Saturday 12 November 2011

Will Beijing be right on Afghanistan? (PO)

By M D Nalapat
After several months, this columnist was back in the capital of the globe’s other superpower, China. Fortunately, rain was absent, and hence the weather was pleasantly cool rather than chilly, as it will be during the next three months. Beijing has evolved into one of the most impressive cities in the world, with huge avenues and kilometre after kilometre of housing and office blocks. Whereas in the 1970s, the city was known for its million bicycles, these days such transport has been replaced by cars, the downside of which is that traffic can be very slow during office hours. 

However, by now the residents of the city have become used to such inconveniences, as they have to the air pollution caused by vehicles and factories on a scale never before seen in Asia. For a visitor from India, what is noticeable is the chilly tone of several media commentaries on the country. Both Internet as well as print media regularly highlight reports about the “threat” posed by India to China. Details are given of the military acquisitions made by the armed forces over the past few years, including from Europe and the US, two suppliers that thus far have refused to sell weaponry to China. Not that this has held back the PLA. In fact, the arms embargo may have spurred its success in indigenising equipment. China is even developing a 5th generation fighter that can match most US aircraft flying in the skies. Indeed, the fact that the international arms market has welcomed purchases by India has resulted in the present situation, where almost all crucial equipment is sourced from foreign suppliers. Thus far, the Government of India has refused to allow the Indian private sector significantly into weapons production, perhaps because such an entry may slow down the huge volume of foreign exchange bribes that get paid for defence contracts to influential politicians and bureaucrats. Some months ago, a prominent Indian politician made the specific allegation that Carla Bruni-Sarkozy had interceded with the Italian relatives of an Indian politician to ensure that France wins the $12 billion contract for supply of 126 Air Force aircraft. 

It remains to be seen if the French do indeed get the contract, as thus far there has been no denial of the politician’s claim Chinese media are also carrying reports of the increase in infrastructure and military capabilities of Indian forces on the Line of Actual Control between India and China. These fail to mention that Chinese infrastructure and capacities are far in excess of those possessed by India. More importantly, after a few incidents in the 1980s,there has been peace on the Sino-Indian border, unlike the situation on the western side, where incidents still - unfortunately - take place. Not that such reporting is confined to the Chinese media. Armchair warriors abound in India as well, and they regularly churn out stories, such as that China is planning to attack India in 2012. If this is true, then the plans for such an attack must be a secret kept from the entire Chinese leadership, for there is no indication that they favour anything other than peaceful and cooperative relations with India. Economic ties in particular have been growing at a record pace. India represents a bigger market than Brazil and the African continent for Chinese expertise in energy, telecom and infrastructure, with each having the potential to be $20 billion markets in five years for Chinese companies However, the growth in trade has not silenced the armchair warriors in both countries, many of whom are happily predicting a war between the two sides. Almost every day, in blogs or in print, there are forecasts of war between China and India. Those making them are going to be disappointed. 

The reality is that relations between the two billion-plus countries of the world are stable. Both sides know that only peace will meet the interests of both sides. This is why the Sino-Indian border is quiet, with no incident after a few in the 1980s. In contrast to the chilly commentary about India, references to Pakistan in the Chinese media are usually very friendly. The establishment in Beijing regards Islamabad as being one of the two closest allies, along with North Korea. They want to help ensure economic growth in Pakistan, and are giving the country access to the best technologies that China has on offer. Indeed, several Chinese experts believe that Pakistan will be as helpful to them in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal in 2014 as Islamabad was to Washington in the 1980s. 

The belief is that Pakistan will once again emerge as the major player in Afghanistan, once NATO packs up its bags together with US forces. This view holds that the Taliban will once again spread across the country, capturing Kabul once again. And that Pakistan will be the main international partner of the Taliban, with China the primary international partner of Pakistan. Such a view is in contrast to that of India, which is hopeful that NATO will follow a policy of ensuring that the Karzai government be given the weapons that it needs to keep the Taliban at bay. The view in Delhi is that the Afghan people are at their core moderate, and reject the religious extremism of the Taliban. Certainly the best recruitment agent for the Taliban has been NATO. Patriotic Afghans are angry at the swarm of armed foreigners controlling their cities, and see in the Taliban the only local force challenging them. Once NATO quits, this anger will dissipate, and the support base for the Taliban will get sharply reduced. The process is similar to what took place in Iraq. 

There, several US strategists were reluctant to withdraw US forces from combat, for fear that the insurgents would then gain the upper hand. Instead, once US forces withdrew behind the barracks (the way they keep out of sight in Saudi Arabia or Qatar), local support for the insurgency cooled sharply. A similar result will occur in Afghanistan, where NATO withdrawal will increase rather than reduce the credibility of the Kabul administration Will India be right, in placing its hopes on the Kabul administration? 

Or will those in Beijing who argue that post-NATO Afghanistan will revert to Taliban control be proved correct? Clearly, there is a new Great Game being played in that war-ravaged country, and unusually, Beijing and Delhi are on different sides. Unusually, because in the UN Security Council, both India and China have the same view on almost all issues, especially those relating to the Arab world and Iran. In the latter case, both Delhi and Beijing are opposed to Israel launching an attack on Bushehr. Of course, in this they may be out of step with several countries in the region, most of whom are nervous about Iran and would like to see the regime there humiliated enough so that a Syria-style situation develops in Tehran, Mashad, Qom and other cities.

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