The Emerging India-China Competition in Afghanistan

For much of the past couple of decades, Afghanistan has been a rare exception to the strategic competition between India and China in South Asia. New Delhi never believed it could be the preeminent power in Afghanistan, unlike in other nearby countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal. Following the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, India was happy to engage with Kabul under Washington’s security umbrella, while taking solace in China’s initial unwillingness to get more involved. A joint desire for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan even seemed to raise the possibility of cooperation between the two rivals.

But with India now recalibrating its China policy due to the recent military standoff along the two countries’ disputed border in the Himalayas, prospects for the two countries’ cooperation in Afghanistan are unlikely to materialize anytime soon. And with the U.S. withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan while regional powers jostle for greater influence there, India will be more concerned about China’s role in Afghanistan than at any point in the past.

Beijing has stepped up its engagement with varying Afghan factions in the past few years, fueled mostly by concerns that the impending chaos in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal could have implications for China’s restive Xinjiang province, which shares a small border with Afghanistan at the tip of the narrow territory known as the Wakhan Corridor. China now seems willing to shed its previous aloofness vis-à-vis Afghanistan in favor of more active engagement.

For one, China has made significant inroads with the Taliban as a result of sustained diplomatic outreach and promises of investment in parts of Afghanistan controlled by the group. This hedging strategy is meant to lay the groundwork for a functional relationship with a future government in Kabul that is likely to include, if not be dominated by, the Taliban.

Beijing is also hopeful that its overtures can help secure security commitments from the Taliban, namely to prevent extremist militants from China’s heavily persecuted Uighur ethnic minority from using Taliban-controlled areas as bases. China was able to secure such a pledge in exchange for its political support for the Taliban back in 2000, though both sides only partially fulfilled their commitments at the time. Partly due to this history of engagement, Beijing does not consider the Taliban to be a threat, and is confident of being able to deal with it if it returns to power.

India, by contrast, has not opened official channels with the Taliban. It has reportedly made some backchannel overtures, but has failed to obtain assurances about the group’s willingness or even its capacity to protect Indian assets or investments in Afghanistan. In fact, New Delhi seems more interested in overtly backing the current Afghan government rather than in following a Chinese-style hedging strategy, as indicated by India’s recent commitment for greater military support to Kabul and the recent visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s national security adviser, Ajit Doval, to Afghanistan. And in early February, Modi held a virtual summit with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, where Modi committed to building the $236 million Shahtoot Dam outside Kabul.

Any Indian efforts to reach out to the Taliban are also greatly complicated by Pakistan’s continuing influence over the group. Islamabad, wary of a growing Indian presence in Afghanistan, has often used its proxy groups—including the Haqqani Network, a faction of the Taliban mainly based in northern Pakistan along the Afghan border—to attack Indian targets in Afghanistan. This threat for India, something China is not burdened by, is likely to only worsen in the future.

India has fewer cards to play in Afghanistan compared to China, which remains in a better position to protect its interests and expand its presence in the country.

China could also try to use its perceived influence over Pakistan to position itself as an influential diplomatic mediator when disputes between arise between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Already, Beijing has launched a strategic trilateral dialogue process with Kabul and Islamabad. These efforts did not come out of the blue, as there is a history of Chinese diplomatic engagement in the region: Chinese officials brought the Afghan government and the Taliban to the negotiating table in 2015, and offered to host a similar intra-Afghan dialogue in 2019 after then-U.S. President Donald Trump temporarily pulled the plug on peace talks. Kabul itself has turned to Beijing to pressure Islamabad to play a more constructive role in the past.

India, meanwhile, remains on the margins of the peace process. The tremendous goodwill it enjoys in Kabul has not translated into proportionate political capital on the ground. Far from being in a position to play a mediating role, there remains a possibility of India being sidelined further because of combined pressure from China and Pakistan. Officials in New Delhi will recall that in 2015, Ghani sought to reduce Afghanistan’s engagement with India, even cancelling a long-pending request for Indian military assistance. This was widely seen in India as Ghani’s attempt to appease China and Pakistan in an effort to convince them to rein in the Taliban.

Finally, China’s deep pockets give it an advantage over India when it comes to Afghanistan. For many years, China was reluctant to invest substantially in an unstable environment, putting Kabul on the periphery of the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s massive overseas infrastructure program. Then, in 2016, Afghan and Chinese officials signed a memorandum of understanding to promote infrastructure cooperation, and Afghanistan joined the China-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank the following year. Several projects have since been identified that would better integrate Afghanistan with the Belt and Road Initiative, including the ambitious Five Nations Railway, connecting China and Iran via Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

China is also exploring the possibility of connecting Afghanistan with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, a multibillion-dollar set of infrastructure projects that is one of the crown jewels of the Belt and Road. Already, Pakistan opened five border crossings with Afghanistan last August to facilitate cross-border trade, and promised to build a railway line connecting the two countries.

For India, the Belt and Road has been at the root of its growing concerns about Chinese influence in its neighborhood. India does not have the capacity to invest at the same scale as China, and has actually been forced to scale back its participation in major infrastructure projects in Afghanistan over the past decade. The Shahtoot Dam, which is designed to provide Kabul’s 2 million residents with clean drinking water, is the first such project that India has undertaken in Afghanistan in years. Moreover, New Delhi’s efforts to create an alternative sea access route for Afghanistan that bypasses Pakistan—through the Chabahar Port, in Iran—have also not progressed as desired. Tehran dropped New Delhi from the related Chabahar rail project in July 2020, citing funding delays.

At the same time, China’s economic activities in Afghanistan are unlikely to be India’s most pressing concern. There are doubts about how much of an economic priority Afghanistan will be for China given the ongoing fighting between the Taliban and the government. Even in the past, Beijing’s investment projects aimed at exploiting Afghanistan’s mineral resources had stalled for similar reasons. Even in the case of CPEC, there are signs that China’s involvement may be scaled back, partly due to rising concerns in Islamabad over taking on excessive debt for the project.

Beijing’s political engagement in Afghanistan could have limitations as well. The Taliban may not be able to guarantee a reduction in violence, especially as they continue to carry out attacks against Afghan government targets amid prolonged peace talks. Kabul is also likely to remain cautious of Chinese mediation, as Beijing was unable to deliver anything substantial in the past.

Still, these limitations do not change the reality that India has fewer cards to play in Afghanistan compared to China, which remains in a better position to protect its interests and expand its presence in the country. The longer the conflict rages on, the more China’s access to both the Taliban and to Pakistan are likely to tilt the balance in this strategic competition firmly in its favor.