While most nations are dealing with the catastrophic impact of pandemic and are unable to focus on international issues, China is assiduously exploiting this situation to promote its agenda of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and also to increase its footprints in Afghanistan taking the advantage of the withdrawal of the US troops. Since July 2020, China had been focusing a greater attention to the Central Asia for its hegemonic designs. As the BRI was becoming unpopular in the South East Asia, China turned its attention to the relatively competition-free region to impose its debt diplomacy-based design for dominance because of the weak economy of the nations that has been exacerbated with pandemic and its geographical proximity. Its rich mineral resources and potential for markets are added attraction. From the point of view of its problem of Turkistan Islamic Movement/ Turkistan Islamic Party (formerly known as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement), the region has great significance for China from the security point of view. The summation of the above factors coupled with Centra Asia’s geostrategic importance for BRI and energy route, prompted China to adopt a more proactive approach for exploiting economic opportunities and ultimately converting its economic power for political concessions.
The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi convened the “China + Central Asia” (C +C 5) Foreign Ministers meeting on the 12th May 2021 to explore a new type of regional cooperation with their own characteristics and build ‘the China-Central Asia community with a shared future’. They agreed to eight points covering mainly the Chinese economic and strategic interests, though showcasing them as projects of mutual interests.
Three joint statements were issued in the meeting. The first was on the response to the Covid. In the name of cooperation to fight pandemic, China tried to create markets for its vaccines and medical equipment and opposed “vaccine nationalism” and “vaccine divide”. Words in the joint statement were carefully chosen to project China as a matured and responsible nation, which is interested in safeguarding international fairness and justice and uphold multilateralism. Nothing can be farthest from the truth as this nation rejected the Ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration based on the UNCLOS.
The second was on the promotion of the BRI. It aimed to promote the establishment of the sub-national cooperation mechanism, simplify cross-border flow of goods, and share experience on development and revitalization of small and medium-sized cities as well as rural areas. The six countries ‘agreed to advance high-quality Belt and Road cooperation, implement a batch of model projects in economic and trade, energy, transportation, and investment, and build the Eurasian land connectivity bridge’. Stressing the need for ensuring the smooth operation of China-Europe freight trains and China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan highway, Wang Yi pointed out the need for building of cross-country railways, tap potential of multimodal transport, and expand the strategic transport corridor linking Asia and Europe. The emphasis on the “high quality” meant that only the Chinese companies would qualify for contracts.
The third was to get the support of five nations of Central Asia for enhancing the Chinese influence in Afghanistan. Emphasising the need for the inclusive political arrangement for the future national structure of Afghanistan, Wang Yi recommended that China and the Central Asian countries should leverage their respective strengths to play a constructive role in that country. China has signed a 25-year strategic agreement with Iran in March 2021. The timing suggests that it was aimed at integrating Iran with BRI and ensuring the latter’s support in Afghanistan. Pakistan is virtually a vassal state of China. Russia is supporting the Chinese on the Afghanistan issue and US withdrawal is creating an opportunity to China to exploit in its interest. Thus, China is ensuring support of all countries around Afghanistan to allow it to play an important role in Kabul. Reports of China maintaining independent links with the Taliban exist. China’s overall strategy is aimed at becoming the predominant political and economic power in the heart of Eurasia. To secure its grip in this region, China is developing strong enduring leverages. The implications of this for India can hardly be underestimated.
The importance of Central Asia to India is not merely civilizational and historical, but also geopolitical and economic. Cooperation between India and Central Asian Republics is crucial particularly in the field of energy security. With the Chinese efforts aiming to increase their influence, hegemony and power over the region, the ‘New Great Game’ has begun. China is fast moving to establish institutionalised mechanisms for ‘cooperation with the CARs’.
Realism demands that India should take prompt action as a part of well calibrated strategy for protecting its interest in Afghanistan and in the CARs in the fast-changing environment. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, India should carefully build leverages with different ethnic groups, while keeping a close watch on the Taliban leaders. From India’s point of view the CARs and Iran can be useful in assisting the country to have a balanced government in Kabul. Iran would be uncomfortable over the increased Pak influence. Iran supported Hazara group called the Fatemiyoun militia had played a significant role in opposing ISIS in Syria. It can protect the Shias in Afghanistan. India needs to keep this in view.
India’s stakes in the CARs very high. India had adopted the right approach of ‘connect to Central Asia’. In 2015, PM Modi had visited all the five nations for strengthening relations with them. In January 2019, during the India-Central Asia-Afghanistan Dialogue in Samarkand, the need to create a closer all-round relationship between India and Central Asia, and an association with all Central Asian countries to connect the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran and Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran rail routes with the port of Chahbahar to transport cargo along the Central Asia-India route, was strongly emphasised. The pandemic did not allow India to take further steps. This policy needs to be energised to remain on equal footing with China and other powers in the ‘New Great Game’ in its geostrategic and economic interests.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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