China is ramping up interests in Afghanistan to keep its regional “Geopolitical Rival” at bay, but India has its own soft power agenda in the war-torn country.
China and India both have a major geopolitical clash of interests in Afghanistan. The two major Asian superpowers are pushing hard to be the bigger stakeholder in the infrastructural and economic development of an Afghan economy destroyed by decades of war. Now, as peace returns to the land, it is attracting the two countries which aim to invest, explore and exploit the opportunity.
Improve their connectivity sea, land and air connectivity, and enhancing economic collaboration with natural-resources rich Afghanistan is an obvious step for the two south Asian behemoths. From India’s point of view, Afghanistan is also strategically important to deter China and Pakistan in contingency situations.
China’s Soft Power in Afghanistan: A new paradigm to become a geopolitical power
India’s objective in Afghanistan remains modest in the current scenario. It always aims to undermine the influence of the Taliban and tries to consolidate power by principally supporting and working with the Northern Alliance in tandem.
On the other hand, China’s approach is a strategically planned aim to expand its influence, capture and become a geopolitical power in the South Asian region. China has rapidly increased its soft power activity at a time when the US is planning to cut down its military forces in Afghanistan.
China’s Economic Interests in Afghanistan
China’s growing economic interest aims to extend its CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) to Afghanistan. Furthermore, it plans to turn Afghanistan into a buffer zone and a major link between Central Asian countries and CPEC. This will, in turn, generate revenue from the transit trade route, i.e. connecting Gwadar port of Pakistan and CPEC.
Belt and Road projects
In 2016, China and Afghanistan signed an MoU to bring mutual cooperation and integration to promote BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) in accordance with Afghanistan’s interest.
China is also the biggest investor in Afghanistan acquiring around the US $4.4 billion to develop Mes Aynak copper field in Logar province. It also won a bid to explore oil in the Amu Darya basin in the northern part of Afghanistan.
Sino-Afghanistan Special Railway Transportation Project
Also, China has developed Sino-Afghanistan Special Railway Transportation Project, increasing railway connectivity in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Five Nations Railway Corridor Project connecting China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Iran, and Afghanistan is another soft power connectivity project to be embraced as a potential game-changer in growing Afghanistan geostrategic importance for China.
Five Nations Railway Corridor Project
Afghanistan lies in a strategic point connecting Central Asia and South Asia and has the potential to link the markets of South Asian countries, Central Asian, and West Asian with China. Hence, it will provide leverage to China’s cheap products. Moreover, it will provide an impetus to China’s plan of increasing regional trade.
Afghanistan’s Natural Resource Wealth
Afghanistan is rich in many natural resources reserves such as copper, iron ore, gold, lithium and more. So, it is assumed that the worth of natural resources beneath the Afghanistan soil is around USD 1 trillion. It is perhaps one of the reasons for China to explore and also extract these resources for its own use.
India’s Soft Power Strategy to counter China’s Plans
India and Afghanistan not only share a close political bond but also a strong cultural like since ancient times. During the breakout of the Afghan civil war and the Taliban government in the 1990s, India aided to overthrow the Taliban. It also provided the largest humanitarian aid for the people in Afghanistan. India provides educational infrastructure and also reconstructing facilities to develop Afghanistan on the lines of the contemporary modern world.
Reducing Afghanistan’s dependency on Pakistan
India plays a significant role in impeding Afghanistan’s politically fragile relation with Pakistan. India provides the nation with an alternative trade route and also the essential goods and resources that Afghanistan lacks.
Furthermore, in recent years it was observed that Afghanistan diversified its trade to India-backed Iran from China-backed Pakistan.
Humanitarian Aid and Education
In April 2017, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to India Shaida Mohammad Abdali said that India is also the 5th largest donor to Afghanistan with over US $3 billion in assistance.
ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) plays a vital role in enhancing integrity between India and Afghanistan by building educational capacities and also scholarship programmes.
Even in many schools, the CBSE pattern of education is being followed in Afghanistan. India has built more than 200 public and private schools, sponsoring more than 1,000 scholarships and hosts around 16,000 students of Afghanistan.
Chabahar Port in Iran
Beyond Afghanistan, India developing Chabahar port in Iran is strategically important in countering China’s soft power and CPEC plan and Pakistan’s Gwadar port. In fact, Afghanistan is heavily dependent on Pakistan for sea trade and Pakistan allegedly enjoys monopoly over it. However, after the construction of the Chabahar port, Afghanistan’s dependency over Pakistan has reduced.
Chabahar-Hajigaj Railway Route
India is also developing a railway route between Chabahar and Hajigaj (Afghanistan) to facilitate trade and mining in the region. Hajigak iron and steel mining project was also awarded to 7 Indian companies worth the US $11 billion. Consequently, this has strengthened India-Iran-Afghanistan relations.