A Win-Win Situation: The India-China Opportunity In Afghanistan – OpEd


While India-China tensions continue to grow due to border clashes and power competition in South Asia, possible security cooperation in Afghanistan is a rare chance to lower the flames and build trust.

In June 2020, a regional security turn occurred in South Asia after clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the border area between the countries in the Galwan Valley. The conflict between the two major Asian powers, which have the largest populations in the world, began to spill over into other areas, turning it into an actual militant conflict. Since that border clash, both sides have continued to deploy military forces into the border areas, which led to a point of friction in December 2022. However, no firearms were used this time, and no casualties were reported on either side. As of July 2023, even 18 inter-party military talks have not resolved the border issue, which, together with other geopolitical developments, has deepened the rivalry between India and China for control of the Indo-Pacific.

On the one hand, India felt that China was undermining its control in South Asia while gaining power and influence by using the region’s soft power and economic coercion strategies. Therefore, New Delhi has tried to slow down Beijing by strengthening regional security cooperation, investments, and aid packages to vulnerable countries in the region. On the other hand, China saw South Asia as a vital space for expanding its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which helped it reduce Indian hegemony in the region. In the last couple of years, China has focused its investments among the various third-world countries considered exceptionally reasonable for India, such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.

This course of action by the two regional powers has increased the competition and the complexity in the South Asian region, which led many analysts to assess further clashes in the near future between New Delhi and Beijing. Despite this, various diplomatic statements and attempts at talks indicate that despite the competition, the two powers seek to lower the pressure level to bridge the differences. While the territorial conflict in the Himalayas is complex to resolve due to the strategic positions of the two countries on the issue, cooperation on another issue in South Asia may bring the two countries closer and improve regional security. The reference, of course, is to the growing problem of global terrorism viewed from Afghanistan.

Since the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan in August 2021, the global terrorist threat of the pre-9/11 era has returned to the headlines. According to a UN report from last June, the Taliban allows a safe haven for foreign fighters under its protection and maintains active ties with various terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda, The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP). At the same time, the Taliban’s shaky control in Afghanistan has led to a significant increase in Islamic State activity and, particularly, its Khorasan branch (ISIS-K). In addition to the militant action of ISIS-K, which has killed approximately 1300 people since 2022, the branch has expanded its propaganda array to many languages to raise recruitment and active operations in other South and Central Asia countries.

The various terrorist threats from Afghanistan worry China and India. On the one hand, ISIS-K, which enjoys relative freedom of action, may recruit local terrorist operatives for targeted attacks. For example, in December 2022, a pro-ISIS media group published a statement in Uzbek calling on Uyghur Muslims to resist the government in Beijing. Furthermore, the expansion of ISIS-K in Afghanistan, and its neighbor Pakistan, has harmed and threatens to continue harming Chinese projects in both countries, which are valued in the billions. On the other hand, pro-Taliban organizations, such as ETIM and Al-Qaeda, and other militant groups, threaten both countries in different regions – Xinjiang in North-West China and Kashmir in Northern India. Specific indications showed that American weapons abandoned in Afghanistan reached militant groups in Kashmir.

Considering these threats, the two major powers have a similar interest – restoring security to South Asia. This opportunity is significant because, despite the Taliban’s opaque policy, it shows the first signs of cooperation with China and India. From the Taliban’s point of view, both China and India are not interested in interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Therefore, the Taliban sees an opportunity to create economic cooperation with the powers that will help it out of the deep economic-humanitarian crisis. China, for its part, signed in January 2023 a 25-year agreement to extract oil from northern Afghanistan for $150 million per year and, in May 2023, held a discussion with representatives of the Taliban and Pakistan regarding increasing cooperation. In the same debate, China raised the importance of the security issue, which threatens its interests in China and Pakistan. India, on the other hand, has provided much humanitarian aid to the citizens of Afghanistan since the Taliban came to power and has returned to operating several infrastructure projects that it started even before that.

Beyond the Indian-Chinese presence in Afghanistan, there is an attempt at regional security cooperation to restore peace with the help of various IGOs, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and political summits with the participation of the region’s countries. For example, on April 13, 2023, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang chaired the Second Informal Meeting on Afghanistan Between Foreign Ministers of China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran. Only a month before, India held a joint working group on the situation in Afghanistan in the presence of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Thus, it is noticeable that the common interest in Afghanistan creates a golden opportunity for the two major powers in South Asia to expand their security-regional cooperation. The use of soft power – such as regional diplomacy, public investments, and humanitarian aid, in a joint effort can synchronize regional security efforts and keep Afghan citizens from degenerating into radicalism. The fact that India and China have relatively good relations (albeit not official) with the Taliban allows them to create levers of influence on Kabul to enable its connections with various terrorist organizations. Of course, considering many years of familiarity with the Taliban, this is a complex mission, but over time a particular effect may be possible.

While the Western sanctions on the Taliban so far do not give the impression of success, a joint non-Western effort may bring different results in other ways. The strategies and the worldview of China and India are quite different. However, integrating interests at this specific point can lead to cooperation, lowering the pressure level and even building trust between the countries.

Ido Gadi Raz

Ido Gadi Raz is a researcher of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region focusing on Terrorism and Geopolitics. He is interning at the Institute for Contemporary Chinese Studies - ICCS at Mahatma Gandhi University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *