino-Afghan special railway transportation project and the Five Nations Railway Project, which aim to connect to southern Afghanistan via the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Afghanistan is also home to massive resource deposits, such as rare earth metals and lithium, which have the capacity to reduce the dependence of Afghanistan on foreign aid if exploited properly.

China, Afghanistan’s largest foreign investor, is using this position effectively to increase their influence in the region. According to Arif Sahar, an Afghan security expert based in London, these resources can only be effectively exploited by close neighbours, because of geopolitics and logistics. Aware that their manufacturing sector would benefit massively from this access to resources, ‘China is signalling that it is the only country in the region with the financial and economic capabilities that can be relied on as a trustworthy partner’.

This takes on more weight due to China’s interactions with Afghanistan’s neighbours. While China and Pakistan are perennial, all-weather allies, and remain economically and politically integrated, the recent push in Iran has provided Afghanistan further incentive to remain aligned with China, that of coastal access through Iran. Pakistan has consistently blocked Afghanistan from using their territory; and being aligned with Iran through China and the BRI remains a position that the Afghanistan government could be willing to accept.

Political-Strategic Integration: Indifference to Engagement

Over the years, China’s regional policy has gone from a calculated indifference to active engagement, with China realising the best chance to achieve their goals is a strong, stable Afghanistan. As such, China has pushed to reconcile with, and build contacts with both the Taliban and the Afghan government. It also strives for greater cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan, by pushing for greater opportunities for trade and investment.

Chinese motivations in Afghanistan vary. They remain wary of the country being used as a launching ground for Uyghur separatism (such as the East Turkestan Independence Movement), which it often claims could radicalise Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. It also aims to portray itself as an important regional and global player, with the potential to solve one of the world’s longest running insurgencies . China has hence embarked on numerous policies aimed at achieving these. It has portrayed itself as a point of contact between the government and the Taliban, acting as a facilitator in the Afghan peace process. It had also initiated a joint training operation with India for Afghan diplomats, as a gesture of goodwill. However, the future of this collaboration remains to be seen, due to renewed tensions with India following the Galwan incident. It has also aided Afghanistan militarily, helping build the military mountain brigade in the Wakhan corridor, with the primary goal of preventing infiltration by the Islamic State into China.

Afghanistan also hopes to use China as leverage against Pakistan. Quetta is widely believed to be the base of the Afghanistan Taliban leadership, and Pakistan has historically held some sway over the Taliban. Hamid Karzai was quoted as saying that ‘China is a close and strategic friend of Pakistan, and Chinese words with the Pakistani government carry weight… we believe that China can use that asset in a way that brings good relations between us and Pakistan and also leads to peace in Afghanistan’,  laying the groundwork for cooperation between the three countries. Preferring multilateralism over unilateralism in the region, China has also been examining using institutions like the UN to ensure regional peace and stability. Rightly so, any unilateral action in the region will face blowback from Afghanistan’s regional partners, as well as the international community.

The Way Forward

Over the past few years, China has steadily increased its involvement in Afghanistan, taking the form of military, economic and diplomatic commitments. However, these acts have not been without pushback, with China’s policy perceptions as giving pre-eminence to their own geopolitical and security concerns being the concern of many in the international community. As such, while the Afghani government views China as an important partner in Afghani stability, their impact so far has remained limited.

One last factor to consider is the influence of Russia. While not one to disrupt the coalition withdrawal, Russia under Putin has been steadily increasing its reputation as a great power with an international reach, as seen also in Libya and Syria. Additionally, Afghanistan is part of the erstwhile Russian sphere of influence, and any attempts by foreign powers to increase their influence in these regions have often been met by opposition. Some recent examples stem from accusations of Russian support to the Taliban, and allegations of state-sponsored bounties on US soldiers.

The force withdrawal provides China with an immense opportunity to increase their influence in the region – unilaterally through the BRI and its associated investments, or multilaterally through organisations like the UN. However, the viability of these projects largely depends on the confidence the international community and Afghanistan’s partners have in the Chinese leadership, which has taken a hit in the aftermath of the pandemic and China’s belligerent ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy. China’s engagement in Afghanistan had started to take shape before this crisis, but the efficacy of such policies now remains to be seen, especially with increasing diplomatic challenges, such as with the USA, UK, Canada, and India. Without the support of the countries involved with Afghanistan, the expansion of Chinese policy remains a distant dream, which shall face numerous hurdles in implementation.

India-Taiwan Trade Relations in COVID-19 Era: Opportunities and Challenges

Kannan R Nair, Research Intern, ICS

Image Source: Reuters

Recent skirmishes between China and India at Galwan Valley ignited debates in policy circles across New Delhi about growing importance of Taiwan in positioning India’s stance towards Beijing. Currently, Taiwan is India’s 35th largest trading partner, and for Taiwan, India is 17th largest trading partner. In 2019-20, trade accounted for US$ 5.7 billion, which is a decline of 17.54% as compared to the previous year. However, in the current strategic context, India’s appointment of seasoned diplomat Gauranglal Das as an envoy to Taiwan and virtual participation of two parliamentarians in Taiwan president Tsai Ing-Wen’s swearing-in ceremony indicates a shift in policy towards China.

Since the 1990s, there have been efforts to diversify Taiwan’s trade beyond mainland China. In 1994, Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui officially announced the ‘Go South Policy’ aimed to improve its trade and investment relations with ASEAN countries. India was also included in the policies owing to its growing economic importance after the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) won the presidential election for the first time under the leadership of Chen Shui-Bian in 2000. The DPP government signed a Bilateral Investment Agreement (BIA) with India in 2002, which came into force in 2005. The agreement stressed on the need for protection and promotion of investments.

In 2011, China Steel Corporation (CSC), the largest integrated steel maker in Taiwan invested $178 million in Bharuch district of Gujarat. A rapport existed between the Indian state of Gujarat and its then Chief Minister Narendra Modi with Taiwanese firms. Informal deliberations for a FTA (Free Trade Agreement) between Taiwan and India were held when he later became Prime Minister of India in 2014,  the discussions for which are ongoing and not finalized and. India also signed a Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement (DTAA) and a Customs Cooperation Agreement with Taiwan in 2011. The BIA was updated by both of the countries in 2018 to ensure that Taiwanese businessmen’s investments are treated in synchrony with international standards. The COVID-19 spread raises generous challenges and opportunities to furthering India-Taiwan relations together.

Opportunities

China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner accounting for 30% of total trade. Tsai Ing-wen’s reelection exhibits the changing perception in Taiwanese people against Mainland China. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2019 among Taiwanese youth shows that about 85% of the participants supported close economic relations with the United States, at the same time, support for Beijing was limited to 52%. The New Southbound Policy (NSP) initiated in 2016, reoriented the prime focus of Taiwanese firms from China. Apart from NSP, there are several reasons substantiating the migration of firms from Mainland China. First, increasing intense competition from Mainland companies in the manufacturing sector. This adduced as the primary reason for the firms shifting their business to huge markets with similar traits. Second, rising labour costs and lastly the instability in markets caused by the US-China trade war.

According to Sana Hashmi, a Taiwan Fellow at the Institute of International Relations, National Chengchi University in Taipei, there was a dip in the trade figure last year. More than trade, Taiwanese companies see India as a vast market for investment. Foxconn is already investing US$ 1 billion in the Apple plant at Chennai. Therefore, the focus should be on attracting investment in the post COVID-19 period.

Keeping the market potential aside, the cheap labour cost in India, as compared to PRC, invited more attention. Soon after Foxconn’s announcement regarding their $1 billion investment to set up a factory in India, Pegatron, the second-largest assembler of Apple iPhones based in Taipei announced their interest to set up a plant in India. The availability of skilled labour, massive mobile user base and Indian government’s policy initiatives like Make in India and by latest ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat’ has attracted foreign investments from Taiwan.

During the pandemic, China’s expansionism yielded more investments to India from Taiwan. Policymakers should endorse the role of Taiwan in addressing India’s technology deficits. Under the aegis of Make in India and Atma Nirbhar Bharat, India should work towards attracting more investment which will have an impact on the rising unemployment rates. As Taiwanese exports to India majorly concentrated on heavy machinery and engineering tools, India must make use of the current geopolitical/geoeconomic environment by inviting more firms.

Challenges

The first challenge is regarding the long-standing talks on FTA between India and Taiwan. To address this, both sides need to fast track talks and finalize an agreement by sidelining political difficulties. A two-year joint feasibility study was conducted by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations and Chung Hua Institution for Economic Research in Taiwan during the 2011-13 period. The study suggested an Economic Cooperation Agreement (ECA) for promoting trade relations.  As stated by Taiwanese officials, India and Taiwan are also in the negotiations regarding allowing Special Economic Zones (SEZs) for Taiwanese firms. Currently, India has SEZs with Chinese and Japanese firms.

Source: Taiwan Ministry of Economic Affairs

The trade figures also affirm the fact that India is way back in terms of trade, as compared to other dominant countries. Here a contradiction in China’s actions is it’s exponential growth in trade with Taipei on one hand and restricting India to do the same on the other hand.

Source: Taiwan Ministry of Economic Affairs

The second challenge is regarding the unbalanced tax system. Recently Taiwan and Japan approached the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to set up dispute settlement panels against India owing to lopsided tariff structures on Information and Communication Technology (ICT) devices and mobile phones imported from them. Imbalance in this tariff structure restricts the prospective inflow of investments towards India.

Transparency in the legal system and effective utilization of decentralized governance can also trigger foreign direct investments. Open-ended support from local governments to a business-friendly environment can also help in this regard.

India and Taiwan share many commonalities such as belief in democratic values and similar economic potentials. In the current geopolitical scenario, India’s best option would be to enhance trade and people to people interactions with Taiwan. Both are gradually strengthening their bilateral ties. Tapping into Taiwan’s Taiwan’s expertise in healthcare, education and agriculture would help India in the future.